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The Messenger Is Circling The Drain

Logo for The Messenger, with letters flickering out and then going blank. First the 'h', then the 'nge', then the 'T e e r.' Blue background, white text.
Dan McQuade/Defector

The Messenger, a 10-years-out-of-date digital media business plan brought to obviously misbegotten life less than a year ago, is wheezing toward an ignominious death. Per a suite of reports, Jimmy Finkelstein's would-be clickfarm is laying off dozens of workers, weighing whether to shut down, and seeking another $20 million to keep the machine fed and stave off the inevitable end for a little longer.

If any of this is in any way surprising, it's just how quickly The Messenger burned through the media startup lifecycle. Several high-profile Messenger employees quit before the site even launched, issuing damning statements on their way out to media reporters about the site's volume-shooting, quantity-over-quality approach. That should have been especially alarming given the Messenger's creation myth: Finkelstein, former owner of The Hill, started the site with a mission to disrupt national news through an uncanny combination of revisionist neutrality (he said last March he wanted a site that "changes journalism a bit and changes America for the good" through the power of nonpartisanship) and terminal-stage blog-era cosplay (an ad-supported free site dependent on viral traffic firehoses that no longer exist)—and with $50 million. That is so much money.

By October—a little over half a year, that is, after the Times feature announcing Finkelstein's intention to create The Messenger, and around four months after it began publishing—employees were mounting a rearguard unionization effort to at least insulate themselves from a collapse they all saw coming, as the site's editor-in-chief allegedly fucked off and management made a desperate AI play. President Richard Beckman, who told employees cash was running low last fall, was also allegedly so unpleasant to work with that he prompted two senior women to quit. He followed them out the door last week, per the New York Times, citing health issues. As Beckman left and the company conducted end-of-year layoffs, the grim financial picture grew clear: The Messenger had "weeks, not months" of money left to keep itself going. Finkelstein would either have to raise more money or shutter the site. Again, The Messenger has been publishing since late May.

Let us pause and consider how much $50 million is. That's more than four times the total amount of revenue Defector has made in three-plus years of existence, more than enough to fund a bounty of journalism projects with goals more realistic than Compete with CNN by adhering ourselves to a now-long-dead financial model, and worthier strategies than bringing back centrism. It is good, in the short-term sense, that 300 journalists were paid for a while. It is bad that A) many journalists were out of work in the first place, in a market where they could not hope to do better than joining a doomed-from-birth centrist aggregation factory run by a guy who'd evidently been asleep since 2013, and B) not a dollar of that $50 million seems to have produced anything of lasting value, anything that kept those 300 employed in a remotely sustainable way, to say nothing of strengthening the broader industry. To burn that much money that quickly is an achievement. Naturally, Finkelstein wants $20 million more. At the present rate, that will keep the lights on for some number of hours.

Per Axios, Finkelstein has been taking a ton of meetings trying to drum up more investment, which surely means he must be promising some novel turn that will make investors think ad revenues, declining for years, will bounce back. What would someone say in this situation a decade ago? That's right: It's time for a good old-fashioned pivot to video. In Axios's words, "Those pitched on the investment say Finkelstein has touted the firm's ability to grow its digital audience quickly since launch. He has also pitched the promise of the company's new video effort, 'The Messenger TV,' which the firm plans to debut this year."

If that doesn't work, The Messenger might just shut down. According to Semafor's Max Tani, the board met last Friday and discussed shuttering the site or trying to sell it for parts. That part of the lifecycle speed-run will seem horribly familiar to many digital-media veterans who toiled through video pivots back when there was absolutely any reason to invest hope or money in them, more than half a decade ago.

No matter what happens, the board members will be fine, and Finkelstein will be fine, and the state of American news media will be wholly unchanged. It's The Messenger's employees who will bear the brunt of these failures. Though I suppose a small sour consolation here is that the investors who gave Finkelstein all that money, like Apollo's Josh Harris, Loews Corporation's James Tisch, and Interactive Brokers' Thomas Peterffy, will not see big returns on their dumb investment.

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