Brave New World at IJ
IJ head Michelle Jaconi has left traditional journalism behind
Michelle Jaconi left CNN to join Independent Journal, an Alexandria, Virginia-based startup where she works with almost all 20-somethings.
photo by Mike Olliver
In May, Bethesda resident Michelle Jaconi left behind 18 years in broadcast journalism—12 with NBC’s Meet the Press and six with CNN—to become executive editor of the Independent Journal Review, a brash social-first media upstart based in Alexandria, Virginia, with an out-of-the-mainstream, right-of-center approach.
Jaconi, then 40, landed in a newsroom full of 20-somethings. Located in an industrial space in Old Town, the floors are concrete, and open tables take the place of cubicles. Journalists hover over MacBooks and relax on the rooftop deck. There’s a margarita machine, but no fax. Staffers prefer Gchat and animated GIFs to email. Jaconi bought three pairs of jeans and got to work. “I have always been kind of the ingenue,” she says. “Now I’m the wise elder. It’s incredibly laughable.”
Since Jaconi came on board, the Independent Journal (it dropped the “Review” in September and is now commonly called IJ) has had some big wins. In June, IJ announced that it will team up with ABC News to host a Republican presidential debate in February in New Hampshire. Then, in July, GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham came by the IJ offices to destroy his cellphone on camera (a poke at rival Donald Trump, who revealed the South Carolina senator’s personal number on TV). The video scored more than 2 million views on YouTube.
Bethesda Magazine talked with Jaconi about the future of journalism, balancing work and family, and her predictions for the 2016 election.
Juggling family life and professional life: Jaconi, who is married and has three children, ages 2, 6 and 8, says: “For me, all the people who said, ‘How could you do this? How could you do both?’ my answer truly has always been, ‘I don’t know how I could do it without kids.’ I would have major trouble turning off, and I would not have that gasoline of joy that I get from my children.”
Why she left broadcast journalism for social journalism: Jaconi was listening in a CNN control room as President Barack Obama gave his first press conference after winning re-election in 2012. As she recalled it, a reporter said, “Mr. President, you came here in 2008 as one of the greatest communicators of our time, yet now you’re going to go down in history as the president who lost the most seats for his party ever. What are you going to do to change your communication style?”
Jaconi says the president exhaled, looked reflective and confessed: No matter how many press conferences he held, he said, he couldn’t get his message to the people. He was right, Jaconi thought, and it was true for journalists, too. “I took off my headset in the control room and thought, Why am I working so hard if this isn’t going to break through?”
On working with millennials: “I don’t feel old, and anybody who knows me knows that I have more energy than a 6-year-old,” Jaconi says. “I think that is one of the keys to my being able to work here.”
What she likes about social journalism: Even when she was working on Meet the Press, bringing the biggest names in politics to sit down with then-host Tim Russert, Jaconi says she got into journalism “for the little guy.” Social journalism, with its clickable headlines and shareable videos, reaches people in a way that mainstream news doesn’t, she says. “It’s about pulling back the curtain on the labels and making it a story about human drama,” she says. “Politics is scary, but this is like the dinner table.”
What she learned from Russert: The importance of family. Jaconi recalls nervously telling him she was scheduled to give birth the week of the 2008 general election. “We were in the hallway at NBC News,” she says, “and he goes, ‘Look at this place. Michelle, this entire bureau could go away tomorrow in some natural disaster and nobody would notice. But what’s inside you, that has to be cherished because that’s what it’s all about.’ ” Jaconi says that conversation took place two weeks before he died. “It was something that was super special to me.”
On IJ’s audience: Jaconi calls it “IJ America.” It’s about 46 percent Republican, 44 percent independent. (Democrats, she says, “have a glut of news choices” elsewhere.) It’s made up of people who think for themselves, she says. People who are politically active but skeptical of politicians and the media. It’s working families who struggle to pay for child care and save for college. “To me, that’s IJ America,” she says, “and it’s been ignored, talked down to or just not seen as worthy of journalism.”
The future of journalism: At CNN, Jaconi watched as 1,500 staffers were laid off in 2014, many of them CNN employees from the beginning. She wants to see IJ become a model in which journalism can thrive. “I feel like the future of journalism is really strong and really exciting,” she says. “The power of the written word with images, although changing, is dynamic and cool and exciting.”
Predictions for the 2016 presidential election: “It’s going to be, honestly, the best race in my lifetime,” Jaconi says. “So many people think they know what’s going to happen, and that’s always a recipe for it exploding in their faces.”