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Independent Journal Review asks employees to sign new noncompete as top talent continues to leave

Posted June 14

Executives at the Independent Journal Review, the conservative millennial-focused news website, have asked employees to sign a new noncompete agreement as the upstart website continues to see an exodus of its top talent.

The updated noncompete agreement, obtained by CNN, bars employees from working at any competing business "anywhere in the world" for six months after employment at IJR, unless the person obtains explicit "written consent" from the company granting them permission to do so.

The noncompete agreement defines a competing business as "any business, practice, service or enterprise, wherever located, which is in the business of publishing news content, whether digital, online, or print, or any other business or activity engaged in by the Employer during the two (2) year period prior to the date of the Employee's termination of employment for any reason."

All employees -- even entry-level staffers who start at an annual salary of approximately $35,000 -- were notified in mid-May that IJR would be distributing a revised copy of its noncompete and nondisclosure agreements to them. When employees read over the terms of the new noncompete agreement, some were upset, according to two current employees who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity.-An IJR spokesman told CNN "questions about employees about updated policies were discussed and addressed."

An IJR spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the company had asked employees to sign a new noncompete agreement.

"Earlier in the year, all IJR employment policies were reviewed and updated - something that's an ongoing process as we continue to grow," the IJR spokesperson said. "The non-compete clause was also revised from two years down to six months. Former IJR employees have new gigs at other media outlets around town, and there have never been issues with them moving on to new ventures."

IJR did previously ask employees to sign a two-year noncompete agreement. But that agreement only prohibited employees from performing "the same or substantially similar duties" he or she did at IJR for a competing business, according to a copy of the company's 2015 noncompete agreement reviewed by CNN. It did not bar working for a competing business altogether, as this one does.

Lawrence Postol, a labor and employment attorney in the District of Columbia who has represented businesses, told CNN the new noncompete agreement from IJR was likely not enforceable in Virginia, where IJR is headquartered, because it was so broad in its scope.

"When you write a noncompete the way they wrote it -- it's very unlikely it can be enforced," he told CNN. "You have to write a noncompete for a similar job. When you say you can't work in any job for a competitor, that goes too far."

But, Postol noted, it could still cost an employee thousands of dollars to fight off the agreement in court if IJR were to choose to enforce it.

"If you have to write a brief and it's a short half-hour hearing, you could still be easily out two to three thousand dollars," he said.

Josh Jewett, an employment law attorney in Virginia who represents employees, also agreed that the broad terms of the agreement seemed to make the noncompete unenforceable.

"I cannot imagine a court upholding it," he told CNN, adding, "This is just speculation, but it's possible the company just circulated the agreement to sort of act as an incentive to not go work for a competitor."

"If you're an employee and you're handed an agreement by your employer and you sign it, you're thinking probably that's enforceable," Jewett added. "That would probably deter you from working for another competitor."

The revised noncompete was issued to employees after a year in which the company lost some of its top talent. Bubba Atkinson, IJR's former editor-in-chief, left for the news website Axios last year. Senior members of its revered original video team exited for other opportunities. And two of its top reporters, Kate Bennet and Hunter Schwarz, joined CNN.

The departures have extended into recent weeks. Jill Alarcon, who served as director of Human Resources, recently exited the company after giving birth. Josh Billinson, a politics writer, recently put in notice. And Phil Wolf, director of video, is also headed out. (Wolf said in a statement provided to CNN by IJR that he had a "great time" at IJR and was "looking forward to cutting out the two hour commute, and working closer to home, and to my family, at a place that I can continue doing what I love most.")

An IJR spokesperson stressed that while the company has lost some of its senior staff, it has also continued to grow, adding 22 employees since January.

IJR has been marked by a turbulent past year. A Business Insider story published in March, written by this reporter, detailed how the website had veered sharply to the right to chase clicks. It also characterized Benny Johnson, then-chief content officer, as a verbally abusive leader. Johnson declined to comment for that story. (Following publication of the story, Johnson was demoted from managing other employees and mandated to weekly communications training, a person familiar with the matter told this reporter at Business Insider.) The work environment had resulted in a number of people leaving, the Business Insider story said, citing sources.

Last week, BuzzFeed reported on a noncompete clause blocking staffers at NowThis News, a left-leaning digital news outlet which exists principally on social media channels, from taking jobs at other news outlets. According to the report, NowThis prohibited employees for two years after leaving from taking jobs at media companies including Mic, Vox, BuzzFeed, Vice, CNN, Complex, VaynerMedia and Conde Nast.

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