Inside the identity crisis at the Independent Journal Review, the outlet that has become a powerhouse in the Trump era

It was supposed to be Independent Journal Review’s week to shine.

The upstart, millennial-focused news website, which has emerged as a favourite of President Donald Trump’s administration for its conservative bent, was the only media organisation granted access to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he travelled abroad for his first trip as the nation’s top diplomat.

Media critics were wary of the Trump administration’s decision to freeze out a traditional press pool in favour of a sole reporter — from IJR, no less, a friendly news outlet. The website had already earned scorn for using its newfound White House access to publish what were seen as glowing pieces about the new administration.

The opportunity to shadow Tillerson did little to change that perception. IJR reporter Erin McPike, who was trailing Tillerson, was not filing stories from the road during the week. Nor was she sending out real-time updates to colleagues covering the secretary’s movements. McPike blamed her superiors in a tweet, saying they had told her to solely focus on a profile piece — a decision that was ultimately reversed later under mounting pressure and allowed her to break some news about his trip and views toward the media.

Back at home, another firestorm erupted when IJR’s viral editor, Kyle Becker, published a conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama to the website. Without evidence, Becker suggested that perhaps there was a connection between Obama’s Hawaii visit and a state judge’s ruling which blocked Trump’s second travel ban.

Reporters took notice and ridiculed the baseless report. IJR’s congressional reporter, Joe Perticone, tendered his resignation. And IJR was forced to issue a full retraction.

In an email obtained by Business Insider, Becker apologised to his colleagues for “showing a lack of judgement.” However, while Becker took the fall, he was not the only person to blame, a source familiar with the matter told Business Insider.

IJR’s chief content officer, Benny Johnson, had been warned earlier in Slack that the story about Obama was an unfounded conspiracy theory, but assigned it to Becker anyway, the source said.

Alex Skatell, founder of IJR, said in a statement provided to Business Insider that the incident was under investigation. He said Becker, Johnson, and content editor Becca Lower had been suspended until the facts could be determined:

“We are committed to an editorial team that includes voices, perspectives and geographies that span the country but equally committed to quality standards in our newsroom. As we’ve grown we’ve sought to improve on that front and last month we launched our six person editorial operations team along with enforcement and review for all editorial content. Last week we got it wrong and ultimately deserve all the criticism if we want to be taken seriously. As a result of last week’s failure Kyle Becker has been suspended indefinitely as well as his supervisor and Chief Content Officer Benny Johnson and the content editor approving the post Becca Lower. We are reviewing all the details to determine if further action is necessary, this ultimately falls on me to get right and we have to do better in the future.”

In conversations with more than a dozen current and former employees, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, several individuals said the incidents were emblematic of larger problems at IJR. Current and former staffers said the website, chasing clicks, has veered sharply to the right in recent months to feed its conservative base the red meat it desired.

Additionally, sources characterised Johnson, who declined to comment for this story, as a verbally abusive leader who has flagrantly violated the website’s ethics guidelines — only to be promoted up the chain. The work environment, sources said, has resulted in a swath of talent recently leaving the website for work elsewhere.

‘We were building something that didn’t exist’

IJR was founded in 2013 by Skatell, a former Republican operative well-versed in the field of communications. The website is a property under an umbrella organisation, the Media Group of America, which also includes IMGE, a Republican consulting firm.

From the very beginning, IJR held a key advantage: access to a large, highly engaged Facebook audience with a keen interest in politics.

Skatell, ahead of the curve years ago, started a string of Facebook pages aimed at attracting individuals passionate about certain subject matters. Perhaps the largest was “Conservative Daily,” which quickly grew, amassing millions of followers. (Conservative Daily currently boasts more than 7 million followers.)

Alex Skatell/FacebookIndependent Journal Review founder Alex Skatell sits on a panel about media.

IJR used the page as a springboard. In its infancy — and still today — the outlet posted its content to its official Facebook page, but relied heavily on Skatell’s “Conservative Daily” page for much of its traffic.

At a time when clickbait reigned king on Facebook, IJR found great success packaging conservative news stories with sensational, viral-themed headlines, then posting them to its conservative-oriented Facebook page with a large partisan audience.

The strategy catapulted the website to meteoric success, jumping past well-established media organisations to become a top right-leaning news destination. In January 2015, Disrupter Capital invested $US1.5 million in Media Group of America to help fuel the website’s growth. Soon after, IJR sought to boost its credibility as a news organisation ahead of the 2016 election by making a slew of hires.

First was Johnson, who came aboard in early 2015 as its creative content director. Michelle Jaconi joined the team a few months later from CNN, taking the role of executive editor with the aim of working alongside founding Editor-in-Chief Bubba Atkinson to streamline operations. Justin Green was brought aboard as politics editor from the Washington Examiner, Hunter Schwarz from The Washington Post as a national political reporter, and Kate Bennett from Politico as White House correspondent.

The young team put a unique spin on its news coverage and, by the summer of 2015, the site had made a big splash in the world of viral politics, finding great success filming videos with several of the presidential candidates. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, destroyed his cell phone on camera, amassing more than 2 million views. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made “machine gun bacon,” raking in more than 1.5 million views.

“It was a startup atmosphere,” said one former employee. “At peak IJR, it was an exciting place to work. It really felt like we were building something that didn’t exist. We were experimenting and trying new things.”

The investment in news seemed to also slowly pay off in terms of earning respect from the establishment media class. In February of 2016, IJR made a sizable leap into the mainstream, co-hosting a GOP primary debate with ABC News.

Identity crisis

While the website continued to bolster its news staff and move to professionalize operations, it struggled to wean itself from its partisan roots. Cracks within the newsroom began to emerge.

The content team, separate from the news team and mostly made up of remote writers and bloggers, continued to churn out aggregated partisan content, aiming to feed what DC staffers, according to sources, dubbed “the redneck army.” IJR’s most loyal readers, sources said, weren’t as interested in serious, middle-of-the-road pieces authored by the news staff in DC, who were sometimes referred to by the remote writers as the “elitist” members of IJR. 

“You kind of have these two sides to it,” one former staffer said. “There’s the public side of who they claim to be: ‘We are a place where you can experience the news.’ … And then you have this other side that is a lot more right-wing.”

The pressure to package stories in a way more palatable to tastes of the website’s conservative audience was even felt by some members of the news team who were beholden, in the early days, to click quotas of upwards of 500,000 a week, according to two sources. The attitude is a familiar one for many sites focused on the ever-increasing hyper-partisan nature of political news, as they hold their writers to traffic goals and struggle to find a balance between telling the news and satisfying their audiences.

“I felt ashamed of a lot of the stuff that I had to publish there,” said one former staffer. “There’s stuff that I had to write at IJR that I wouldn’t want my professors to read. Not because it was authored in a bad way, but the way we were covering stories and issues was an embarrassment to political reporting.”

The stories produced by the news team, however, still adhered to much higher standards compared to those from the viral content team, sources said. The two sides began to butt heads.

“It kind of came a point were we were like, ‘What are we?'” said one source. “Are we this mobile-force independent news organisation or are we just feeding the right-wing beast?”

In one particularly contentious incident, Bennet, the site’s White House correspondent, confronted Becker about a post he had written that contained a number of questionable tweets about Obama. Becker cursed and hurled insults at Bennet in response, two sources said.

“She was in tears,” one source said.

Multiple sources said Atkinson, then the site’s editor-in-chief, was the glue that held the two camps together. Commanding the respect of each side, he had been, according to sources, working to move the content toward the center.

“Bubba was steering it toward more in the middle of the road. Not this crazy conservative bulls—,” said one source. “And I think we were really f—ing close. We almost got there. The clicks — the money probably was a deciding factor in why things didn’t end up eventually getting there.”

“He spent years fighting Alex to try to get this thing in a place where we were respected,” the same source added. “At the end of the day, he grew tired. He got to the point to where his quality of life was not good. He was fighting every day. He just got worn out.”

Atkinson departed IJR for the news website Axios in November 2016, leaving a power vacuum behind that eventually led to the outlet’s right-wing roots being emboldened and gaining control, current and former staffers told Business Insider.

“Bubba was sort of the person that kept the normalcy and the guard up,” a source said. “Once that happened, people were just let off their leashes.”

‘You commit the cardinal sin of your craft and you’re still allowed to do whatever you want?’

Johnson, the 30-year-old DC internet personality, who was fired from BuzzFeed in 2014 for plagiarism, seized power after Atkinson’s departure, ultimately being promoted earlier this year to his current position as chief content officer.

But Johnson’s rise inside the company didn’t come without controversy. Skatell’s move to empower Johnson perplexed IJR staffers for a host of reasons, many of them said. Staffers said they had doubts about his ethics, professional behaviour, leadership style, and vision for the website’s editorial direction.

One major concern, sources said, was Johnson’s history of plagiarism. In late 2015, new allegations were leveled against Johnson by his colleagues, multiple people familiar with the matter said.

Johnson, these sources said, was reported by his colleagues for what they charged was plagiarism found in an article about Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The article cited “GOP sources” saying she was a possible candidate to succeed John Boehner as House speaker. Johnson, sources said, directly lifted a portion of the Washington State representative’s biography for the story.

The content in question was only discovered and scrubbed after the story had been published, a source familiar with the matter said. A vague editor’s note at the bottom was left behind explaining the story had been updated.

The incident was brought to the attention of Atkinson after the fact, according to a partially redacted screenshot of a Slack conversation obtained by Business Insider.

“Tell me about Benny’s plagiarism and why I’m just now hearing about it,” Atkinson said in the conversation.

A source said the incident was investigated after Atkinson was alerted, but it was never clear if Johnson ever faced any disciplinary action.

“You commit the cardinal sin of your craft and you’re still allowed to do whatever you want? That’s a really bad thing,” said one person familiar with the matter.

Johnson’s treatment of staff left his colleagues seething even more, many of them told Business Insider.

Johnson, who two sources said once compared himself to Walt Disney, frequently berated the video team over what were characterised as minuscule details. Multiple sources said Johnson loudly hurled profanity at members of the team for small mistakes, fostering a distressing work environment. The behaviour eventually led to Johnson receiving a formal verbal reprimand from the company’s human-resources department in February, a source familiar with the matter said.

“He would have these meltdowns when we would push back or when he didn’t get the ‘Benny edits.’ There was actually a term for it. We would all prepare ourselves for just an awful day,” one former staffer said. “It was all a f—ing ego trip is what it was for him.”

“He yelled, cried, had meltdowns,” another source said. “The whole emotional gambit sort of happened.”

Johnson, sources said, also took credit for the successes of the video team, even if it didn’t necessarily belong to him. In an email obtained by Business Insider, a member of the video team complained to Skatell about Johnson taking credit in a press release for IJR’s series of viral videos with presidential candidates. The person said Johnson only personally came up with the idea for the video of Cruz cooking bacon on a rifle, and not several others.

“Benny calling himself the mastermind behind these videos is frankly insulting to the entire video team, past and present,” the person wrote in the email obtained by Business Insider. “All of these videos were a team effort.”

The press release was later changed to say that Johnson led the team but was not the sole person responsible for its success.

To many employees, Johnson’s move to take credit for the success of the video team was particularly bothersome because he was rarely seen in the office. Multiple sources said Johnson took full advantage of IJR’s unlimited remote work policy, often not coming in the office for days at a time. His long absences, in part, ultimately led the company to implement a new attendance policy, a source said, which Johnson recently received a formal warning for violating.

“I understand that you are ‘crushing content’ or working on breaking news, but unless you have spoken with Alex about working remote and have documented your work location appropriately in Namely, you are expected to be present in the office,” Jill Alacron, director of human resources at IJR, wrote Johnson in a March 3 email obtained by Business Insider.

Other ethical violations, however, seem to have gone unpunished. Johnson, for instance, famously takes selfies with politicians and DC power brokers, an apparent violation of IJR’s ethics guide. For his part, Skatell has pledged to do more to enforce the company’s standards.

‘Get f—ed’

In early days of the Trump administration, IJR has become defined by Johnson’s work. Most notably, the well-connected Johnson scooped the political world and was first to report that Trump would select Neil Gorsuch as his Supreme Court nominee.

Much of Johnson’s other work has attracted scrutiny. Since the dawn of the Trump era, he has authored a number of exceedingly positive pieces about key administration officials.

According to his accounts, Johnson “accidentally ran into VP-elect Mike Pence at the WWII Memorial” and wrote a glowing story about the former Indiana governor’s visit to the site on Pearl Harbour Day. He was tipped off by a “trusted source” about Trump’s private dinner plans, crafting an exceedingly positive story for the president while the White House pool reporter was denied access. And he most recently followed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke around the city as he shoveled snow and gave tours to a closed-off Lincoln Memorial.

“It’s essentially the perfect storm for the Trump propaganda machine,” one former staffer said. “They need to be more likable — and what is IJR better known for other than making conservatives likable?”

“It’s basically becoming a giant native ad for the Trump administration,” the person added.

With Johnson at the helm of IJR, success at the website seems to have become largely defined by clicks and access, pushing the website back toward its partisan upbringing, current and former staffers said, and leading several members of both the video and news teams to depart for other opportunities.

As a result, the news team’s presence at the company has greatly diminished. At the time of this story’s publication, there were only two news-team members based in DC: Maegan Vazquez, deputy news editor, and McPike, White House correspondent. Simultaneously, a source said, the content team had grown.

“They say they want news to be the front-facing part of the brand and what we are proud of, but at the end of the day, they don’t see it as a money driver and put it off to the side,” a source said.

Matt Manda, spokesman for IJR, disputed the assertion the outlet was not prioritising news, saying in an email that hiring “quality people” takes time.

“Overall we’ve grown our team in the last year and will be announcing more hires in the weeks to come,” Manda said.

But the flurry of positive stories about the Trump administration hasn’t gone unnoticed among Johnson’s peers in the media. In one instance, Hunter Walker, White House correspondent for Yahoo News, tweeted a minor piece of criticism about Johnson’s story on Trump’s dinner.

Johnson did not take to Walker’s commentary kindly. He wrote the Yahoo News reporter, telling him to “get f—ed,” according to an email obtained by Business Insider.

Walker stood by his remarks, even complimenting Johnson for the “good work” he does. He then asked to “make peace over a whiskey.”

“i’ll make make peace when you delete and apologise for a tweet where you blatantly accuse me of colluding with the administration,” Johnson replied. “your completely unfounded assumptions are an insult to me and my byline.”

After another exchange, Walker again tried to settle the dispute over a drink, but Johnson wasn’t having it.

“no bro, youre f—ing wrong here,” he wrote. “what you did was irresponsible and disrespectful.”

“Disrespectful would be speaking to you the way you have at me, cursing, flinging insults, and attempting to go complain to my boss,” Walker quipped. “I made some criticism of your story. Let’s be grown ups.”

“you picked this fight, i can finish it,” Johnson said.

“You can finish it without me,” Walker replied. “Have a good night.”

In a statement, Manda said Johnson’s behaviour was not appropriate. However, he took issue with Walker’s tweet.

“Neither the response nor falsely accusing us of being propaganda for the Trump administration is appropriate,” he wrote in an email. “The referenced scoop did not come from the Trump administration, and what the accuser stated was incorrect and inappropriate as well. Baselessly accusing us of being a plant for the Trump administration is false and not ok.” 

‘A tough week’

The war for the soul of IJR, current and former staffers suggested, seems to be all but over these days. The previous week’s events, to them, has proved the website no longer had the infrastructure to handle serious stories or prevent questionable reports from being published.

“It kind of had two conflicting editorial priorities, and I think we are this point where one has clearly won out over the other,” a former staffer said.

One hurdle the outlet will have to overcome, former staffers said, is persuading those who want to do quality journalism to work at the website — a task that may not be easy.

“I don’t see how they can convince any real journalist to come aboard without offering exorbitant amounts of money,” a former employee said.

In a Sunday night Facebook post, Skatell seemed to acknowledge the road ahead will be difficult.

“It’s been a tough week,” he wrote.

The 30-year-old chief executive seemed drained after a hefty week spent helping his team muscle through two major controversies. But he also wrote with a sense of determination.

“I literally had no clue what I was doing when I started IJR but here we are over 4 years later and through all the mistakes and missteps hopefully learning and getting better each and every day,” Skatell wrote. “Building a media company is really hard, I try my best in balancing all the pressures but don’t always get it right.”

“I’m proud of anyone past or present that has taken a chance on us and supports us today,” the IJR founder concluded. “I hope over the next 4 years and beyond I can continue to have that chance to fail with some wacky ideas and maybe solve some things along the way.”

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