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It was supposed to be Independent Journal Review’s week to shine.
The upstart, millennial-focused news website, which has emerged as a favorite of President Donald Trump’s administration for its conservative bent, was the only media organization granted access to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he traveled to Asia for his first trip there as the nation’s top diplomat.
Media critics were wary of the Trump administration’s decision to freeze out a traditional press pool in favor of a sole reporter – from IJR, no less, a friendly news outlet. The website had already been scorned 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 real-time updates to colleagues about the secretary’s movements. McPike blamed her superiors in a tweet, saying they had told her to focus solely on a profile piece – a decision that was 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. Without evidence, Becker suggested that perhaps there was a connection between Obama’s visit to Hawaii and a ruling by a federal judge there that blocked Trump’s revised travel ban.
Reporters took notice and ridiculed the baseless report. IJR’s congressional reporter, Joe Perticone, resigned. And IJR was forced to retract the report.
In an email obtained by Business Insider, Becker apologized to his colleagues for “showing a lack of judgment.” However, while Becker took the fall, he was not the only person to blame, a person familiar with the matter told Business Insider.
IJR’s chief content officer, Benny Johnson, had been warned earlier that the story about Obama was an unfounded conspiracy theory, but he assigned it to Becker anyway, this person said.
Alex Skatell, the founder of IJR, told Business Insider in a statement that the incident was under investigation. He said Becker, Johnson, and content editor Becca Lower had been suspended:
“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 people said the incidents were emblematic of larger problems at IJR. Current and former staffers said the website, chasing clicks, had veered sharply to the right in recent months to feed its conservative base the red meat it desired.
Additionally, these sources characterized Johnson, who declined to comment for this story, as a verbally abusive leader who had flagrantly violated the website’s ethics guidelines – only to be promoted up the chain. The work environment, they 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 organization, the Media Group of America, which also includes IMGE, a Republican consulting firm.
From the beginning, IJR has 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 people passionate about certain subject matters. Perhaps the largest was Conservative Daily, which quickly amassed followers. (It currently boasts more than 7 million followers.)
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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 on Facebook, IJR found great success in packaging conservative news stories with sensational headlines, then posting them to its conservative-oriented Facebook page with a large partisan audience.
The strategy catapulted the website past well-established media organizations to become a top right-leaning news destination. In January 2015, Disrupter Capital invested $1.5 million in Media Group of America to help fuel the website’s growth. Soon after, Skatell sought to boost IJR’s credibility as a news organization 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 on board from the Washington Examiner as politics editor, 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 splash in the world of viral politics partly by filming videos with several presidential candidates. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, destroyed his cellphone on camera, amassing more than 2 million views. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made “machine-gun bacon,” which raked 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 slowly pay off in terms of earning respect from the establishment media class. In February 2016, IJR made a sizable leap into the mainstream, hosting a GOP primary debate with ABC News.
While the website bolstered its news staff and moved 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, had dubbed “the redneck army.” IJR’s most loyal readers, sources said, weren’t as interested in serious, middle-of-the-road pieces written 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 the tastes of the website’s conservative audience was even felt by some members of the news team who in the early days were beholden to weekly quotas of upwards of 500,000 clicks, according to two people. The attitude is a familiar one for many sites focused on the ever-increasing hyperpartisan 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, adhered to much higher standards compared with those from the viral-content team, sources said. The two sides began to butt heads.
“There kind of came a point where we were like, ‘What are we?'” one person said. “Are we this mobile-force independent news organization, or are we just feeding the right-wing beast?”
In one particularly contentious incident, Bennett, the site’s White House correspondent, confronted Becker about a post he had written that contained several questionable tweets about Obama. Becker cursed and hurled insults at Bennett in response, two people said.
“She was in tears,” one person said.
Becker, who did not work in the same office as Bennett, denies the characterization of this dispute, and says that the entirety of his communications with her regarding this matter took place over email and Slack.
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 working to move the content toward the center, they said.
“Bubba was steering it toward more in the middle of the road. Not this crazy conservative bulls—,” said one person. “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,” this person 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, leaving a power vacuum 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,” one person 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. He was promoted earlier this year to his current position, 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 behavior, 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.
These people said Johnson’s colleagues had accused him of plagiarizing part of an article about Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The article cited “GOP sources” who said she was a possible candidate to succeed John Boehner as House speaker. Johnson had lifted a portion of the Washington state representative’s biography for the story, the sources said.
The content in question was discovered and scrubbed after the story had been published, a person familiar with the matter said. A vague editor’s note at the bottom said 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.
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One person said the incident was investigated after Atkinson was alerted, but it was unclear 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, many of them told Business Insider.
Johnson – who once compared himself to Walt Disney, two people said – frequently berated the video team over what was characterized as minuscule details. Multiple sources said Johnson loudly hurled profanity at team members for small mistakes, fostering a distressing work environment. The behavior eventually led to Johnson receiving a formal verbal reprimand from the company’s human-resources department in February, a person 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 person said. “The whole emotional gamut sort of happened.”
Johnson, sources said, also took credit for the successes of the video team, even if they 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 had come up with the idea for only the video of Cruz cooking bacon on a rifle.
“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. “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 taking 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 led the company to implement a new attendance policy, one person said. Johnson recently received a formal warning for violating it.
“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 Alarcon, director of human resources at IJR, told Johnson in a March 3 email obtained by Business Insider.
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Other ethical violations, however, seem to have gone unpunished. For instance, Johnson has taken selfies with politicians and DC power brokers – an apparent violation of IJR’s ethics guide.
Skatell has pledged to do more to enforce the company’s standards.
In early days of the Trump administration, IJR has been defined by Johnson’s work. Most notably, the well-connected Johnson scooped the political world and was first to report that Trump would nominate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Much of Johnson’s other work has attracted scrutiny. Since the dawn of the Trump era, he has written several exceedingly positive pieces about key administration officials.
According to his accounts, Johnson “accidentally ran into VP-elect Mike Pence at the WWII Memorial” then wrote a glowing story about the former Indiana governor’s visit to the site on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Johnson was tipped off by a “trusted source” about Trump’s private-dinner plans and crafted a positive story for the president, while the White House pool reporter had been denied access. And he most recently followed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke around the city as he shoveled snow and gave tours at a closed 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, only two news-team members were based in DC: Maegan Vazquez, a deputy news editor, and McPike, the White House correspondent. Simultaneously, one person said, the content team has 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,” one person said.
Matt Manda, a spokesman for IJR, disputed the assertion the outlet was not prioritizing 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, the White House correspondent for Yahoo News who formerly worked at Business Insider, tweeted a minor critique of 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 peace when you delete and apologize 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 asked to settle the dispute over a drink, but Johnson wasn’t having it.
“No bro, you’re 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 said. “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 behavior 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 okay.”
‘A tough week’
The war for the soul of IJR, current and former staffers suggested, seems to be all but over. To them, the previous week’s events have proved that the website no longer has 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.
Jason Howerton, deputy editor at IJR, said “all news outlets make mistakes” and that what was important was “how you respond to those mistakes.”
“Alex Skatell took full accountability, owned up to it and took steps to prevent it from happening again. That’s what a real leader does,” Howerton said in an emailed statement. “That was very reassuring and important to me. We’re not perfect. We’re a very young company. But I can genuinely say this team is working tirelessly to get a little better every day. We don’t just want to win, we want to win in the right way.”
Nevertheless, in a Facebook post on Sunday, Skatell seemed to acknowledge the road ahead would be difficult.
“It’s been a tough week,” he wrote.
The 30-year-old chief executive seemed drained after a 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.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comment from Jason Howerton, who emailed after publication. (Full disclosure: This author worked with Howerton at a former job.)