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March 22, 2023, 2:58 p.m.
Business Models

A forthcoming news site absorbs Grid (and its Middle Eastern funding, too)

The Messenger, which aims to “rekindle your passion for media” and generate $100 million in revenue in its first year, is acquiring Grid.

RIP the brand Grid, 2022–2023.

A little over a year after its launch, the news site Grid is being absorbed into The Messenger, a forthcoming news site that plans to employ 550 journalists within a year while changing “the face of the media landscape.”

What is Grid?

The Washington, D.C.–based Grid launched in January 2022 with a mission to provide a “fuller picture” around big news stories. “Grid is meant for people like you and me who follow the news but want something more,” cofounder and executive editor Laura McGann, the former politics editor of Vox.com and Politico, wrote at launch. The site touted its “creative formats,” like the “360,” which would examine news stories via “multiple lenses, including science, economics, misinformation, the law, politics, technology, identity and global.”

Grid’s “About us” page currently lists 50 staffers, including 13 reporters, and publishes around 5 stories a day. McGann also hosts a weekly podcast, “Bad Takes,” with editor-at-large Matthew Yglesias, and the site has one daily and three weekly newsletters.

Grid CEO and cofounder Mark Bauman stepped down last November amid what Axios’s Sara Fischer described as “slow revenue growth” and struggles to build an audience.

What is The Messenger?

The Messenger is a forthcoming digital news site founded by Jimmy Finkelstein, the wealthy 74-year-old media entrepreneur and former owner of The Hill. Finkelstein has raised $50 million to launch the site this May.

The Messenger’s LinkedIn page describes it as

a new digital news media company, launching May 2023, whose mission is to deliver accurate, balanced, non-partisan news and information. Powered by one of the largest digital newsrooms in the country, The Messenger’s coverage will span news, politics and all our readers’ most important passion points, from sports and entertainment to technology, health and business.

Finkelstein recently told The New York Times that he hopes The Messenger (aka TheMessenger.) will recreate the media of the past:

“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. 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.”

From The Messenger’s website:

The Messenger is founded on the belief that it is not our role to shape or alter the news, it is our role to deliver the news with an unflinching dedication to accuracy, balance and objectivity. In doing so, we aim to earn your trust and rekindle your passion for media.

What do Grid employees think about the acquisition?

A Grid spokesperson directed me to The Messenger’s spokesperson. No Grid employees are quoted in The Messenger’s Wednesday press release, which was tweeted by Semafor media reporter Max Tani. I could not find any Grid employees tweeting about the news.

“Grid has built a successful and impressive news site that reaches an influential audience and we are thrilled to be associated with their brand and talented team,” Finkelstein said in a statement.

The Grid had a lot of employees. Will The Messenger be really big?

If The Messenger keeps all 50 Grid staffers on*, they will make up less than 10 percent of the staffers that Finkelstein claims his site will have within a year. From a recent New York Times piece by Ben Mullin:

Financed with $50 million in investor money, the site will start with at least 175 journalists stationed in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, executives say. But in a year, Mr. Finkelstein said, he plans to have around 550 journalists, about as many as The Los Angeles Times.

*The Messenger has not committed to keeping all 50 Grid staffers on. Messenger spokeswoman Kimberly Bernhardt told me, “We look forward to taking on the majority of Grid employees over the coming weeks.”

How much money does The Messenger plan to make?

Here’s the Times again:

Richard Beckman, a former president of The Hill and Condé Nast who will be The Messenger’s president, said in an interview that the company planned to generate more than $100 million in revenue next year, primarily through advertising and events, with profitability expected that year.

To build its digital audience, the company has hired Neetzan Zimmerman, who has been a digital traffic maven at The Hill and Gawker Media, and is expecting more than 100 million monthly readers — an ambitious goal that would make it one of the most-read digital publications in the United States.

Zimmerman was also formerly editor-in-chief of the secret-sharing app Whisper. Beckman “is perhaps best known for a horrific ‘joke’ gone wrong,” per The New York Post.

Wow, 100 million monthly readers?

A “longtime media exec who is close to Finkelstein and Beckman” told The New York Post that the traffic goal is “delusional”: “It’s wishful thinking. They are a few ghosts from the past. If they were a public company, I wouldn’t invest in them.”

So who is investing in them?

The United Arab Emirates, for one. (As Brian Morrissey wrote in his Substack last week: “These days, it’s hard to imagine any venture investor touching the media business. There’s a reason more media companies are rationalizing their decisions to turn to Middle East autocracies.”) Grid was tied to APCO Worldwide, “which is headquartered in D.C. but is a registered lobbyist for various clients in the UAE,” Politico reported last year. John Defeterios, an APCO senior advisor and former CNN anchor, was a member of Grid’s board. The Messenger’s Wednesday press release refers to the Abu Dhabi–based International Media Investments, which is reportedly tied to the UAE royal family, as Grid’s “primary investor,” and says a paragraph later that “Grid is owned by IMI.”

At any rate, IMI is now also investing in The Messenger. “We are proud of what we built at Grid and are now excited to be joining with The Messenger,” Nart Bouron, CEO of IMI, said in the release. “The move is part of IMI’s investment plan to invest in digital first products and content.”

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     March 22, 2023, 2:58 p.m.
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