The Messenger's Shut-Down and Cruelty Capitalism
How the #&$^ does a company burn through $50 million in less than a year?
Hey all. Parker here.
In case you missed it from last week…
…or this week…
…things have not been going great for the ol’ business of media…
…and they only seem to be getting worse.
Real quick: here’s the part of the newsletter where I ask you to consider signing up for the free version if you’re new here and ask existing free subscribers to consider upgrading to the paid version.
Less than a year after its launch, digital media startup The Messenger has shuttered.
Ben Mullin at The New York Times, Sara Fischer at Axios, and Max Tani at Semafor are reporting that the ludicrously mismanaged
conservative “objective” (wink, wink) news outlet is shutting down. Some interesting tidbits from the two reports.
The company, which was losing tens of millions of dollars, only brought in around $3 million in revenue last year, according to financial documents seen by Axios.
It originally projected $100 million in revenue for 2024 — a figure that onlookers doubted from the start, particularly given the industry’s current disarray.
The Messenger is not offering any severance to its employees, many of whom it recruited from major media outlets, per two sources familiar.
The big picture: The Messenger was built on the flawed premise that a big, generic news audience has value. It doesn‘t anymore.
Fischer also writes that “The Messenger was built on the idea that consumers would flock to centrist news across topics…” which I think… misses the mark just a bit. Sure, that may have been what the outlet’s management said, and I have no doubt that’s what its journalists aimed for, but its conservative owners ensured that it wasn’t a “centrist” news outlet; it had a conservative slant.
There are plenty of “centrist”1 news organizations. CNN, the Associated Press, Reuters, NPR, PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, the New York Times, Gannett, the Washington Post, blah, blah, blah, the list goes on and on and on. Those outlets and organizations are watched, read, and listened to by hundreds of millions (if not billions — I refuse to do the math here) of people.
The issue here is that there’s not some dearth of “centrist” news organizations around the world; it’s that conservatives will call anything to the left of Alex Jones “socialist” (please remember that there was a time after the 2020 election when many conservatives very seriously tried to argue that Fox News was “leftist” because its “news” side acknowledged that Biden won the election), and people looking for “centrist” news already have more options than they can shake a stick at.
What happened at The Messenger should probably be viewed separately from the rest of the dire media news, though.
The Messenger, as a business, was a Quibi-style misread of the media landscape from the start. This kind of mismanagement is common in media, but the level of it really cannot be overstated.
On Twitter/X, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote, “If the news story you’re reading about The Messenger’s collapse today does not say, ‘The Messenger never made sense,’ you should question that.”
Journalist Scott Nover wrote, “What happened at The Messenger is somewhat separate from the ‘media is doomed because of market forces’ narrative because they were so mismanaged; but, mismanagement is at the heart of an inordinate number of contracting newsrooms.”
And BuzzFeed News alum David Mack perhaps put it best when he wrote, “I am simply asking the media industry be run by people who aren’t ghouls or idiots.”
Look at the waste.
Center for Cooperative Media Director Stefanie Murray wrote, “I cannot help but think about how many independent and nonprofit local newsrooms could have put that $50 million to work.”
Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman responded, “About 1,500 local reporters through Report for America.”
On Twitter/X, journalist Bill Grueskin broke down the level of waste at The Messenger compared to other outlets. It’s pretty stunning to see laid out:
And as journalist Simon Owens noted on Threads, “With that $50 million that went to The Messenger just so it could aggregate national news, investors could have funded 100 local news startups at $500,000 apiece and had a much bigger impact.”
Look at how poorly employees were treated.
At 4:19 p.m. ET, Messenger writer and critic Jordan Hoffman tweeted, “The last thing I saw in The Messenger’s Slack was a panicked colleague writing, ‘Wait, what about our insurance coverage? I have a surgery boo—’ and then we all got booted out!!!”
At 7:25 p.m. ET, Messenger reporter James LaPorta tweeted, “I’m at the DC office and I can’t get up to the newsroom to clean out my desk because my badge isn’t working. Add that to getting laid off. Also no severance with healthcare ceasing. The Messenger also deleted the entire website so any exclusives or features I’ve written are gone.”
This is not how you treat human beings. At the end of the day, the people who lured smart journalists away from stable (as far as media jobs are concerned, anyway) jobs, got some of them to move across the country with promises of secure and long-lasting careers ahead of them, and then dumped them on the curb without so much as a second thought, will still be fantastically rich at the end of the day. Jimmy Finkelstein, the man whose idea this whole thing was, will continue to live in the lap of luxury, and I doubt he’ll ever spend another moment thinking about the talented journalists he scooped up to waste their talents on aggregating other people’s work2 and for him to go so far as to sully that by unethically jamming his own conservative agenda into what he tried to promote as an “objective” news site.
And that’s the problem: the people at the top, the ones who cause the failures, who cause the pain, are never the ones who actually face the consequences of their mismanagement. It’s just a big “oopsie” for them. They’ll still be able to get investors to hand them tens of millions of dollars the next time they come up with some harebrained idea built on an outdated premise. The rich will keep getting richer, no matter how much they fail. The workers will continue being sold a lie that if they work hard, they, too, can be just like Jimmy in the C-suite.
When people rage against “the media,” they often take out their anger at individual reporters (who, as I’m sure TPA readers are aware, I do not believe are beyond criticism, obviously). The real problems are the guys calling the shots: Jimmy Finkelstein, Rupert Murdoch, David Zaslav, etc. These are the people responsible for 95% of all media problems, not some reporter making $45,000 per year who gets called an “elite” on Twitter.
Cruelty capitalism, like what Finkelstein and the rest of The Messenger’s management did to their employees, is despicable, and every single person who worked there deserved so much better.
That’s it for me today. Thanks, all.
What makes something a “centrist” news organization? I think it pretty much boils down to this: do they engage in “bothsidesism?” If Republicans move to impeach the head of DHS without a shred of evidence, but that point gets left out of the headline, yes, that’s (at the very least) a “centrist” news organization.
Aggregation was a huge part of what The Messenger did. Its big-name reporters did features, but pretty much everyone else there was just sort of rewording NYT, WaPo, AP, etc. stories. This isn’t the journalists’ fault. This is what they were paid to do, brought there with the dream of one day being the big-name reporters who got to do the features.