When Kate Bennett started her new role as a White House correspondent, she didn’t file the same traditional stories you’d see in the pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.
One of her earliest pieces, titled “Everything I Learned My First Week as a White House Reporter,” set the tone for her somewhat irreverent coverage of the White House, offering readers the ability to experience what it was like to be part of one of the most important news beats in the country.
So it goes at the Independent Journal Review (ijr.com), the online publisher you’ve probably never heard of that’s quickly morphed from a conservative blog to one of the fastest growing news sites in the country by focusing on overlooked readers looking for a different style of news coverage.
“Our readers want to experience the news and read human stories,” said Alex Skatell, a former Republican staffer and one of the founders of IJR. “They want us to show them the news, not tell them what they’re supposed to think.”
A prime example of this philosophy in action is a viral video made by IJR’s team staring then presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, who gleefully destroys his cell phone while “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi plays in the background.
The one-minute video, released days after President Donald Trump released Graham’s private cell phone number, has been viewed more than 2.2 million times and offers a refreshing spin on the traditional interview. Instead of Graham describing how angry he was at Trump, he shows readers by destroying his phone in increasingly violent ways.
Another example of the site’s philosophy was to ban the term “frontrunner” from stories covering the presidential primaries.
“Our readers don’t trust institutions, so we didn’t want to tell them who we thought was winning the race,” Skatell said, noting that many media outlets covered the campaign as if they already knew who was going to win. “We wanted to take every candidate seriously, and let readers and voters decide who they liked best.”
If traffic is any indication, readers are responding to IJR’s “show me” approach. The site, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary this year, currently averages about 30 million unique visitors a month. In addition, its daily opt-in newsletter has over a million subscribers, helping IJR to diversify traffic profile and limit its dependence on any one source, such as Facebook.
Speaking of the social media giant, according to NewsWhip, a site that tracks social sharing, IJR recorded more than 13 million Facebook Interactions on 1,347 articles last August, placing it among the top 25 English language publishers on Facebook that month. Compare those numbers to USA Today, which needed nearly 10 times more stories (10,780) to obtain a similar number of interactions (10.5 million) on the social media site.
Aside from the content itself, a large part of IJR’s success in regularly creating an increasing amount of inbound traffic is attributed to the emphasis placed on engaging headlines. It’s part of a four-part content creation process the site has developed and monitors using the fast-growing work-tracking tool Asana: content selection, creation, analysis and distribution.
A recent headline showcases their overall content strategy at its most effective: “President Obama’s Last Tweet to Michelle is One of The Most Explosive in History—And For Good Reason.”
It’s a headline that shows the site understands its center-right readers and their interest in family values, all while enticing them by hinting (and delivering) at payoff worth reading about.
The result was a post that garnered more than 170,000 page views because it showed an “understanding of the magnitude of the finality of his presidency combined with the real human experience of a president, who at the end of the day is a dad and a husband,” said Skatell.
Skatell says IJR has been profitable “since day one,” and says they’ve taken advantage of their growing traffic through a combination of programmatic and native advertising, with event revenue thrown into the mix. Although they do not publicly report their finances, the site reportedly earns roughly $30 million a year in revenue.
And they’re investing it in their staff.
Currently, IJR has a newsroom of nearly 50 full-time staffers split between reporting and video production, and has poached staffers form national outlets like the Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed and National Geographic.
The investment in their newsroom hasn’t only benefited their traffic—it’s further helped them legitimize their brand as an unbiased news source. Social media sleuthing by two reporters broke the news that the Treasury Department was preparing to announce they were putting a woman on the $10 bill. And Bennett broke the scoop on where the Obamas were planning on living after the presidency.
In a sign of how influential IJR has become in such a short period of time, the site partnered with ABC News in 2016 to host one of the Republican presidential debates. Seventy members of Congress and a handful of senators from both sides of the aisle attended a post-election event put on by IJR and Google.
Most recently, CNN poached Bennett and fellow political reporter Hunter Schwarz to launch a new newsletter and join the network’s White House team. Bennett and Schwarz were co-writers of IJR’s popular politics newsletter The Political Edit, described as “for people who like a little Bravo with their C-SPAN,” a tagline that seems to sum-up at least part of IJR’s appeal with a broad spectrum of online readers.
“When CNN is looking to your staff to help them beef up their political team, that means you’re making an impact,” Skatell said. “That means you’re seen as credible.”
Despite a definite shift to the center in 2016 (a recent headline on the site read “5 Ways Trump’s Recent Comments on Europe Signal Putin May Be Getting Everything on His ‘Wish List’”) challenges remain in combating the perception they are a conservative news site more closely akin to The Daily Caller or Breitbart.
Considering the partisan roots of their co-founders and the site’s beginnings of a mostly conservative blog, convincing skeptical readers they are a legitimate news source might be the largest struggle IJR has in acquiring new users, especially at a time when everyone but the most partisan readers are on the lookout for “fake news.”
Then again, both the late Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos started out working for Democrats before attaining journalistic credibility respected by millions.
“I don’t view it as conservative versus liberal—it’s independent versus institution,” Skatell said. “Institutions tell you what you should think and talk past you. We choose to listen.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]