The executives at The Messenger, a news startup, had big ambitions in the months leading up to its public debut. They said they would start with 175 journalists covering entertainment and politics, changing journalism for the better and even making audiences “fall in love” with the media again.
But less than a week after it began, tensions are running high.
Journalists resent the requirement to mass-produce articles based on competitors’ stories. Senior editors gathered with staffers Thursday to address criticisms of the site by Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard’s Nieman Lab and The Wrap, a Hollywood trade publication. And a politics editor quit Friday after a dispute with the company’s public relations chief.
Much of the tension at The Messenger and critical coverage of the site stems from the company’s blitzkrieg 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 Neetzan Zimmerman, a well-known digital traffic authority , tasked with achieving this aggressive goal by publishing dozens of stories a day.
“Messenger feels like a rushed publication,” 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 great pieces of journalism and exceeded our traffic goals,” the statement said. “Our teams are successfully working through all of the initial issues with the technology and workflow and we are confident that these will be resolved when we fully launch our verticals and advertisers next month.”
Founded by Jimmy Finkelstein, former co-owner of The Hill and The Hollywood Reporter, The Messenger has raised $50 million from investors including Josh Harris, co-founder of private equity giant Apollo. According to two people familiar with the company’s recruiting efforts, the company moved quickly in the months leading up to its debut, hiring scores of journalists, some from major publications like Politico and CNN, others beckoning with salaries well above market wages lay.
The site has multiple teams dealing with 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 of company rules prevent unauthorized interviews with the media. For the past week, The Messenger has occasionally published two versions of the same story, with the editors unaware of what their peers were working on.
Those tensions peaked earlier in the week after one of The Messenger’s news teams assigned a story that had already been assigned by an editor on another team. In a group chat on messaging platform Slack, Mr. Zimmerman admonished editors that they needed to use an online form to coordinate their story tasks. This guide contradicted the editors, who preferred to use Slack for story planning.
After a back-and-forth between Mr. Zimmerman and a policy editor, Gregg Birnbaum, in which Mr. Zimmerman wrote at one point that it was “quite easy to open the document and look,” and at another point blamed the policy team in light of the mixed signals, Mr Birnbaum said he’d had enough.
“Wow how condescending is that?” Mr Birnbaum wrote, according to a copy of his message verified by the New York Times. “Thanks for the lecture.” He resigned immediately, advising Mr. Zimmerman to find another policy editor who “doesn’t know what he’s doing so he can be told what to do.”
In an interview, Mr. Birnbaum, who previously worked at CNN, NBC News and The Miami Herald, confirmed that he wrote the Slack message.
“Who doesn’t like traffic to their news site?” he said in an email. “But the predatory and blind desperate pursuit of traffic — by the non-stop gerbil wheel, rewriting story after story that first appeared in other media in hopes that something, anything, would go viral — was a Shock to the system and a disappointment to many of the outstanding quality journalists at The Messenger trying to focus on meaningful, original and distinctive reporting.”
The editors met earlier in the week to discuss concerns about the company’s large-volume publishing approach. The five journalists, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were increasingly frustrated by the company’s practice of awarding rewrites of competitor stories, a practice criticized by media critics after the site’s release.
Dan Wakeford, Messenger’s editor-in-chief, assured staff during the meetings that The Messenger would take months to build credibility and that critics of the site “take things out of context,” according to two of the five people. The company received an interview with former President Donald J. Trump and was the first company to report on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to aggressively campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa.
Although The Messenger has hired around 150 journalists, falling short of its original target, the company is still on track to meet its original traffic goals, the two people said. A copy of The Messenger’s internal traffic dashboard on Friday, verified by The Times, shows that the company had almost 100,000 unique visitors that day. A person familiar with the company’s recruitment efforts said the company is on track to meet its goal of 175 employees within weeks.
The messenger expects its traffic to grow in the coming weeks as it climbs through Google’s search ranking algorithm, said one of the five people familiar with the company’s inner workings. The company’s emphasis on clicks is reflected in the company’s employee “playbook,” reviewed by The Times. Employees, the playbook states, must ask themselves three questions before writing a story.
“Would I click on that?” the policy reads, the copy reads. “Would I read the whole thing? Would I share it?”