The Messenger Hasn’t Yet Disrupted Anything But Its Own Newsroom
3:46 PM EDT on May 25, 2023
The trouble began before the site even went live. Four days before the launch of The Messenger, and two months after founder Jimmy Finkelstein promised a national news site that would make readers "fall in love" with media again, West Coast breaking news editor Kristin Bender reportedly submitted her resignation.
"What was presented to me as the job and what the job was was two entirely different things," Bender told The Daily Beast. "I was told that this was going to be long-form journalism and all it was was aggregated content and clickbait, and to me, that’s not journalism." In a statement to The New York Times, she said, "After building a stellar career over 30 years I didn't want to go down with a sinking ship."
When The Messenger announced itself with a splashy New York Times profile this past March, it was impossible to ignore the numbers. Finkelstein, formerly the co-owner of The Hill, had secured $50 million in investor funding, which he planned to use to grow an initial team of 175 journalists to 550 within one year. By then, the company would be expected to bring in $100 million in revenue. Those are audacious numbers: getting twice as much funding as the Smith and Smith-led Semafor received, in order to hire more people than New York magazine.
There are hundreds of overqualified, underemployed journalists out there to be hired—the Messenger team bought Grid News in March, shut the site down, and claimed they would hire the "vast majority of Grid’s editorial team"—but to make it work at this scale, with a free website built on selling advertisements, in 2023, would require a herculean effort. As seen by Bender's statement and a short tour through the site's repulsively active Twitter feed, that effort has been led with volume shooting.
Bender was the first to quit, although her departure wasn't the first to be publicized. Politics editor Gregg Birnbaum quit within a week of the launch and had similar concerns:
“Who doesn’t like traffic to their news site?” [Birnbaum] said in an email. “But the rapacious and blind desperate chasing of traffic — by the nonstop gerbil wheel rewriting story after story that has first appeared in other media outlets in the hope that something, anything, will go viral — has been a shock to the system and a disappointment to many of the outstanding quality journalists at The Messenger who are trying to focus on meaningful original and distinctive reporting.”
And here I am, aggregating Birnbaum's quote, but clearly the proposed vision of the site and the reality are starkly different. The Messenger publishes so many posts every day in a frenzy, with mugshot-led local crime stories, curiosity-gap celebrity stories, and the odd SEO-humping pop culture guide. Before The Messenger launched, the Times identified Neetzan Zimmerman, alumnus of The Hill and Gawker, as the key to the goal of 100 million monthly readers. Zimmerman, whose job title at The Messenger is chief growth officer, made a name for himself in the early 2010s as a one-man traffic generator who blogged basically anything with the potential to go viral. This approach caught Finkelstein's eye and, per the Times, rankled Birnbaum. The politics editor reportedly quit "on the spot" after arguing with Zimmerman over a story that was accidentally assigned to multiple desks due to a lack of communication.
Another employee joined Birnbaum on Wednesday, when Mediaite reported that senior politics editor Suzette Lohmeyer had quit over similar reasons, citing her frustrations with The Messenger's "publish-first, correct-later" strategy as well as "Zimmerman’s influence in the newsroom." In light of the circumstances of these resignations, it's worth returning to Finkelstein's stated vision for the site. In March he told the Times that he wanted to build something that "changes journalism a bit and changes America for the good." He would do so by eliminating partisan bias and presenting news from across the political spectrum, avoiding the gaps he identified in "CNN’s limited coverage of the southern U.S. border and Fox News’s downplaying of the Capitol riot."
Someone who sees CNN and Fox News as the two poles for U.S. news is not someone who knows enough about media to disrupt it. Surely name recognition was the key to getting $50 million from investors, because the idea and strategy aren't anything new. Will these projected 550 hires just widen the aperture of the same traffic firehose? One of the Semafor Smiths referenced the omnipresence of "the smoldering carcasses of scaled media" in an interview yesterday, which Finkelstein should see as both an opportunity and a warning. The Messenger has the resources to find space in digital media, but not by pretending that it's 2012.