The Messenger closes down after blowing millions on ill-fated news site

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The Messenger is shutting down immediately, the news site’s founder told employees in an email Wednesday, marking the abrupt demise of one of the stranger and more expensive recent experiments in digital media.

In his email, Jimmy Finkelstein said he was “personally devastated” to announce that he had failed in a last-ditch effort to raise more money for the site, saying that he had been fundraising as recently as the night before. Finkelstein said the site, which launched last year with outsize ambitions and a mammoth $50 million budget, would close “effective immediately.”

The New York Times first reported the site’s closure late Wednesday afternoon, appearing to catch many staffers off-guard, including editor in chief Dan Wakeford.

As employees read the news story, the internal work chat service Slack erupted in what one employee called “pandemonium.” Wakeford posted to Slack that he was “not in the loop,” adding that he was trying to find out more information.

Minutes later, as staffers read Finkelstein’s email, its message was underscored as they were forcibly logged out of their Slack accounts. Former Messenger reporter Jim LaPorta posted on social media that employees would not receive health care or severance.

The Messenger did not respond to a request for comment.

Inside the Messenger’s money-torching bet to make media great again

Up until the last moment on Wednesday, staffers were expected to work business as usual, even as the Messenger’s financial issues were widely reported in the media.

“It does feel like we’re the orchestra of the Titanic, as editors assign us stories and are asking for quick turnarounds,” said one staffer Wednesday afternoon before the news broke, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships.

Wakeford apologized for the site’s end in an email to staffers, saying the weeks leading up to the site’s closure had been “torturous.”

Finkelstein blamed the Messenger’s collapse on “economic headwinds” across the entire industry. But the Messenger had been saddled with problems all its own since launching in May — including the founder’s confidence in a traffic-based business model that rivals had dismissed as outdated.

At a time when other media companies were cutting their budgets, the Messenger took out expensive office leases in New York City, Washington and West Palm Beach, Fla. Finkelstein vowed to hire 550 journalists within a year, a figure that would have turned it into one of the largest newsrooms in the country.

Finkelstein and his investors used the Messenger to bet big on the idea of what he called a “balanced” news outlet, claiming that a nonpartisan digital news site based on getting huge amounts of web traffic could succeed where other digital upstarts such as BuzzFeed News had failed. With ad rates crashing, though, that was a hard sell; media observers quipped to the New York Post that the site would be a “money pit.”

The Messenger was bedeviled by both editorial and financial challenges almost as soon as it launched. Some journalists at the site claimed that they had been misled about how much “clickbait” Finkelstein envisioned on the site, prompting resignations. In October, top Messenger executive Richard Beckman — a media veteran nicknamed “Mad Dog” — reportedly told staffers that the site was nearly insolvent, only to resign himself in January as more financial issues mounted.

By Wednesday evening, the Messenger’s site appeared to have been shut down entirely, with links to the homepage and individual articles all leading to a page that merely read, “The Messenger,” with a simple email address.

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