In 2012, Alex Skatell and Bubba Atkinson started IJ Review in a downtown Charleston apartment. Today the viral news site ranks among the top 100 most-trafficked websites in the United States, and it got there by paying close attention to what the internet wants.
In IJ's most successful viral video to date, "How to Destroy Your Cell Phone with Sen. Lindsey Graham," the site recently showed the U.S. senator and presidential hopeful from South Carolina smashing, chopping, and burning his flip phone into oblivion in slow motion over a dramatic string arrangement. IJ staff filmed the video at the company's new office in Alexandria, Va., 15 minutes outside of Washington D.C.
The video was a public slap to Graham's fellow GOP contender Donald Trump, who had recently given out Graham's cell phone number at a rally in retaliation for the senator calling him a jackass. It also proved to be great web-traffic fodder for the news site, garnering 2.1 million views on YouTube since it was posted July 22. Like another popular IJ video that showed Ted Cruz cooking bacon on the barrel of a semi-automatic rifle, it was a far cry from what most traditional media outlets would deem "news" — but it was also exponentially more interesting than a catty soundbite from some campaign stop in Iowa.
Skatell says the Lindsey video is a good example of how his site does news differently. "The way we wanted to tell the story was, instead of asking for a quote, we said, 'Show people what it's like. Don't just tell us what it's like — show us,'" Skatell says.
Original videos are a recent addition to IJ Review, though. Its bread and butter is short, sensational-sounding articles, some politically innocuous ("Magazine Claims to Reveal America's 10 'Biggest Celebrity Falls From Grace,'" "Parents Will Be Horrified to Learn How These Iconic Kids' Toys Were Used by Criminals") and others appealing to a generally right-leaning political audience. A recent sampling:
While many of the headlines are classic conservative eye-grabbers, the actual writing tends to be far less strident than, say, Breitbart (on the right) or Gawker (on the left). For example, in a recent post about NFL quarterback Tim Tebow signing a fan's Bible, the reporter quotes people on Twitter both praising and scolding Tebow, rounding out the article with a paragraph about the player's struggling professional career. The writer concludes: "But regardless of his on-field prowess, Tebow's ability to make headlines seems to be as strong as ever." It reads more like a book report than a screed.
"We won't deny that our audience is more center-right, but we don't introduce bias into any story," Skatell says. "We have reporters that are reporting on what's happening and they're showing you what's happening. They're not telling you that you should think this way or that way."
The IJ in IJ Review stands for Independent Journal, but media observers have consistently pegged it as center-right news organization, not least of all because of its founders' GOP pedigrees. Skatell founded the site in 2012 after working as digital director for the Republican Governors Association and media director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Skatell co-founded IJ Review's parent company, Media Group of America, with Phil Musser, a former RGA executive director.
Still, Skatell says, "We're not a conservative site." Recently, after the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide, IJ ran a story featuring two gay military veterans who had married in D.C. in 2010. Editor in Chief Bubba Atkinson says another article that featured corporate Twitter accounts responding to the SCOTUS ruling appealed to readers across the political spectrum.
"One part of our audience thinks about that one way, another part thinks about it another way, but that actually falls perfectly into what we're trying to do," Atkinson says. "We want to put content out there that starts conversations, regardless of where the borders lie around it."
While IMGE's clients have included S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, and a bevy of GOP super-PACs, Skatell says the same firewall exists between IJ Review and IMGE as exists between the newsrooms and advertising departments of traditional news outlets. IMGE's office is in a separate building around the corner from IJ's office in downtown Alexandria, and Skatell says he has left the leadership of IMGE to Musser.
Skatell started IJ with his personal savings from developing the successful iPhone game iShout, and he soon hired Atkinson as editor and chief writer. Skatell and Atkinson had both grown up in Charleston — Skatell attended Bishop England High School, Atkinson attended Porter-Gaud — but they didn't connect until mutual friends introduced them after graduating from Clemson University and the College of Charleston, respectively, in the late 2000s.
Atkinson, who studied accounting at CofC, says he didn't have much of an interest in political reporting before starting to work on the site. He'd been working as a waiter at the time, and his only published work was a personal blog about his attempts at building a career called Bubba Finds a Job. Atkinson says the 2012 presidential campaign served as his crash course in political reporting.
"Really, it was about understanding what the audience wanted to know about," Atkinson says. "In that cycle, obviously around Obama, there were so many stories going around that weren't necessarily huge in the Beltway but were huge outside of the Beltway and really impacted the course of the election ... It was a lot of trial and error and then reading through a lot of comments to understand what the audience really felt about the content. We truly are audience-first."
The lessons Atkinson gleaned in those early days have paid dividends for the company. Skatell says the site was earning enough money from Google AdSense revenue to pay Atkinson's salary within two months of the site's founding. Today, the traffic-ranking sites Alexa and Quantcast list IJReview.com as the 70th-most-trafficked site in the U.S. with 1.6 million daily unique visitors, outpacing USAToday.com, Hulu.com, and Vice.com, according to Alexa.
In its early days, IJ Review functioned mainly as a news aggregator, earning labels such as "if you crossed RedState with BuzzFeed" (New York Times) and the right-wing answer to Upworthy (in a Buzzfeed profile, of all places). Skatell says those labels may have been apt three years ago, but the company has grown since then. Where once IJ's editorial staff consisted of Atkinson coordinating a small team of freelancers from his apartment two blocks north of the Recovery Room on Upper King Street, today the site employs more than 60 editorial staffers in its recently renovated office in Old Town Alexandria. (The company relocated to Virginia from Charleston in late 2013.)
"We're sending people out in the field. We had one at the [GOP presidential debate in Cleveland], we have people in Iowa, New Hampshire, covering the 2016 campaign, and that's where we really want to focus our reporting and our content," Skatell says.
IJ Review has been on a hiring kick of late, snatching up talent from more traditional news organizations, including Michelle Jaconi, who previously spent 12 years working for Meet the Press and six years working on cross-platform programming for CNN. In May, she signed on both as executive editor of IJ Review and vice president of MGA, announcing her new job — appropriately — with a blog post consisting almost entirely of Vine video clips.
Jaconi says Skatell reached out to her shortly after she left CNN in the fall, and she appreciated the successful business model and social media-powered editorial approach of the company. "Social news really celebrates humanity instead of conflict," Jaconi says.
Jaconi says she found that IJ Review's approach was refreshingly different from that of even some newcomers to the news industry. "All of them grew up thinking the New York Times was the Bible, where IJ's audience thinks the Bible is the Bible. I say that because it's more of a cultural bias than a political bias, and I think it's also an anti-institutional bias," Jaconi says.
On Feb. 6, 2016, in a partnership with ABC News, IJ Review will co-host the First in the Nation Republican Debate in New Hampshire. It's a major step into the media limelight for the company, and Jaconi says it's part of a plan to own the election cycle and become "the breakout media brand of 2016" — just like Buzzfeed in 2012 or HuffPo in 2008.
"You will see stories on IJ, yes, with really provocative headlines, and then you read the article and it always leaves it up to you," Jaconi says. "It's really respectful to that person who wants to read something and then come up with their own conclusion and share it with their friends."