5 Answers with Alex Skatell, Executive Director, Independent Journal Review

When Alex Skatell launched the Independent Journal Review (IJR) in 2012, it was one of the earliest social-first news outlets. With IJR, Skatell and his team were attempting to reach younger audiences where they were with engaging stories about politics. After eight years of running IJR, Skatell believes that, despite the faster pace of news reporting brought on by the digital age, readers still want and need deep-dive, investigative journalism. To help ensure that journalists continue to have a home – and the resources they need for their groundbreaking reporting – Skatell has embarked on yet another adventure. Following a re-incorporation of IJR as a public benefit corporation, he launched Mission Greenlight in May, a $250,000 fund that will provide investigative reporters with the tools they need to tell their stories. We caught up with Skatell (who is also on the News Media Alliance’s Board of Directors) to discuss the project, and the future of IJR, for this edition of 5 Answers.

What is Mission Greenlight, and how does it work?

[Through Mission Greenlight,] there’s direct funding for investigations. It’s a really interesting model where communities come together and rally around an investigation that people want answers on, and partner with journalists directly, with some editorial oversight from a local news organization or an editor. [It’s an opportunity] to collaborate with the community, with the journalist, with an editor, and publish publicly as a part of that process. We’re going to try different ways to do that, whether it’s video, text, or more social posts, and just see what people react to, what they like the best. Ultimately, though, it’ll be up to the journalists who run these Greenlights to make those decisions.

Getting people interested is definitely exciting, but I think how we’ll know if this is working is if it is able to sustain. Can we create a community that wants to fund these Greenlights on their own, and wants to collaborate with these journalists and editors? I think that’s the success metric.

Where did the idea for Mission Greenlight come from?

From the very beginning, it was something I wanted to get to. The idea was that social media could be a democratizing tool for news, and that was a big reason why we invested so early in social media. [Then it was a matter of,] Is the community ready for it? Are journalists ready for it? Is the product there? I think it’s just taken us some time to get there, and with the shift in our approach… we’re in a position to try an experiment like this. So, I think the timing is good for us, and the timing is good for [the community]. (Editor’s note: Within two weeks of announcing the project, Mission Greenlight had already received nearly 1,000 applications for funding. The first round of applications is now closed.)

How does Mission Greenlight help on issues where people want more detailed information, like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

I think what we’ve seen with COVID and the coverage around that is there are a lot of places to find [information] that scratches the surface on a lot of topics, but it’s really hard to find a place that can do a deep dive with a group of experts that go in and really help you stay informed – and I mean informed in a sustained way. You do see a lot of great reporting that happens where they flip the lid on something, but everyone then moves on. A lot of times, though, [people want more]. How do we continue to dig in on that? I think what [Mission Greenlight] allows for is that sustained effort to continue… This allows for us to do a better job digging in and sustaining reporting on something that we’ve identified people are interested in, but there’s just not a place for them to [keep getting information] on the topic.

I think we’ll always have [that day-to-day reporting]. I think it’s important to meet people where they are and inform them of the different topics that are in the news and are important. But then, it’s being able to extend that. I think a lot of times news is disjointed and your curiosity is piqued and then you’re directed to another article on a completely separate topic, but maybe [you] want to spend the next few hours just diving really deep on one topic. How do [you] do that? And how do [you] support journalists going in and digging in on that topic that has piqued [your] curiosity? I don’t think there’s really a good mechanism yet that does that.

IJR has evolved a lot since its founding in 2012. How does Mission Greenlight fit in with where IJR is going and how you want people to view IJR?

[With IJR,] we really had a very social-first approach when we started. We built audiences that were engaged in a new way with Facebook and Twitter, and with other networks. Now what we’re trying to do [through Mission Greenlight] is curate [IJR] and build it specifically for the news topics and make it something that is more helpful to keeping people informed. The incentives on social media (i.e. clicks, retweets and likes) are more aligned with capturing people’s attention in their feed, and that’s something we really pioneered and that we’re really good at, but I think the key now is to take that attention and make it something meaningful.

We tried something [similar] a few years ago with Red and Blue (IJR’s now-inactive, partisan-style verticals that were designed to offer news to consumers based on which “bubble” they felt aligned with), [where we tried to] pop the filter bubbles and have people reading news that normally they wouldn’t be exposed to on our site.

[With the addition of Mission Greenlight,] we’re not trying to cater to one audience or another; we’re just reporting what we’re seeing, and I think that’s been really good for our audience and our engagement. There’s no agenda, it’s just important information that they need to know.

Where do you see yourself and IJR in the post-COVID media landscape?

I’ve thought [about] this for a long time, and I think [the future of media] is independent; journalists that work for themselves. I think Substack has done a good job of building momentum there. I think Twitter has done a good job of scratching the surface, and Facebook, too. But a lot of the challenges with the social networks are that they don’t have the tools to monetize what these journalists do. So, I think the future is finding some organizing entity that helps to [act as an intermediary] between the journalists and the readers and helps connect them directly. But there’s obviously a huge importance to having editors and having oversight, so that will need to be a part of whatever comes next for it to really scale. You need that oversight, that structure.

I think that journalists are happy to experiment. They’re never doing the same thing every day. Every story is different. They’re constantly having to create something new. Journalists are some of the most entrepreneurial people on earth. Every day is a different mission, every day is a new story. So I think that journalists have always been eager to do these experiments, but a lot of these organizations have been holding journalists back by being afraid to rock the boat financially.

I think IJR is in an interesting spot where we’re flexible enough to experiment. Some of them will crash and burn and fail, and some of them will work out. What we did on social media obviously worked out, and some of what we’ve done with video is there. I think we’ve made some really interesting bets – some have worked, some haven’t, but that’s what we enjoy, is being nimble and being able to [take those chances].

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