The right-leaning news startup Independent Journal Review has one declared goal: to be the media’s “breakout star” of this election cycle. “The key thing for us is to win 2016,” Executive Editor Michelle Jaconi told International Business Times Monday.
The site, founded by a former media director for the GOP and once hailed as “the right-wing Upworthy” -- a shorthand the company dislikes -- is riding high after scoring airtime on each of the cable networks last week for its slick videos featuring Republican presidential candidates during the buildup to the GOP’s first debate in Cleveland.
Like BuzzFeed’s recent foray into collaborations with candidates, the videos get chummy with the politicians, in order to “tell their amazing stories,” according to Jaconi. Last week’s standout, a black-and-white video hyping the GOP candidates’ debate rituals, looks like an ad for Grey Goose vodka or Guess jeans, blaring game-time music as the contenders moodily stare into the camera and share their inner thoughts. (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker embarks on an Olympic jog filmed in slow motion.)
It’s a good example of the site’s grasp on how to make hip, polished and viral videos designed to go wild on Facebook. Combined with its curiosity gap-exploiting headlines and sleek, mobile friendly site design, it’s easy to see how IJReview cornered the market of Internet-savvy conservatives. All the exposure during the manic debate coverage seems to have broken the once-obscure site into the mainstream.
From a small band of 10 employees in 2013, IJReview -- which will soon be rebranded simply “IJ” -- now boasts more than 60 editorial staffers, having poached the likes of reporter Hunter Schwarz from the Washington Post and Jaconi herself from CNN. It just brought on a new chief operating officer, former Google and DoubleClick executive Brandon Paine. The heads of IJReview told IBTimes that the site currently enjoys upwards of 35 million unique visits a month. (Quantcast gives it 22 million.)
Other “wins” abound: IJReview will be partnering with ABC in February to produce one of the Republican debates, and unlike the bombastic Breitbart News or Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, the site has earned enough love from liberal journalists to merit an admiring profile at MSNBC. Jaconi asserted that IJReview is now the “third-biggest news company in the U.S.,” according to Quantcast data.
An IMGE Problem
But with IJR’s rise comes more scrutiny, particularly over the fact its parent company Media Group, run by founder Alex Skatell, also runs a consulting agency, IMGE. The firm boasts such clients as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the Republican Governors Association and Skatell’s old stomping ground, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he was digital director.
Skatell and his business partner, Phil Mussen, sent out a letter late last year after the GOP won big in the midterm elections, congratulating clients. Among the victors were congressmen, senators, governors and groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. (Musser, who runs another consultancy, New Frontier Strategy, also once worked for current presidential candidate Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.)
“We are so proud of the hard work put in by the campaigns, as well as our own team members, and couldn’t be happier to play a part in such an historic election night across the country,” wrote Skatell, who remains president of IJReview.
But according to Skatell, his news organization is “completely firewalled off” from his consulting agency.
“In a lot of ways, it provides more protection than you’d see at Vox or Vice, which have agencies inside their media companies,” he said.
It’s true that those companies and others, such as Gawker and BuzzFeed, graft ad agencies onto their news operations, where the sausage of native advertising is made. Outlets including Vice, Vox Media and Bloomberg also prop up the stool with an entirely separate business dedicated to hosting events and conferences, where “top industry influencers in media and technology gather for in-depth conversations,” to quote one description from Vox’s new property Re/Code.
But none of those media companies' in-house agencies deal in political consulting like IMGE, and that may be the distinction that plagues IJReview as it tries to move forward to “win 2016.”
Asked if there is any interaction between the news and the firm, Skatell answered, “right now, no.”
Will there ever be? Could the data collected on IJReview’s audience, attractive to political and corporate clients alike, make it into the hands of the operators at IMGE?
“Down the road we might want to be smart about how we handle the data. It’s not out of the question,” Skatell told IBTimes. “We just want to be careful. We don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize what we’re doing to build a brand.”
Jaconi said IMGE has already turned down high-profile clients in order to keep IJReview’s brand clean. “The agency side had the opportunity to work with a presidential campaign and they turned it down,” she said, referencing IMGE’s decision to pass on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year. “They did that because the media company is growing and it’s the priority.”
IJRreview cannot afford “even the appearance of impropriety,” she added.
However, both the New York Times and Politico reported in February that it was Bush's campaign, not IMGE, that walked away, after the agency refused to forge an exclusive relationship with their candidate.
The only place to go is up, according to the leadership at IJR. The company, which Skatell says has been profitable “since day one,” makes its money from regular display ads and has no current plans to resort to native advertising, which Jaconi referred to as full of “tricks.”
The editorial plans, however, are ambitious: IJR wants to poach more esteemed journalists, branch further out into reporting, and become the premier hub for “independent journalists.” Perhaps most surprisingly, it aims to break from the perception that it's for right-wingers only, bringing a broader audience into the fold. In fact, Jaconi says, it's already there.
She argued that it’s a misnomer to call IJReview conservative, offering up a figure from Quantcast showing that only 45 percent of its readers are Republicans, while most remaining are independents (“that’s where the 'I' in IJR comes in”). What’s clear from Jaconi’s own description is that they are not liberals.
“The liberal audience has HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, you name it, while the IJR audience really just has IJR,” Jaconi said. The same Quantcast data show that 82 percent of IJReview’s audience is politically active.
A further sampling of IJReview’s output puts a finer point on its audience: “What Will #LiberalsBanNext? Twitter Sure Has Some Ideas ,” “5 Badass Things You Should Know About Bibi Netanyahu ,” “George Bush & Dick Cheney Loved Being Compared to Rambo & The Terminator ,” and “ Amy Schumer Thought She’d Lecture America on Guns, But This Guy Has One of the Best Comebacks.”
“I’m not afraid of the fact that we have a huge audience of conservatives at all,” Jaconi said after listening to a few of IJReview’s headlines read aloud. “I’m not running away from the fact that Alex was a digital director working for a Republican.”
Jaconi mentioned that IJReview would be thrilled to cut videos with Democratic candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the future, pointing out that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recorded a Vine with IJR last week, to get some exposure during the GOP debate.
“I can see how it’s easy and tempting, to think we’re just conservative. It’s just not reality,” she said.