Independent Journal Review is often described as a conservative viral news upstart. While it grew an audience of nearly 28 million uniques in five years by unabashedly playing Facebook’s sharing game, it has tried to change that image by doing more original reporting and making the site stickier.
In a riskier move, it’s also attempting to transcend its conservative roots by adding a longtime liberal writer to balance the site’s political commentary. Tommy Christopher is a former White House correspondent and politics reporter for AOL and a current senior writer at Shareblue, whose stated mission is to “delegitimize Trump’s presidency” and “embolden the opposition.” He’s slated to start at IJR in a few weeks and launch a vertical, The Response, with a team that will produce original commentary as well as counterpoints to IJR’s conservative opinion pieces.
“The idea is just that there’s this filter bubble, and it can be difficult to track down the counter-narrative,” IJR CEO Alex Skatell said. “What we’re trying to emerge toward is, in the commentary pieces, have a response and present information across the spectrum.”
Other publications from The New York Times to BuzzFeed have tried to counter the so-called filter bubble that was blamed for contributing to misreporting of the presidential election and to a growing divide between voters on the left and right. A Chartbeat study showed that even arts and entertainment news coverage aren’t immune to being politicized. Often, those publications’ initiatives involve showing readers other viewpoints and articles that originated elsewhere.
IJR’s idea is a little different in that the counterpoints it offers will be written in-house. The site currently has a reader comment function, but over time, Skatell hopes to make the site more like a platform, where readers can easily add their own viewpoints to the discussion. Facebook traffic can be fickle, but the hope is that a more robust commenting feature will foster loyalty and keep people on the site longer.
IJR rose to prominence earlier this spring when one of its reporters got exclusive access to accompany Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a trip. But in March, it got a black eye for publishing a post about a conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama that turned out to be baseless. Chief content officer Benny Johnson was demoted, and he and two other edit staffers were suspended over the post.
There’s a history of publishers expanding advertiser-friendly editorial coverage. Advertisers have been more skittish than usual about their ads appearing near political news in the Trump era.
Skatell said Tommy Christopher’s hire is a bet that people want to see more diverse points of view and wasn’t an attempt to repair IJR’s image in response to the Johnson controversy, or to placate advertisers. Rather, he said, it’s the opposite. Most of IJR’s advertising is bought programmatically. The ads that aren’t tend to be from advocacy groups that go to IJR for its conservative voice, so making the content more balanced could turn them off.
Skatell acknowledged readers might not be receptive to the move. “While our audience does include liberals and independents, we have more to potentially lose with our conservative audience, and introducing counterpoints couple possibly alienate some.”