Tensions erupt inside The Messenger, a fledgling news site
The executives of The Messenger, a news startup, had big ambitions in the months leading up to its public debut. They said they would start with 175 reporters covering entertainment and politics, change journalism for the better and even make its audience “fall back in love” with the media.
But less than a week after its launch, the tension is mounting.
Journalists have been angered by requests to mass-produce stories based on contestants’ stories. Editors met with staff on Thursday to respond to criticism of the site, which came from Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard’s Nieman Lab and The Wrap, a Hollywood trade publication. And a political editor resigned on Friday after a clash with the firm’s hearing chief.
Much of the tension at The Messenger and the site’s critical coverage stems from the company’s whirlwind approach to digital publishing. The company told The Times earlier this year that it aims to reach 100 million monthly readers – which would make it one of the most widely read publications in the United States – and has hired Neetzan Zimmerman, a well-known expert of digital traffic, to reach this aggressive target by publishing dozens of stories per day.
“The Messenger feels like a rushed release,” said Ken Doctor, media analyst and founder of Lookout Local, a news company.
In a statement, The Messenger said the site is still in an early testing phase.
“We delivered hundreds of quality journalism pieces and exceeded our traffic goals,” the statement said. “Our teams are successfully working through all initial technology and workflow issues, and we’re confident these will be resolved at full launch next month with our verticals and advertisers.”
The Messenger, founded by Jimmy Finkelstein, the former co-owner of The Hill and The Hollywood Reporter, has raised $50 million from investors including Josh Harris, co-founder of private equity giant Apollo. It moved rapidly in the months leading up to its debut, hiring dozens of reporters, some from major publications like Politico and CNN, some lured by salaries well above the standard market rate, according to two people familiar with the recruitment efforts of the company.
The site has several teams dedicated to breaking news coverage, which has led to confusion over who is working on what, according to five people familiar with the site’s inner workings who spoke on condition of anonymity because the rules of the company prevent unauthorized interviews with the media. . On some occasions over the past week, The Messenger has published two versions of the same story, with editors unsure what their colleagues were working on.
Those tensions came to a boiling point earlier in the week after one of The Messenger’s news teams assigned a story that had already been assigned by an editor from another team. Mr Zimmerman warned editors in a group chat on the Slack messaging platform that they should use an online form to coordinate their story assignments. This advice went against publishers who preferred to use Slack for story planning.
After a back-and-forth between Mr. Zimmerman and a political writer, Gregg Birnbaum, in which Mr. Zimmerman wrote at one point that it was “pretty simple to open the document and check”, and at a another time blamed the political team for the mixed signals, Mr. Birnbaum said he had had enough.
“Wow, how condescending is that?” Mr Birnbaum wrote, according to a copy of his message reviewed by The New York Times. “Thanks for the conference.” He resigned on the spot and advised Mr Zimmerman to find another political writer who “doesn’t know what he’s doing, so you can tell him what to do”.
In an interview, Birnbaum, who previously worked for CNN, NBC News and The Miami Herald, confirmed that he wrote the Slack post.
“Who doesn’t love traffic to their news site?” he said in an email. “But the desperate, mindless pursuit of traffic – by the non-stop gerbil wheel rewriting story after story that first appeared in other media in the hope that something, anything, will go viral – has been a shock to the system and a disappointment to many of The Messenger’s exceptionally good reporters who try to focus on meaningful, original and distinctive reporting.
The publishers met earlier in the week to discuss concerns about the company’s high-volume approach to publishing. The five journalists who spoke on condition of anonymity said they had grown frustrated with the company’s practice of attributing rewrites of contestant stories, a practice that was denounced by media critics after the launch. of the site.
Dan Wakeford, editor of The Messenger, reassured employees in meetings that The Messenger would take months to gain credibility and take “things out of context”, according to two of the five people. The company landed an interview with former President Donald J. Trump and was the first to report Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida’s plan to aggressively campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa.
Although The Messenger has hired around 150 journalists – below its original target – the company is still on track to meet its initial traffic targets, the two people said. A copy of The Messenger’s internal traffic dashboard from Friday reviewed by The Times shows the company was on course to surpass 100,000 unique visitors for the day. A person familiar with the company’s recruiting efforts said the company was on track to hit its goal of 175 employees within weeks.
The Messenger expects its traffic to increase in the coming weeks as it grows through Google’s search ranking algorithm, said one of five people familiar with the inner workings of the Messenger. business. The company’s focus on clicks is reflected in the company’s employee “playbook,” which was reviewed by The Times. According to the playbook, employees should ask themselves three questions before writing a story.
“Would I click on it?” the guidelines say, according to the copy. “Would I read everything? Would I share it?