Dropshipping journalism

No one working at Newsweek can tell me why it still exists

Since the publication of this article, Newsweek has told CJR that it was not afforded an opportunity to respond to the substance of the article. Though CJR disagrees with that characterization, we have attached a response from Newsweek below. CJR stands by its story.

On March 20, Nancy Cooper, the editor in chief of Newsweek, sent an email to her editorial staff. The subject was “What is a Newsweek story?”—an odd question at an eighty-six-year-old newsmagazine once considered one of the “big three,” alongside Time and the US News & World Report. The email contained four requirements for any story published on Newsweek.com. One, it must contain original reporting. Two, it must provide a unique angle or new information. Three, the reader must care about it. And four, the news must be news.

These should have been reasonable requests, if not bare-minimum standards, for any journalist anywhere. But Cooper allowed her staff no time to meet these goals. A few months earlier she’d told reporters they’d have to write a minimum of four stories per day, and now they felt she was asking for more while giving less. 

“We don’t want fewer stories or slower stories,” Cooper said in her email, “just to make every story we do better.”

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With two years of near-constant editorial changes behind them, many journalists at Newsweek have found their jobs increasingly difficult to do well—or at all. For most of the dozen or so reporters in the New York office, the day starts early. Their first story is supposed to be filed by 9am, and before it can be written, the story must be pitched to an editor over Slack in the form of a headline. In theory, these headlines appeal both to a reader and to Google’s algorithms, but in practice the algorithm takes precedence. Editors sometimes suggest more viral headlines, or pitch headlines themselves using Google Trends or Chartbeat. (Lack of knowledge on a topic doesn’t stop them from assigning stories, which has led to Newsweek wrongly declaring that Japanese citizens want to go to war with North Korea and incorrectly reporting that the girlfriend of Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock was a polygamist.)

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Newsweek, of course, isn’t alone in crafting its headlines for a search engine; not even the New York Times is above writing “Who Is William Barr” or recapping talk show monologues. But at Newsweek, the headline can dictate the news, instead of the other way around. 

“The approach we were taking to headlines was something a lot of writers objected to on an ongoing basis. They were a point of tension,” says Kastalia Medrano, who wrote for Newsweek’s science desk until February 2018.

The system is a remnant of the International Business Times’ ownership of Newsweek, which began in 2013 and formally ended in 2018, though the outlets still share executives. Many senior editors at Newsweek were promoted from IBT’s click-addicted breaking-news or culture desks. IBT, launched in 2006, is a classic news aggregator, with reporters in the US and Bangalore, plus a UK edition, churning out a high volume of clickbait at the expense of original, quality reporting. Former writer Owen Davis told me the site’s attitude toward search engine optimization was like a “cargo cult mentality”: the staffers who performed the most impressive rain (or click) dance were the ones praised, promoted, and moved over to Newsweek each time Google downgraded IBT in 2016 and 2017.

Cooper’s push for original reporting is in part about writing for Google News, which promotes original reporting higher than aggregated pieces in search results. For the same reason, Newsweek reporters are instructed that a story must be a minimum of four hundred words; to hit this number, one reporter says, he would pad an article about a movie by listing the cast members or summarizing an actor’s previous film credits. 

Another strategy to satisfy editors who demand new stories in as little as an hour: if two reporters are covering different angles on the same topic, the two stories might comprise largely the same summary, with only the lede containing new information.

“You’re chancing it half the time,” says a current Newsweek writer. “You’re being asked to write a story in two hours, and your editors are being asked to edit it in twenty minutes, and we’re all supposed to be experts on whatever it is the story’s about, even if we’re covering the entire world. It’s just not possible.”

Newsweek has tended to hire young reporters, many of them fresh from college papers or internships. In the course of my reporting for this piece, at least ten senior staffers left or were let go, their salaries freed up while Newsweek continued to look for “News Fellows,” contract employees working forty-hour weeks for $15 per hour, the minimum wage in New York City. Three former Fellows confirmed that they were expected to do the same amount of work as salaried reporters—a minimum of four stories a day, with no overtime—with the promise of being hired full-time after four months. 

“The owners see media as a profitable thing, but it’s profitable because they’ve found an exploitable workforce. There are so many young, earnest, hungry writers who will work for so little,” says Sydney Pereira, who covered climate change for Newsweek until March of last year. “We’re digging the owners out of debt at the expense of our mental health.”

 

Iworked at IBT in 2011 and 2012, the year before it bought Newsweek. I was twenty-four and thrilled. When I was hired, I was one of two reporters covering “world news.” My original contract stipulated that I had to bring in a minimum of ten thousand unique readers a month, an impossibly high number that my editor told me to ignore. The world, US, and business desks were meant to write “legitimate” stories that went on the front page, while a “Continuous News Desk,” later renamed “Breaking News,” spammed Google News and paid our salaries. Drafting off the BuzzFeed News model that had developed months earlier, Jeffrey Rothfeder, our Editor-in-Chief, said that the clickbait would bring in revenue while hard-news reporting would build our reputation.  

Much of Newsweek’s current disorder was incubated in those early days of IBT, when we were still figuring out how digital journalism would work. We quickly learned that the patience of the owners, who own Newsweek today, was short. I witnessed incredible journalists lose their jobs over inconsistent traffic, despite editors’ best efforts to save them by shifting them from desk to desk to avoid detection. Many of us adopted the strategy of using a pseudonym to write about the latest nutjob’s doomsday prophecy or planet made of diamonds when we needed quick hits. The owners and editors were fine with this, but a CMS update created automated bylines and ended the practice. 

It was in this era that, due to a contagious morale problem, IBT management added a carrot to go along with the stick: traffic bonuses. This was also when reporters were first ranked by traffic on a spreadsheet. 

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Until recently, a reporter could earn an extra $2,000 per month for stories that attracted six hundred thousand unique page views. Numerous current and former reporters told me that when interviewing for a job at Newsweek, editors told them not to worry about salaries between $35,000 and $45,000—about $10,000 less than the average entry-level reporter position in New York City—because their bonuses would earn them an additional $24,000 per year. 

But the reality is that if you aren’t writing clickbait, the bonuses can be hard to get. And failing to get a traffic bonus, some said, puts a target on your back.

“The way the bonus was presented during my job interview was as a goal. It’s called a ‘bonus,’ after all. But as soon as I started, it became very clear that it was a minimum,” says Pereira. 

A truer objective, I’m told, is a million uniques per month. Current and former reporters said that they felt less secure in their jobs when monthly averages fell below this figure. This summer, Newsweek’s Chief Strategy Officer, Dayan Candappa, told reporters that he and management were considering raising the starting point for the bonus from six hundred thousand uniques to a million, alongside a base salary raise, noting that management wouldn’t allow raises without a concurrent change in the bonus scheme. Candappa noted at the time that he didn’t think a raise was in reporters’ best interest, since the updated bonus would be detrimental to their total compensation. 

Newsweek’s traffic bonus payouts prior to August 2019, group (left) and individual (right). After 2.5 million unique visitors globally, only US visits counted toward the bonus.

Then, in late August, new bonus payouts were indeed introduced. While the starting point for the monthly bonus stayed the same, at six hundred thousand unique page views, the payout was lowered from $2,000 to $400. Additionally, where before a difference of thirty thousand page views was the equivalent of an extra $100 in a reporter’s pocket, it now takes an extra hundred and fifty thousand page views to make that amount. As Candappa promised, the scheme was changed alongside a yearly base salary raise of about $10,000. Reporters who bring in a large amount of traffic can opt out of the change entirely, though their work will be held to higher quality standards that have yet to be defined. Offending stories won’t be included in the traffic count. 

In an all-staff email sent September 9 announcing the change, Cooper explained, “The quality of our journalism is the essential consideration—whether on a substantial investigative report, a straightforward service offering or an entertaining lifestyle brief.” That same week, Google announced that its search rater guidelines will increasingly promote “original, in-depth, and investigative reporting” that “provides information that would not otherwise have been known had the article not revealed it.” 

Reactions to the bonus change have been mixed, though some reporters are optimistic that it will disincentivize clickbait. (Newsweek declined to comment on the bonuses and reporters’ salaries, or any other part of this story.)

Newsweek updated the bonus scheme in August, lowering payouts to boost the quality of reporting, according to an email obtained by CJR.

Last year, in response to complaints from reporters, Newsweek added group bonuses, meaning a news desk’s traffic-per-reporter was averaged and everyone could receive a small payout if certain goals were reached. The intent was for less popular but important beats, like climate change, to be balanced out by more popular stories in the same section. When the individual bonus system changed, these group bonuses were eliminated entirely, though editors can now nominate writers for bonuses based on journalistic excellence, regardless of readership. 

Reporters at Newsweek are also ranked against one another on a shared Google spreadsheet that’s updated daily. The combination of the traffic reports and bonuses, along with Cooper and Candappa telling the newsroom that the company is broke, creates an environment where reporters feel as though their work isn’t valued except as interchangeable parts of a content machine. Most of the reporters I spoke to said they try to ignore the reports, but many former and current staffers say that the rankings are treated like a competition by those at the top, and that this is by design. Leadership spends significant time during staff meetings discussing who and what stories sit atop the spreadsheet.

These factors make it hard for Newsweek writers to take Cooper’s March 20 email and subsequent changes seriously. They know that if they hit their marks on stories per day and traffic, the four tenets of responsible journalism don’t matter. This July, Candappa said during a staff meeting that story output can’t dip when reporters go on vacation, meaning that those in the office would have to write five or more pieces per day to cover for their absent colleagues. When New York bureau chief Jason Le Miere, who’d been at IBT, then Newsweek, for more than seven years, and Jen Glennon, deputy editor of entertainment and gaming, tried to defend their reporters, Candappa called them lazy. Le Miere and Glennon both resigned the following Monday. 

In a spreadsheet shared via Google Drive, reporters are ranked daily in column G. The only metric is traffic. Click image to enlarge.

As the industry learned last January, when BuzzFeed laid off 15 percent of its entire staff, including forty-three journalists in the news division, the BuzzFeed News model doesn’t work. Though BuzzFeed generated $300 million in revenue in 2018, the company missed its projections, and no amount of native advertising and shareable quizzes could save Ben Smith’s “scoop a day” news team from cutbacks. 

The question that all publications are facing in the twenty-first century is how to be profitable. Chasing cheap traffic from Google and from Facebook shares is one method, but by doing so Newsweek is asphyxiating its own efforts to build a loyal readership. When a story is rushed out before anyone notices that Malia Obama’s name is written as “Malia Cohen,” or when a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. in his casket is used as the art for a story, readers are less likely to return to Newsweek

Certain desks, including culture at Newsweek and business at IBT, used to divide the workweek between a few “enterprise days,” when reporters could work on longer, more in-depth stories, and full days of aggregating. Those days are now gone. Today, with few exceptions, enterprise stories are done almost entirely on reporters’ initiative—on their own time and after the requisite quick hits are done. 

“I did a lot of the work I wanted to do at Newsweek,” investigative reporter Michael Edison Hayden, who worked at the magazine until May 2018, told me. “But my wife talks about it as a very dark time in our life. I was very burned-out. My brain felt like mashed potatoes.”

A screenshot of Newsweek’s internal Chartbeat. In May 2019, 0 percent of Newsweek’s traffic came from readers going to Newsweek.com directly. Only 5 percent came from readers opening up new stories once they were already on the site. Click image to enlarge.

 

Things might be better if Newsweek had more money. Substitute Newsweek for almost any publication and that sentence is still true, but Newsweek’s financials seem particularly dire. Last year the magazine owed nearly $350,000 in unpaid taxes; it is currently on a payment plan with the IRS. This came after Newsweek had to settle with its former landlord for more than $300,000 in back rent. Also in 2018, Newsweek and IBT were sued by the chumbox advertiser Taboola, which seeks $640,000 to cover the return of pre-payment, plus interest and legal fees.

Newsweek’s ownership has a history of finding unethical ways to avoid paying salaries. These allegedly include: illegally using foreign students for full-time work, subcontracting reporting for IBT’s Australian edition to writers in the Philippines, and paying its reporters once a month instead of biweekly, which is against the law. Last year, BuzzFeed News uncovered that IBT was running an ad fraud scheme. Fellows are tacitly made to work overtime, though their contracts say they won’t be paid for it, which is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

These financial troubles are acutely felt in New York. Reporters have told me that they’ve come to work to find the phones disconnected, the Getty Images subscription suspended, and been told that Gmail would be locked. Computers run on Windows 8 and Newsweek uses a free version of Slack. 

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All of this is happening alongside an ongoing money-laundering case against Etienne Uzac, IBT’s founder and Newsweek’s former CEO, and seven alleged co-conspirators including Olivet University, an American college tied to The Community, a church once accused of being a cult. Uzac and other IBT Media leaders, who are members of the church, invented an accountant named Karen Smith to overvalue Newsweek in order to obtain $35 million in business loans. The money was supposed to be used to purchase computer servers, but was instead allegedly laundered through a fake equipment dealer and sent to Olivet. In order to pay off the original loans, more loans were taken out and the scheme was repeated in reverse, with money moving from Olivet to Newsweek and IBT Media. 

Through all this, Newsweek has been publishing its print magazine. According to former senior staff, the magazine has lost money for all but a brief period under Jim Impoco, who was editor in chief for three and a half years. While Newsweek did become relevant again under the editorship of Impoco and his successors Matt McAllester and then Bob Roe, everything at the magazine went septic after the Manhattan district attorney raided the office, after which Roe, along with executive editor Ken Li and reporter Celeste Katz, was fired for investigating his bosses. (Neither Roe, nor Li, nor Katz commented for this story.)

The owners appear unwilling to seriously invest in the magazine, which doesn’t even include subscription cards because of cost concerns. Owen Matthews, a veteran foreign correspondent who worked at Newsweek from 1997 until 2018 and was once the magazine’s Moscow bureau chief, told me he had to wait nearly three years for his reporting expenses in Russia to be paid.

For several years, Newsweek has struggled to pay freelancers, even those writing cover stories. Five freelancers, some of whom wrote dozens of stories for Newsweek, told me it could take up to eight months to get paid. In New York City, failure to pay a freelancer within thirty days of receiving an invoice has been illegal since 2017. 

The magazine’s editors eventually decided the payment delays were so unethical, they discontinued using freelance writers. As a result, the quality of the magazine has suffered. Nowadays, Newsweek print issues are light in weight and content. There’s usually a feature written by a staff writer, multiple op-eds, a pair of interviews, a book excerpt, a large advertorial, and pages of Getty Images. I’ve been told that for about a year, the magazine had been entirely put together every week by two editors, Mary Kaye Schilling and Michael Mishak, and a designer, Michael Goesele. Schilling and Mishak were laid off within weeks of each other this spring, and their positions taken over by contractors who work in the office only a few days per week. 

The space freelancers once occupied has been partially taken up by new, inflammatory opinion writers like Ben Shapiro, Nigel Farage, and Newt Gingrich, who wrote the magazine’s May 10 cover story about China. Some of these writers, I’m told, do get paid. Other recent Newsweek writers have included Charlie Kirk, discredited provocateur Andy Ngo, and former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge, who wrote a thinly veiled advertisement for his new TV show about UFOs. Meanwhile, a steady drip of reporters and editors leaving the company has continued over the past six months. Veteran national-security correspondent Jeff Stein, the entire video team, and five of six copy editors were all laid off in May. (Digital reporters are now required to proofread and fact check their own work.) Gaming editor Mo Mozuch and foreign policy reporter Cristina Maza have both parted ways with the magazine in August, while senior writers like Nina Burleigh and Jonathan Broder, once salaried staff, are now writing on contract.

 

Nobody I spoke to for this article had a sense of why Newsweek exists. While the name Newsweek still carries a certain authority—remnants of its status as a legacy outlet—and the magazine can still bag an impressive interview now and then, it serves an opaque purpose in the media landscape. To be sure, journalism itself is undergoing an identity crisis as platforms like Google, Facebook, and Apple News lift an increasing share of profits from publishers while forcing reporters to write for algorithms instead of readers. But Newsweek picking up hyperlocal yellow journalism isn’t a replacement for the daily newspapers shuttering by the hour.

Perhaps Newsweek’s identity would feel less tenuous if there was more communication from the top about the magazine’s agenda. Many staffers told me that Cooper spends almost the entire day in her office with the door shut. In 2018, reporters pushed for a “student council” wherein information could be passed down from senior editors to chosen representatives on the news floor, who would then distribute the internal messages as needed. There are currently regular editors’ meetings with Cooper and Candappa, but much of the time is spent reviewing traffic figures, and former editors said that Cooper rarely explains why she kills certain stories and not others.

Newsweek does keep journalists employed. Fewer than it did last month and the month before that, but nonetheless. The month after the DA’s raid, many people, including Newsweek’s editors and executives, thought the magazine was on the edge of death, and Cooper and Candappa deserve their share of the credit for resuscitating it.

But at what cost? 

Last year, the writer and artist Jenny Odell uncovered dozens of dropshippers—online storefronts selling, at a markup, a variety of products manufactured by other companies—registered by a man named Jonathan Park. Park was once the director of the Olivet College of Journalism, a post also formerly held by IBT cofounder Johnathan Davis. Odell makes the connection between Olivet and Newsweek, but misses that the registration address for many of these shell companies, 33 Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan, is also the office building where Newsweek rents three floors. 

Newsweek has the name and the professional website it has built in years past, but it’s increasingly repurposing the work of others—whether the Washington Post, the outrage fiends at Fox News, or a dozen people on Twitter—and packaging it as its own. Plenty of news sites aggregate, and in many ways the story of Newsweek is the story of the industry. But whereas other aggregators—Mashable, BuzzFeed, Upworthy; the list goes on—built their sites around this kind of internet-first strategy, Newsweek is selling off its own legacy while hoping that readers won’t notice. Reporters and editors there tell me they’re willing to do good work; the question is whether Newsweek is willing, or even able, to find a business model that allows them to do it.

This story has been updated to reflect the status of job postings for Newsweek fellows. In addition, Dayan Candappa’s title has been corrected to Chief Strategy Officer, not publisher; the circumstances of the departures of Mary Kaye Schilling and Michael Mishak from the company have been clarified; and the status of the magazine’s opinion writers has been corrected to note that not all have been paid by Newsweek.

A response from Newsweek:

Newsweek disagrees with the general conclusions of this article and disputes much of what it says specifically. Our concerns include the following:

1. CJR conflates IBT and Newsweek. Many of the unethical practices described in the story, such as the use of pseudonyms, were true of IBT but have never been true of Newsweek.

2. The story conflates Newsweek’s past problems with present reality. Newsweek’s past turmoil resulted in poor newsroom processes. Newsweek Global Editor in Chief Nancy Cooper has worked to stabilize the newsroom and improve the quality of journalism. The embarrassing corrections linked to in the piece that were presented as evidence of recent missteps were, as those links showed, published before Cooper became editor. IBT editors were moved to Newsweek a year before she took over, and any troubles began before Cooper took the helm.

3. Cooper has been rebuilding Newsweek and its journalism for the past year.Engaging the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride as an independent editorial adviser has been part of this process. She has hired credible and experienced editors in the United States including Hank Gilman, Diane Harris, and Fred Guterl. Former Newsweek staff are returning to the magazine. All of the long-serving IBT editors have now left the U.S. newsroom.

4. The version of the bonus plan used in the story could have confused some readers. Cooper worked for much of the year to change the web-traffic-based bonus plan inherited from IBT.  This compensation plan is at the heart of the CJR story. Cooper announced in early September that everyone had moved to the new compensation plan that rewarded good journalism as well as overall performance. “The bonus structure that we inherited sent the message that only traffic matters,” Cooper said in her announcement. “I have never believed that, and now the disconnect between my goals and the incentives of the bonus structure has been extinguished.”

5. Today’s editorial practices are described as an effort to game algorithms. “While that may have once been true of IBT, it is unfair to suggest that Newsweek’s current attempts to maximize search and social are outside of industry norms,” McBride said. Our view is that they are consistent with industry norms. It is inaccurate to say that Cooper’s September 9 memo was aimed at “writing for Google News” just because it was released in the same week as Google News guidelines. As the title of the memo—“A year of transition”—shows, Cooper was clearly summarizing changes that had rolled out over the preceding year. Newsweek is not giving Google algorithms precedence over readers. More than 60 percent of the visitors to Newsweek’s website and 80 percent of its readers discover its stories outside the Google environment. So, targeting Google at the expense of readers would be self-defeating.

6. As for freelance invoices, Newsweek did have a backlog of unpaid freelance invoices, but has now paid off nearly all of the outstanding invoices, and we’ve implemented a system to ensure that our current freelancers are either paid in advance or on a mutually agreed schedule each month.

We are disappointed by the publication of this flawed story, and expected better from such a respected publication.

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Daniel Tovrov is a journalist and award-winning short-story writer based in New York. From 2011 to 2012, he was an editor of the world section at the International Business Times. Follow him on Twitter @dantovrov.