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Journalismism

The Messenger Is Speedrunning The Media Startup Life Cycle

2:43 PM EDT on October 24, 2023

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

Nobody can be surprised that The Messenger isn't living up to its grand promises. Before the news site launched, its founder Jimmy Finkelstein, who had previously made a bundle with The Hill, claimed to the New York Times that he planned to hire over 500 journalists in a year for his not-so-novel idea of non-partisan news. That he wanted to do this with a free, ad-supported site didn't make much financial sense, and when given the chance to muse on the record, he presented himself less like a media visionary and more like a nostalgic old rich guy.

“I remember an era where you’d sit by the TV, when I was a kid with my family, and we’d all watch ‘60 Minutes’ together,” Finkelstein said before the mid-May launch. “Or we all couldn’t wait to get the next issue of Vanity Fair or whatever other magazine you were interested in. Those days are over, and the fact is, I want to help bring those days back.”

From the moment it went live, The Messenger felt like an underwhelming bait-and-switch. Rather than a dignified callback to an era before 24-hour news, it seemed to treat articles like dollar lottery tickets. With an absurdly high goal of 100 million monthly readers, per the Times, the site immediately took to publishing a warp-speed assembly line of chintzy aggregations in the hopes that a few might go viral. Within days of The Messenger's launch, multiple journalists who had jumped on hoping for a chance to do original reporting had already resigned. "What was presented to me as the job and what the job was was two entirely different things," said West Coast breaking news editor Kristin Bender, who quit before the site even went live.

This week, The Messenger's outlook is as bleak as can be. The Daily Beast reported on Monday that staffers are trying to quickly unionize in order to gain some sort of protection from an impending collapse. According to the site's president, Richard “Mad Dog” Beckman, the site is “out of money," though the specific details of its traffic numbers and financials are shrouded in secrecy by upper management, further frustrating employees.

What's especially spectacular about The Messenger's trajectory is how fast it has appeared to burn out. In about six months of operations, it's already passed almost every stage that a media startup experiences on its path from VC darling to barren husk. It had the grand pronouncements, the worrying resignations, backstage rumors that the site's editor-in-chief was AWOL, talk of “Mad Dog” alienating female staffers, and an absurd partnership with an AI company, all between Easter and Halloween. When I first read that Times piece with a skeptical eye, I set a reminder for myself: "check the messenger's hiring stats," scheduled for March 19, 2024. Given where The Messenger is now, just surviving that long would be an accomplishment.

The lesson of The Messenger, to me, is not the portentous signs surrounding its start, but the infuriating ways in which money congeals at the top of the media pyramid. That $50 million invested in The Messenger before it even launched could have been used to pay up front for over a decade of work from a modestly budgeted but still innovative and effective newsroom. Why do we instead have a media environment where a 74-year-old can take all that money for a blatantly unprofitable click farm dressed up in network-era drag? Who bought into this scheme, and how can we ensure that they never have any power to affect real people's livelihoods again?

When The Messenger was posting job listings that promised impressive salaries, I talked with co-workers and peers, wondering what would encourage a writer to join up with such a transparently faulty scam. The answer, of course, is that anyone hardened by years of unstable media jobs would understand by now to take the money for however long it lasted, while having no illusions about its long-term viability. I'd guess a significant portion of The Messenger's workers signed on for that reason, and I would trust their instincts infinitely more than I do Finkelstein's, or those of his buddies. Maybe next time, those reporters will get to decide how the money is spent.

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