In a media ecosystem where the riches are in the niches, the launch of general news site The Messenger in May last year was “doomed from the start”, experts have told Press Gazette.
And insiders have revealed how early idealism quickly gave way to haphazard strategy and dubious editorial practices.
Jimmy Finkelstein, a former part-owner of US political website The Hill and The Hollywood Reporter, decided he wanted to build an unbiased national news website that “changes journalism a bit and changes America for the good” with original and important reporting.
Finkelstein raised $50m and ultimately hired about 300 people – of a planned 550 – at least some of whom have reported being on higher than average salaries. But compared to a target of $100m in revenue for 2024, the site made $3m last year.
It abruptly closed, leaving employees without severance pay or health insurance, last week (on Wednesday 31 January). Staff are now fundraising to help those among them who “live paycheck to paycheck and are in dire need”.
Staff told ‘everything you do should be about traffic’
One staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, told Press Gazette about how The Messenger “felt a little put together haphazardly” at the start but “there was a lot of hope about what they could do” and “a lot of excitement”.
The New York office was not ready at the start, leaving staff to work from a We Work. And it wasn’t long before grand plans to hire hundreds of people were halted with a hiring freeze, stopping the expensive Manhattan office from ever filling up once it was ready.
The staff member described how the vision appeared to change throughout The Messenger’s first few months: “What I had heard was that it was going to be an ads-based model for the first year, and then they were going to start offering subscriptions at the end of year one. And I had heard that we had enough funding to get us through a first year without offering subscriptions, which obviously was not true.
“For those first couple of months, our main objective was to get our name out there, to build relationships in the industry. A lot of us had these pre-existing relationships that we had from other outlets, but to get our name out there like as The Messenger and then obviously to get traffic.
“But as the months wore on, and clearly the company’s financial situation got worse and worse, it was around the late fall –maybe like October or November – that we started getting hit with, like, ‘everything you do should be about traffic’.”
Some of the journalists were also unhappy with the type of articles they were increasingly asked to write, many of which were rewrites of original reporting from elsewhere. These included grisly true crime taken from other outlets for the news team, who routinely wrote between six to nine articles a day as a result.
On the entertainment team, common themes included weight loss/Ozempic-related stories and so-called “dark nostalgia” – for example, a story about actress Judy Garland suffering “horrific abuse” on the set of The Wizard of Oz.
“It was never stuff that was newsy, like of the moment, but it was stuff that if you didn’t know about it, and you came across it on Facebook, you would maybe click if you’re 60 years old.”
The journalist added that despite this “what ended up doing really well on the site usually were the reported pieces,” giving the example of a reporter writing about their experience at the first Formula One race in Las Vegas.
This idea was echoed by The Messenger’s chief growth officer Neetzan Zimmerman speaking this week on the Love, Journalism podcast, which is hosted by another ex-Messenger staffer Darren Samuelsohn.
Zimmerman said the most-read stories were often exclusives by some of The Messenger’s best talent, citing as examples senior legal reporter Adam Klasfeld, senior reporter Steve Helling and sport writer Arash Markazi.
“The talent that we were able to put together – that was really what drove most of the traffic by the end.”
Zimmerman also revealed that at the end, The Messenger was receiving 120 million page views and 80 million visits monthly. “The loyalty was there… at the end we were at four page views per user,” he said.
“So it wasn’t just cheap, leaky traffic as you might expect – these were people who were coming back.” He cited curator platforms and aggregators including Apple News, Newsbreak, Flipboard and The Drudge Report as strong referral sources, as well as social media.
‘It was all churn’
Nonetheless, another journalist from The Messenger who also asked to stay anonymous shared a similar disappointment with the editorial direction with Press Gazette. They said: “When I got hired… I expected there to be more reporting and less churning.”
They added: “It’s like Jimmy didn’t know what he wanted. I think the problem was Jimmy. Like, he wanted to have this Washington Post competitor that was going to cover the world. But then he also just wanted us to rewrite the New York Post.
“Which do you want? Do you want it to be a website that aggregates the NY Post or do you want to hire people to do reporting? You have to pick.”
They felt at the start like they would be able to help build something “pretty cool” due to the scale of the resources involved.
“The more people you have, the more each individual can kind of focus on their own work because you don’t need to churn as much,” they initially thought. “And then it turned out to all be churn – like, I got there day one, and it was all churn.
“Every job has that where it’s like someone needs to do the churn. At any given time, there’s going to be a quick story you need to get up. If you want to work on a feature, you also have to produce the two quick breaking news stories, because every day you need to have something up for people to read. That’s fine – but you figure with so many people, maybe one guy churns a week. I don’t know.”
That journalist also believed the plan had been to ultimately build a subscription product. But they said: “Why would someone pay for a subscription service for a website that just rewrites the NY Post?”
Finkelstein appeared to have an unusual level of editorial involvement for a proprietor, directly asking for particular articles to be written and sending New York Post links to desk editors. In December Semafor reported that he demanded stories about Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial to be made less prominent on the website homepage. The pair have known each other socially for many years.
The staff member told Press Gazette: “I guess he couldn’t get out of his own way – like he wanted to have this nice big news site, but he didn’t have the self-control to get his hands off of it.”
January: ‘We were trying to get traffic to save the company’
By this year, staff were learning about the extent of The Messenger’s financial difficulties from the press. On 2 January, The New York Times reported that about two dozen people were to be laid off
After questions from staff, Finklestein told them: “The economic headwinds have left many media companies with significant challenges.” Further articles reported that the site had just weeks of funding left.
One of the journalists who spoke to Press Gazette said that after this: “We were trying to get as much traffic as we could in the hopes of saving the company, which obviously was not going to happen.”
Nonetheless, those reports proved true. Staff were on high alert on 31 January after colleagues in California reported receiving extra pay cheques, which appeared to be payments for unused vacation days.
At around 4pm that day, The New York Times reported The Messenger was shutting down, closely followed by Axios and Semafor. The news stories were published before most staff members were told about the closure.
Even editor-in-chief Dan Wakeford posted in the staff Slack channel: “I am not in the loop. Trying to find out now.” The Slack channel was shut down minutes later.
The Messenger’s website was also taken down, leaving only a holding screen showing its logo and a generic email address, within hours. Journalists were initially upset they could not access their articles to save them for their portfolios, but they have since been able to access a backend version.
The second journalist who spoke to Press Gazette questioned why the site had to go down, especially if Google ad revenue could cover the expenses: “How much does it cost to host a website? I mean, I host a website for my portfolio. It’s not a particularly large expense. The Messenger didn’t have massive graphics. Jimmy’s a billionaire. How much does it cost to keep the website running? $20 a month?”
They added that it felt like a “punishment” for staff, towards whom Finkelstein and other management had always shown “hostility”.
Staff have now launched a class action lawsuit alleging that The Messenger violated a law that should have meant they got 60 days’ notice of the terminations.
‘Virtually impossible’ for general news site to break into today’s market
Asked why The Messenger failed, New York-based media consultant Matthew Scott Goldstein said: “We all knew it was going to fail. It was just a question of when”.
He told Press Gazette The Messenger “probably had some of the worst timing anyone could have had for what they went for” – although he added it would have been even worse to launch now.
Goldstein questioned: “Who was stupid enough to give The Messenger money to try to do what they want to do, given the timing that they tried to do it in? I just can’t believe anyone was stupid enough to give them $50m to try to create a news organisation given what we know about the ecosystem.”
According to the NYT, The Messenger’s investors were: Josh Harris, the co-founder of private equity firm Apollo who also co-owned The Hill with Finkelstein, James Tisch, chief executive of investment company Loews, and Thomas Peterffy, founder and chairman of trading platform Interactive Brokers.
The Messenger also gained a funder in Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments (IMI) when it bought Grid in March, only to close it and integrate most of its journalists into its main operation. IMI is now well-known for its ongoing attempt to buy the UK’s Telegraph Media Group as part of RedbirdIMI, led by former CNN boss Jeff Zucker.
Explaining why The Messenger faced such an uphill battle, Goldstein listed seven news organisations with more than 50% of their traffic coming directly rather than from search or social referrals – Yahoo, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Daily Mail, CNN, Washington Post and Fox News – and noted they are all established brands.
“It’s basically virtually impossible for anyone new to break into this world,” he said.
[Read more: Publishers – Ditch Google search addiction or die]
If the successful launch of a generalist news site is out of reach, does another type of news start-up have a better chance?
Goldstein said: “I would say the news organisations that have done well today are the ones in the Washington DC area, and probably because they’re smaller and more nimble, and there’s probably a lot of lobbying money going to their coffers. I think. That’s the difference, right? And that’s why other ones like a Puck or an Axios can succeed because they have a little niche. Going big and broad is virtually impossible.”
Asked what The Messenger’s struggle could tell us about the ecosystem in the next few years, Goldstein said: “I think we have to wait until we hit bottom. It’s hard to call the bottom, right, no-one’s really called the bottom. You know it after the fact.
“My feeling is the bottom won’t hit until the end of this year because of the election but I do not know that once you hit bottom, you see what gets reformulated, then there might be white space out there.”
How could The Messenger have changed course?
David Kaplan, a co-owner of editorial and content marketing consultancy Brand Newsroom LLC who previously covered digital media and ad tech as a business journalist, told Press Gazette: “There are almost too many reasons why The Messenger was doomed from the start. But there are a few ways it could have changed course.”
Kaplan said Finkelstein and his team had “wildly unrealistic expectations” and called it “hubris” to think “a start-up news site could build an audience of 100 million monthly unique viewers. Then there was thinking that readership size would drive more than $100m in annual revenue by the end of 2024.
“Finally, there was the bizarre notion that it needed between 300 and 550 experienced staffers to crank out volumes of aggregated news items that would be celebrated for their lack of ‘bias’. Any one of those beliefs defies the most basic logic of publishing economics.”
Kaplan said launching a publication by proclaiming it is unbiased “is a weak foundation and a bland introduction to an audience” as it “only tells people what you’re against. It doesn’t say what you’re for”.
“Showing and proving your publication is confident it can deliver news that’s got the originality, depth, speed, and impact that’s beyond its desired audience’s expectations is the only way to win,” he added.
“If The Messenger said it was going to uncover the latest news at a level of excellence, depth, and fairness that no one else has, that it was focusing on a clear set of topics an audience is dying to know more about, if it promised its news production was based solely on quality and not quantity, and if it had done it at a smaller scale and built up gradually over a few years, the project might have had a chance.”
Kaplan said the idea that producing high volumes of news stories and gaining some kind of “virality” was “another supremely flawed premise”.
He explained that “without any depth or insights or clarity, all you’ve got is the ‘who, what, where, when’ part of a news story. But for readers who have access to those answers from any number of sources within seconds of it happening, the need for the ‘why’ of a story is increasingly what separates publications that generate engagement from readers and the ones that don’t.
“The Messenger did claim some traffic gains before its demise. But episodic traffic spikes is not something a new or established news publications can count on anymore. The days when search and social media distributed news to targeted audiences are gone.
“All publishers need to do what publishers always did: develop brands that attract readers’ recognition as a distinct news source, so that they’ll capture paying subscribers who perceive a value in what they’re reading, watching, and listening to.”
Kaplan compared The Messenger with 1440, a daily news digest start-up that launched in 2017.
“Its executives noted how it tested its news offering for at least a year before fully rolling it out and staking out ridiculous benchmarks,” Kaplan said. “And it did by focusing on newsletter subscribers instead of traffic.
“1440 Media’s $1m in revenue per staffer with around 15 employees may be a far cry from The Messenger’s aims of $100m in revenue. But 1440 is not only still operating, it’s generally won over a cynical media industry.”
Chief growth officer Zimmerman wanted to counteract these types of expert opinions, however. He told Love, Journalism that “everybody that tries to say The Messenger was doomed to fail, et cetera – they can say what they want to say but the fact is that the industry is doomed to fail”.
Noting that The Washington Post is planning to diversify away from subscriptions “because subscription no longer is the way forward either – so it’s not subscriptions, it’s not scale. Where are we going? What are we doing?” He added: “I love this industry and I’m going to keep fighting for it.”
Despite the way the site ended – it was made “as bad as possible” for staff – the journalists that spoke to Press Gazette did not regret joining.
One cited the fact they had made connections in the industry and had some “fun opportunities” along the way. “I don’t regret it at all,” they said. “I am sad the way it ended. I wish it could have gone on for longer and I wish it could have gone in a more meaningful way. But no, I’m happy I did it.”
Another said: “I was leaving a job I hated to come to another job that paid me really well. But a lot of other people left a stable job that they liked to come here to join this mission and they got left to dry. I feel really bad for those people.”
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog