The Media Today

The Messenger is a news startup, but it feels like a blast from the past

May 18, 2023
In this photograph taken by AP Images for The Hollywood Reporter Jimmy Finkelstein is seen at The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People in Media event on Wednesday, April 11, 2012 in New York. (Evan Agostini/AP Images for The Hollywood Reporter)

In February, Axios reported that Jimmy Finkelstein, a former co-owner of The Hill and the Hollywood Reporter, had raised significant financing for a new media startup called The Messenger, which, Axios reported, had to that point “tried to avoid the spotlight, hiring dozens of executives and raising tens of millions of dollars mostly in secret.” Finkelstein also put some of his own money into the startup, Axios reported, having sold The Hill to Nexstar for a hundred and thirty million dollars; The Messenger’s early hires, meanwhile, included Dan Wakeford, an entertainment journalist and former editor in chief of People, and Neetzan Zimmerman, who was credited with boosting The Hill’s social traffic and engagement. In March, no longer avoiding the spotlight, Finkelstein participated in a splashy profile in the New York Times and said that his new site would open with a hundred and seventy-five journalists, then grow to a total of five hundred and fifty by next year, with revenue of more than a hundred million dollars. On the editorial side, according to the Times, Finkelstein planned to foster “an alternative to a national news media that he says has come under the sway of partisan influences.”

The Messenger’s claims that it would chart a new, unbiased path were greeted with some skepticism in the media industry, as were its growth estimates. Actually, some skepticism is a massive understatement. The New York Post, citing “industry insiders,” wrote that The Messenger risked becoming a “money pit helmed by old-school executives with delusional ambitions.” Max Tani, a media reporter at Semafor, wrote that he couldn’t figure out how the site would achieve the kinds of numbers Finkelstein had in mind, given that it would be “for a general-interest news website in a tough ad market on the diminished, post-Facebook web.” And Jacob Donnelly, the publisher of Morning Brew, predicted that The Messenger “will not have anywhere near 100 million monthly readers over the next five years,” because the days of “hacking your way to monumental traffic numbers are behind us,” a result of the platforms becoming “stingier with referral traffic.”

All this before The Messenger had published a single story. On Monday, that changed, as the site finally launched. Based on the reaction of many media veterans, though, seeing The Messenger in the flesh has done nothing to quell the skepticism, and may even have exacerbated it. Wakeford had promised that The Messenger would offer an alternative to news organizations that “inflame the divisions in our country by slanting stories towards an audience’s bias,” but the first story at the top of the site was an interview with Donald Trump that no few observers characterized as a softball. David Corn, of Mother Jones, wrote that the interview sent the message that the site “is not up to its self-proclaimed task of healing the nation’s political discourse” and that it “may even be part of the problem” since the interviewer failed to ask Trump about substantive developments, not least the recent finding against him in a sexual-abuse and defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll.

In his pre-launch interview with the Times, Finkelstein said that he wanted to recapture an earlier time in the media industry. “I remember an era where you’d sit by the TV, when I was a kid with my family, and we’d all watch 60 Minutes together,” he said. “Or we all couldn’t wait to get the next issue of Vanity Fair or whatever other magazine you were interested in. Those days are over, and the fact is, I want to help bring those days back.” The Messenger does, in fact, seem to want to replicate a previous era, though not one as far back as Finkelstein’s youth: namely, it seems to be harking to a time when social traffic from vast quantities of viral clickbait articles could bring in millions of dollars in advertising revenue. According to Joshua Benton, of Nieman Lab, The Messenger published over two hundred stories on its launch day—more than the New York Times ran the same day. Some contained only a single sentence. 

As BuzzFeed News and the bankruptcy of Vice have shown (and I wrote last week), however, those days are gone, and will likely never return. And many observers have criticized the way The Messenger seems to be going about trying to recapture them. Jon Christian, the editor of Futurism, wrote that The Messenger “talked a HUGE talk about revolutionizing journalism that would heal a divided nation, then started churning out viral dumpster juice literally the day it launched.” Meanwhile, Aram Zucker-Scharff, an ad-industry expert who works at the Washington Post, looked into the technical machinery behind The Messenger and was not impressed with what he saw: pages with annoying pop-up ads that obscured articles, which he described as “very 2015,” and “the shittiest possible Outbrain configuration,” referring to the third-party clickbait-style articles that some sites link out to. (“Lou Ferrigno Turned 70, Try Not To Throw Up When You See Him!”) For Zucker-Scharff, The Messenger most resembles the website of the Daily Mail, a British tabloid known for its clickbait; indeed, he added, a number of articles on The Messenger appeared to be rewrites of stories found on tabloid websites. (“IT Specialist On Sick Leave For 15 Years Sues IBM For Not Raising His Pay.”)

Peter Kafka, a media reporter at Vox, also compared The Messenger’s model to that of the Mail, which, Kafka noted, is “the least defensible kind of publishing to get into as the AI race to the bottom starts.” Media sites can make money by publishing huge quantities of content, Kafka acknowledged—but many other sites are already doing this. “These guys are saying they want to go the yahoo/daily mail route,” Kafka wrote on Twitter. “But they are doing so from a standing start in an era where there’s going to be massive downward pricing pressure.” Kafka added that “many of the traffic levers that used to work are broken or are at least much harder to use.”

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Brian Morrissey, the former editor of Digiday, wrote in his newsletter that a clickbait model is appealing to some publishers in part because the Mail used it to grow a significant audience, but that its efficacy has since declined. “The thing about the past is it never comes back,” Morrissey wrote. Sites that publish more and more content are more likely to generate higher amounts of traffic and in some cases advertising, Morrissey allowed, but “ultimately, more supply doesn’t create more demand.” If the industry should have learned anything from the previous era of media, Morrissey added, it’s that “trying to be all things to all people is a mistake.” Critics of The Messenger have pointed out that even at this early stage, it does not appear to have a defined editorial focus—and the site has said that it is still in the process of hiring editors and reporters to cover breaking news, economics, retail, transportation, personal finance, aviation, autos, space, travel, real estate, commercial food and restaurants, tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, and crypto.

Which brings us back around to the skepticism with the initial numbers that Finkelstein cited to the Times. On Twitter, Benton said that he found the idea of launching a new site with so many journalists to be bizarre. “When was the last time a US digital news publisher *launched* with a 175-person newsroom? I think the answer is ‘never, and there’s nothing even close.’” (The Messenger accelerated its hiring progress by acquiring Grid, a media startup that had about fifty staffers before being subsumed.) Insider, meanwhile, pointed out that, according to figures from Comscore, Finkelstein’s plan to reach a hundred million unique visitors per month would “put it ahead of The New York Times Digital, Condé Nast Digital, and Insider” itself. Some ad-industry insiders told Insider that they are afraid of The Messenger turning into “another Quibi”—a reference to a mobile video service that raised over a billion dollars in 2018 and 2019, hired a number of senior media executives, and promptly crashed and burned.

Richard Beckman, a former president of The Hill who now holds that role at The Messenger, told Insider that the site would be different from other recent media startups, such as Semafor, which, Beckman said, “did themselves a great disservice with the hugely expansive comments they made about [how] they were gonna change the world,” but now has a site that is only read by “three people and a cat.” Ben Smith, a cofounder of Semafor, responded by wishing The Messenger luck with its “2012-style scaled website model.” They might need it. Tom Morrissy, chief growth officer at the agency Noble People and a former publisher of Entertainment Weekly, told Insider that, after assessing “this particular cast of characters and their outrageous claims for The Messenger,” he simply doesn’t believe that “they’ll have the market support or staying power to make it a go.”

Finkelstein does have supporters—not least, per the Times, deep-pocketed financial backers such as Josh Harris, cofounder of the private-equity giant Apollo, who also owned a majority of The Hill. Patrick Steel, the former chief executive of Politico, told AdWeek that while the odds are against Finkelstein, “you have to give the benefit of the doubt to a guy who’s done this twice before.” Tani wrote that a colleague at Semafor who previously worked for Finkelstein had confidence that his former boss could achieve the numbers that he has been touting. “Everyone is looking through politics as the lens for readership [but] Jimmy is going after lots of other verticals that will go viral,” the colleague wrote in a Semafor Slack discussion. 

But will that be enough? As Quibi and other high-profile failures have shown, visionary platitudes and millions in financing are no guarantee of success, especially if your vision is actually stale. The golden age of shared facts may be missed by many. The same can’t be said for the mechanisms and audience strategies on which Finkelstein is building his site.


Other notable stories:

  • Early yesterday, a spokesperson for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle claimed that the couple had been “involved in a near catastrophic car chase at the hands of a ring of highly aggressive paparazzi” in New York City on Tuesday evening. The statement—which, as the Times put it, was “unmistakably evocative of the car chase that killed Princess Diana,” Harry’s mother, in 1997—was immediately amplified by major news organizations around the world, but as the day progressed, the story grew fuzzier, with observers and others involved at various points of the incident declining to call it a chase. The episode nonetheless refocused attention on intrusive tabloid tactics. The Mail said that it took down photos of the couple after learning how they were obtained.
  • Also yesterday, in an address to graduates of Columbia Journalism School, the CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour publicly criticized her employer for its chaotic recent town hall with Donald Trump. “Maybe less is more,” Amanpour said. “Maybe live is not always right.” Elsewhere, Michael Bugeja argues, for Poynter, that the backlash to the town hall is “a lesson for outlets that cotton to a particular political psychographic and then decide to abandon it, failing to retain regular viewers while divining for new ones.” And CNN tapped Kaitlan Collins, who moderated the town hall, as the new host of its 9pm Eastern slot, which had lacked a permanent anchor since CNN ousted Chris Cuomo in 2021.
  • In other media-business news, the Drudge Report got tongues wagging yesterday when it predicted an imminent overhaul of the prime-time hours at Fox News—including Sean Hannity moving to Tucker Carlson’s old slot—but Fox denied the report. Elsewhere, the New York Times debuted an audio app, to some industry skepticism; Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein has more details. And Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez spoke with Pablo Valdivia, the first ever editor for Latino audiences at NPR. “I pull out stories that I believe Latinos would value most and ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks,” he said.
  • In international press-freedom news, Ralikonelo Joki, an investigative radio journalist, was shot and killed in Lesotho. Elsewhere, an appeals court in Tunisia sentenced the journalist Khalifa Guesmi to five years in prison after he reported on a counterterrorism operation, then refused to reveal his source. And police in Germany searched the homes of two journalists with the Daily Sabah, a pro-government Turkish newspaper, as part of a data-privacy probe. Turkey summoned the German ambassador to protest.
  • And, as the Cannes Film Festival opened with a controversial film starring Johnny Depp, Edwy Plenel, the editor of the French investigative site Mediapart, talked to Variety about the time that Maïwenn, the director and costar of the film, spat at him—apparently because she was angry about his coverage of #MeToo issues. “You are the first journalist to call me,” Plenel told Variety. “It says a lot about the state of French media.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.