Executives at The Messenger, a news start-up, had big ambitions in the months leading up to its public debut. They said they would begin with 175 journalists covering entertainment and politics, change journalism for the better and even make its audience “fall in love” with media again.
But less than a week after it started, tensions are running high.
Journalists have chafed at demands to mass-produce articles based on competitors’ stories. Senior editors huddled with staff on Thursday to address criticism of the site, which had come from Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard’s Nieman Lab and The Wrap, a Hollywood trade publication. And a politics editor quit on Friday after a clash with the company’s audience chief.
Much of the tension at The Messenger and the critical coverage of the site stems from the company’s blitzkrieg approach to digital publishing. The company told The Times earlier this year it is aiming to eventually hit 100 million readers monthly — which would make it among the most-read publications in the United States — and has hired Neetzan Zimmerman, a well-known digital traffic maven, to reach that aggressive target by publishing dozens of stories a day.
“The Messenger has the feel of a publication that was rushed into being,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and founder of Lookout Local, a news company.
In a statement, The Messenger said that the site is still in an early testing phase.
“We have delivered hundreds of pieces of great journalism and have exceeded our traffic goals,” the statement said. “Our teams are successfully working through any initial issues with technology and work flow, and we are confident that these will be resolved when we fully 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 the private equity giant Apollo. It moved quickly in the months leading up to its debut, hiring scores of journalists, some from major publications like Politico and CNN, with some lured by salaries well above the standard market rate, according to two people with knowledge of the company’s recruitment efforts.
The site has multiple teams dedicated to covering breaking news, which has resulted in confusion over who is working on what, according to five people familiar with the inner workings of the site who spoke on condition of anonymity because company rules prevent unauthorized interviews with the media. On some occasions over the last week, The Messenger published two versions of the same story, with editors unaware of what their co-workers were working on.
Those tensions reached 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 on another team. Mr. Zimmerman admonished editors in a group chat on the messaging platform Slack that they needed to use an online form to coordinate their story assignments. That guidance ran afoul of editors who preferred to use Slack for story planning.
After a back-and-forth between Mr. Zimmerman and a politics editor, Gregg Birnbaum, in which Mr. Zimmerman at one point wrote that it was “quite simple to open the doc and check,” and at another point blamed the politics team for the mixed signals, Mr. Birnbaum said he had had enough.
“Wow, how condescending is this?” Mr. Birnbaum wrote, according to a copy of his message reviewed by The New York Times. “Thanks for the lecture.” He quit on the spot and advised Mr. Zimmerman to find another politics editor who “doesn’t know what they’re doing so you can tell them what to do.”
In an interview, Mr. Birnbaum, who has 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 rapacious and blind desperate chasing of traffic — by the nonstop gerbil wheel rewriting story after story that has first appeared in other media outlets in the hope that something, anything, will go viral — has been a shock to the system and a disappointment to many of the outstanding quality journalists at The Messenger who are trying to focus on meaningful original and distinctive reporting.”
Editors 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 assigning rewrites of competitors’ stories, a practice that was called out by media critics after the site debuted.
Dan Wakeford, The Messenger’s editor in chief, reassured employees during the meetings that it would take months for The Messenger to build credibility, and that critics of the site were taking “things out of context,” according to two of the five people. The company has landed an interview with former President Donald J. Trump and was the first to report the plan by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to campaign aggressively for the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa.
Though The Messenger has hired about 150 journalists — falling short of its initial target — the company is still on pace to hit its initial traffic goals, the two people said. A copy of The Messenger’s internal traffic dashboard from Friday reviewed by The Times shows that the company was close to exceeding 100,000 unique visitors for the day. One person familiar with the company’s recruitment efforts said the company was on pace to reach its goal of 175 employees within weeks.
The Messenger is expecting its traffic to grow in coming weeks as it rises through Google’s search ranking algorithm, one of the five people familiar with the company’s inner workings said. The company’s emphasis on clicks is reflected by the company’s employee “playbook,” which was reviewed by The Times. Employees, the playbook says, must ask themselves three questions before they write a story.
“Would I click on this?” the guidelines say, according to the copy. “Would I read the whole thing? Would I share it?”