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May 16, 2023, 2:45 p.m.
Business Models

No need to shoot The Messenger: Its muddled ideas are doing the job

The new site from the former owner of The Hill — backed by $50 million — feels like a remnant of an earlier age.

command-f, c, a, r, r, o, l, l.

That was the first thing I typed when I saw that new news startup The Messenger had led its launch with an “EXCLUSIVE” interview with Donald Trump.

After all, it was only a few days ago that a jury in Trump’s hometown found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation in the lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll. Surely, if you had a 30-minute “EXCLUSIVE” interview with the former president, you’d ask him a question about it, right?

command-f, s, e, x, u, a, l.

Let’s say you weren’t going to ask about it. You wanted to make sure you had enough time for your question about the JFK assassination, your question about ChatGPT, and your question about the man who strangled Jordan Neely to death on a New York City subway. (“Well, I think he was in great danger and the other people in the car were in great danger. I haven’t seen the tape. [!] But I think he was in danger.”) You’d at least mention it in your 600-word introduction, right?

command-f, d, e, f, a, m, a, t, i, o, n.

No results. Instead, Trump gets to attack his GOP rival Ron DeSantis (“He’s got no personality. And I don’t think he’s got a lot of political skill”). And on the topic of the 2020 election — which Trump has lied repeatedly about winning — reporter Marc Caputo muses aloud: “I need to find a way to discuss the 2020 elections without sounding like I’m debating it.”

I don’t want to make too much out of one interview. But The Messenger has built its brand (to the degree that such a thing exists) on providing “balanced journalism in an era of bias, subjectivity and misinformation” and “objective, non-partisan and timely coverage.” Fair and balanced, you might say. Its marketing doesn’t just argue for its own objectivity — it derides everyone else for lacking it. All of media is broken, you see, except The Messenger. “People are exhausted with extreme politics and platforms that inflame the divisions in our country by slanting stories towards an audience’s bias,” its editor-in-chief claims.

The thing that’s confusing about The Messenger to everyone else in the media world is that its ideas don’t make any sense. It’s in an aggressive sort of denial about the world of digital news publishing in 2023. It’s LARPing an earlier time. The Messenger thinks it will reach 100 million monthly uniques on the back of bland aggregation. (That’s only slightly smaller than The New York Times’ audience.) It thinks it can support a 550-person newsroom on programmatic advertising. The Messenger thinks the right pitch for a site funded by Republican megadonors and run by the guy who brought the world John Solomon is: “We’re the unbiased ones!”

The confusing part is that — at a time when money has tightened in both media and tech — this jumble of seemingly bad ideas has raised $50 million. Someone seems to think this is a good idea. Fox News at least makes a lot of money — will The Messenger?

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Messenger’s first day was the sheer volume of content. By my count, it published 203 different stories Monday — some as short as a single sentence. The New York Times — with its newsroom of more than 1,800 people — published 141.

But most of those Times stories were, you know, stories, with reporting and interviews and such. Most of The Messenger’s are of the quick-aggregation variety, with individual staffers publishing 10 or more in an eight-hour shift. Now, there is nothing wrong with smart aggregation. But you don’t need $50 million to do it, and you’d better do it in some way that stands out.1

During a one-hour stretch Monday morning, The Messenger published 27 stories — a new one every 133 seconds. (Over the same span, the Times published nine.) It’s a mishmash.

Florida Man Has Been Living Underwater Since March, Breaks World Record

Scientists Puzzled Over Mysterious Rumbles in Denmark

Al Roker Shares Health Update While Recovering from ‘Complicated’ Knee Surgery

Woman Killed After Jumping from Moving Car During Fight with Boyfriend

Home Depot, Target and Walmart’s Earnings This Week Will Say a Lot About the U.S. Economy

Train Intercom System Used to Play Hitler Speech For Unsuspecting Passengers

Scalise: House Republicans ‘Building a Case’ Against Mayorkas

The Do-Nothing Congress: Why Washington is More Dysfunctional Than Ever

Why nearly $40 billion worth of U.S. weapons may not be enough for Taiwan

10 Tantalizing Social Media Chefs You Really Should be Following

3 Family Members Including Kids Killed in California Crash, 7 Others Injured

Manchin: ‘I’m more concerned about my country than I’ve ever been’

What Happened to TLC: From Schoolhouse Staple to ‘MILF Manor’

Viggo Mortensen, Shia LaBeouf, Courtney Love Cast in David Mamet’s JFK Film ‘Assassination’

Court rejects Elon Musk’s request to nix tweet agreement with SEC

US Diners Divided Over Increasing Dog-Friendly Restaurant Policies

TV Startup Giving Away Free Flatscreens That Show Constant Ads

Woman Accused of Burying Husband in Backyard Claims Teen Girl Confessed to Killing

Supreme Court to Take Trump Hotel Documents Case

Biden nominates cancer surgeon to lead National Institutes of Health

Father Allegedly Killed by Ex-Wife’s Boyfriend Shortly After Winning Custody of Children

McCarthy Casts Doubt on Debt Deal, Says WH Not ‘Serious’

99-Year-Old Faces Blades of Circus Knife Thrower, Fulfilling Life-Long Dream

‘Succession’ Boss Breaks Down Tom’s Puzzling Reaction to Shiv’s Pregnancy Reveal

Thai Opposition Triumphs in Elections, as Voters Deliver Blow to Military Leaders

What Jamie Foxx’s New Show Means for the Future of ‘Beat Shazam’

Pence Will Go to Iowa’s ‘Roast and Ride’ Amid 2024 Speculation

The content mix (and sometimes just the content itself) is very British tabloid: “Mail Online with a much smaller photo budget.” The classic combo of celebs (more than 1/5 of all stories) and The Barbarians Are At Civilization’s Gates And You Should Be Afraid.

My colleague Laura Hazard Owen, armed with a spreadsheet, looked through more than 800 Messenger stories2 to calculate the most common words in its headlines. The top 20 give you a good idea of what The Messenger is about:

1. Trump
2. dead/deadly/dies/death
3. Biden
4 (tie). killed/killing/killer
4 (tie). migrant/migration/immigration
6. shooter/shooting/shot
7. Texas
8 (tie). arrest/arrested
8 (tie). Florida
10. border
11 (tie). attacked/attack/attacks/attacker
11 (tie). DeSantis
11 (tie). missing
14 (tie). murder/murdered/murderer
14 (tie). teen/preteen/teenager
16 (tie). ban/banned/banned/banning
16 (tie). police
18. Elon Musk
19 (tie). cop/cops
19 (tie). kidnapper/kidnapped/kidnaps/kidnapping

I’ll throw out one other comp: Knewz, the Murdochs’ ill-fated aggregation play from a few years back. It too promoted itself as a solution to Today’s Media Problems. (“We live in a world of vexatious verticals, of crass clickbait, of polarized perspectives and fallacious, fact-free feeds.” “A wide spectrum of news and views…without bent or bias.”) And it too ended up being a way to shove right-wing messaging through an “unbiased, unfiltered, untainted” grinder.

But the man behind The Messenger isn’t a Murdoch — it’s Jimmy Finkelstein, the 74-year-old heir to an East Coast media empire. His father Jerry owned the New York Law Journal and later started The Hill, which gave the family influence in New York and Washington. When Jimmy inherited The Hill from his father, he pushed it to the right; he’s one of Rudy Giuliani’s closest friends and has run in Donald Trump’s circles for decades, “boast[ing] that he’s a close friend” of the former president’s.

Perhaps his most noteworthy contribution to The Hill was hiring John Solomon — a man who had already left quite a trail across D.C. media — and having him report directly to Finkelstein. Solomon used his new perch to write less-than-well-supported pro-Trump articles about Ukraine that ended up being central to Trump’s first impeachment trial. As Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter wrote in 2019:

Beyond his relationship with Solomon, Trump, and Giuliani, Finkelstein was Solomon’s direct supervisor at The Hill and created the conditions which permitted Solomon to publish his conspiratorial stories without the traditional oversight implemented at news outlets. And he has kept a watchful eye on the newspaper’s coverage to ensure it is not too critical of the President.

As one former veteran employee of The Hill told CNN Business, “Solomon is a symptom of the larger problem of Jimmy Finkelstein”…

None of it would have been possible without Finkelstein, who hired Solomon in July 2017 as an executive vice president at The Hill and initially charged him with leading the newspaper’s video division. “Jimmy is the one who hired John Solomon,” a former employee told CNN. “The editors didn’t want him there”…

Almost immediately after Solomon’s hiring, staffers at The Hill newspaper grew worried about his work. “I remember almost immediately thinking, ‘Why is he writing?’” the former veteran employee told CNN, noting that Solomon already had earned a reputation for conspiratorial work when he reported on things like the “deep state” for Circa, a now-defunct conservative news website.

Again: This is the guy who says he’s only interested in “balanced journalism in an era of bias, subjectivity and misinformation, with a mandate to deliver the news — not shape it.”

(The Messenger says it has “clear guidelines on how we maintain our day-to-day delivery of balance and objectivity, and guard against inaccuracies and misinformation.” I asked for a copy of those guidelines, along with a few other questions, Monday and haven’t heard back.)

One way to figure out what a news site is all about is looking at its opinion pieces. News, to a great extent, happens, and any editor can only do so much to control it. But opinion pieces are largely a reflection of whatever a publication wants them to be.

Yesterday afternoon, I looked at the 10 opinion pieces The Messenger was promoting on the homepage. The first thing I noticed: All 10 were by men.

(Indeed, Messenger bylines look to be overwhelmingly male. On the homepage yesterday afternoon were a total of 49 — 32 by men, 17 by women. But of those 17 women’s bylines, 14 of them were attached to entertainment stories. On everything but entertainment — which is to say, news, politics, business, and opinion — the byline score was a blowout: Men 32, Women 3. This is a company that felt totally comfortable making this photo their debut in the world.)

What sorts of opinions do those 10 men have? We have three academics, writing about extraterrestrial life, women’s sports, and Russia. Then we have a former FBI official known for giving an “exclusive interview” to Epoch Times (!) to call the Mar-a-Lago raid “an attempt by one political party that temporarily controls the DOJ to eliminate an adversary from the other party.” We have a former longtime aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley. We have 86-year-old Black conservative Robert L. Woodson on the evils of reparations. We have a former AEI and Heritage fellow and former assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, arguing the U.S. was foolish to end the Vietnam War. We have Fox News senior political analyst Juan Williams asking: “Michelle Obama for President?” And we have Fox News contributor Joe Concha, author of Come On, Man! The Truth About Joe Biden’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Presidency.

(I checked again this morning, assuming The Messenger would’ve found at least one female opinion it considered worthy. But no: 10 new stories, 11 new bylines — every single one belonging to a man. New faces include Trump impeachment defense witness Jonathan Turley and failed Trump Fed appointee Stephen Moore, on “How Biden Lost the Debt-ceiling Fight and Republicans Finally Became the ‘Smart Party.'”)

So who wants a site like this? Who gave The Messenger the $50 million it has raised so far? Here’s a list of all the investors who’ve been publicly reported (aside from Finkelstein himself and Messenger president Richard Beckman):

Are these people just fans of journalism who want “to champion balanced journalism in an era of bias, subjectivity and misinformation”? Or is politics a factor?

Victor Ganzi: Ganzi was Hearst’s CEO from 2002 to 2008. But since then he’s been a prolific Republican donor. Federal filings show he’s given at least $1,293,836 to federal political candidates over the years — $1,286,936 to Republicans, $6,900 to Democrats. He gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory fundraising committee. Most of his donations have been to the less MAGA, more business-friendly wing of the party — think Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, or Jeb Bush. In the most recent cycle, he gave $55,800 to Dr. Oz and a PAC supporting him.

James Tisch: Tisch, CEO of his family’s Loews Corporation, is a major Republican donor (although, like many in deep blue New York City, he also gives to some Democrats, like Kathy Hochul and Joe Manchin). He has described himself as a Democrat in the past, but his sweet spot seems to be relatively moderate, business-friendly Republicans; he supported the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney. In 2012, he said that “the United States economy would be better off with President Obama being a one-term president” and that Obama had “made businesses feel ‘unloved’ and reluctant to put money to work.” (Not an Obama fan.) In the 2016 cycle, he gave to Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, but neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton. Tisch sits on the National Council of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The Tisch family is worth an estimated $6 billion.

Josh Harris: Harris had a big week! On Thursday, his New Jersey Devils were eliminated from the NHL playoffs. Boo! On Friday, the owners of the NFL’s Washington Commanders agreed to sell the team to a Harris-led group for just over $6 billion. Yay! On Saturday, his Crystal Palace FC beat Bournemouth 2–0 in the English Premier League. Yay! Then on Sunday, his Philadelphia 76ers lost a disappointing Game 7 to the Boston Celtics. Boo!

I guess what I’m saying is “That news site I invested millions in launched” might not make his top 10 events of his week.

Harris is also a political animal who has “seriously considered running for political office as a Republican” in the past. Between 2015 and 2020, he gave $839,000 to federal candidates, 77% of that to Republicans. He was an advisor to the Trump administration and was reportedly its pick to run the Office of Management & Budget until he dropped out “because it would have been too difficult to unravel his personal finances in the short amount of time required to accept the government position.” Jared Kushner was reportedly his major supporter in the White House; a few months later, Harris’ company, Apollo Global Management, gave a $184 million loan to a Kushner company; a few weeks after that, an SEC probe into Apollo was dropped. (Apollo has said emphatically these events are unrelated.)

Thomas Peterffy: Josh Harris is reportedly worth a cool $7.6 billion. Small change to Thomas Peterffy, who’s worth a cooler $23.7 billion. Peterffy is a true GOP megadonor, giving $7.7 million to Republican campaigns and conservative political action committees in 2022 alone. He also lives three doors down from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

Trump wasn’t Peterffy’s top pick for president — but he still gave $150,000 to his inauguration and $250,000 to his reelection efforts. He really hates socialism; in 2012, he spent more than $8 million on TV ads warning of collectivism on the march in America. He’s mused about a Tucker Carlson presidency (“That would be interesting, no?”).

The Stagwell Group: Stagwell’s chairman and CEO is Mark Penn. You may remember Penn as a Democratic pollster, pushing business-friendly ideas with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. (“Penn’s idée fixe is that the Democratic Party’s fate hinges upon currying favor with the rich.”) But in recent years, he’s moved right and become a Trump enthusiast. You may remember seeing Penn on Fox News defending Trump against impeachment and blaming the “deep state” conspiracy against him.

(Side note: Who was it who ushered Penn into the Trump White House? Former NYC city council president Andrew Stein, head of an organization called Democrats for Trump — and Jimmy Finkelstein’s brother. Andrew shortened his last name as a young man.)

Among the companies the Stagwell Group owns is HarrisX, the pollster. So who better for The Messenger to hire for its first poll? That survey appears to support The Messenger’s stated raison d’être:

American voters want a new media source that’s free from journalists’ personal biases, according to the inaugural Messenger/Harris poll.

— Two in three voters in the poll, conducted by HarrisX, agreed that journalists mostly practice advocacy rather than unbiased journalism, including 77 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats.

— Three in four voters agreed that the media “gives a biased picture of political events,” including 68 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans, and 76 percent of Independents.

— More than 80 percent of voters agreed that “we need a new news medium dedicated to even-handed treatment of issues without political bias.”

“Americans see many media sources today as advocates for political views and see great danger in first amendment freedoms,” said Harris Poll chairman Mark Penn. “They are hungry for new sources of information.”

So this is the group that’s backing The Messenger: wealthy, politically active men who collectively have put many millions of dollars into advancing conservative and Republican causes — but who apparently also have a hankering for “objective, non-partisan and timely coverage.”

Back to that Trump interview. Marc Caputo makes a lot of the idea that Trump is now venturing outside the conservative media bubble. Here’s Caputo:

I understand you’ve expressed concerns about Fox, and that one of the reasons you went on CNN is you didn’t want to kind of limit yourself to Fox. And obviously you’re talking to us at The Messenger for our maiden launch, you’re courting social media influencers, you were on the Full Send podcast and you’re talking to others — lots of different media from social media to non-traditional media to mainstream media to new media

Can you tell me more about your media strategy. You’re talking to everybody. Why?…

Let me circle back to that in a minute. I was curious to see if your full-spectrum media blitz is drawing a distinction with DeSantis. He’s largely confined to friendly conservative media, whereas you’re out there with everybody.

Forgive me for not noticing that Trump was now “talking to everybody” or on a “full-spectrum media blitz.”

The evidence for this new openness seems to be (a) a CNN town hall packed with his cheering fans, and (b) that he submitted to a grilling by the investigative reporters of…a bro podcast sponsored by “Happy Dad Hard Seltzer”? A show whose episode immediately preceding Trump’s was with pornstar “Abella Danger on Hooking Up with Fans and the Secrets of the Adult Industry”? (Other guests on Full Send so far in 2023: Don Jr., Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, and O. J. Simpson.)

Oh, and then there’s (c): “Obviously you’re talking to us at The Messenger.”

This is the question we’ll see play out in the coming months. Does The Messenger really see itself as part of that “mainstream media”? Or is it happy being part of the conservative bubble, using its claims of “balanced journalism” as a cudgel, just as “fair and balanced” Fox News did before it? I have my guess, but we’ll wait and see.

  1. And is technically sound. Aram Zucker-Scharff chronicled a long list of issues with The Messenger’s SEO and ad stack here. []
  2. As is common with new news sites, The Messenger started publishing stories before launch, back on May 8; they just weren’t accessible to the public until Monday. []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 16, 2023, 2:45 p.m.
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