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Updated Dec 17, 2023, 7:05pm EST
media

A fight over Trump and “balance” at The Messenger

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The Scoop

During former President Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York last month, an editorial order came down from the top at the digital news site The Messenger: Take the stories about the indictment off the homepage.

“I can’t think of another way to get this across but in a group slack. Jimmy does not want any Trump trial coverage on the HP, period. I’m repeatedly getting calls on it. Please make sure we don’t slip one in,” Deputy Editor Michelle Gotthelf wrote in a Slack message with a handful of editors in November, referring to the site’s founder and publisher Jimmy Finkelstein.

Another editor at the digital news organization asked if the directive meant removing articles about Trump from the website’s “most popular” section, which Gotthelf said they should remove.

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“Yes, not in most popular. Keep it all in the politics section,” she wrote.

The editorial directive sparked immediate backlash among some editors in the newsroom, who noted that the publication had prominently featured major stories about Hunter Biden’s legal issues. It also prompted speculation from the group about the reason for Finkelstein’s repeated calls to remove the stories.

“i understand the message, and will adhere, but i want to be perfectly clear that this is unethical and the antithesis of a supposed ‘unbiased’ news site,” Deputy Homepage Editor Dave Smith said. “did jimmy say why he doesn’t want trump trial coverage on the hp? Is it the reason i think we’re all assuming — that he doesn’t want bad press for trump?” editor Lisa Letostak wrote.

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Gotthelf didn’t answer the question, but encouraged Letostak to contact Finkelstein if she had issues with the directive. In an email to a group of editors shared with Semafor, Finkelstein said that editors had misunderstood his instructions around placement for Trump stories, saying that there needed to be more balance on the homepage. He also added that he didn’t want breathless Trump trial coverage every day.

“You absolutely don’t know what you are talking about. All I said is you can’t lead every day with 21 day, 22 day etc. You can put it up top but can’t always lead. It looks completely one sided. Despite the fact that I said that it continued so I merely said firmly you need balance, that’s what we are about,” he wrote.

A spokesperson for The Messenger reiterated that the internal drama was merely confusion: “The Slack messages in question are clearly being misinterpreted. The editor clearly clarified later that the headline didn’t reflect the story and needed to be changed, and the story remained on the site. The Messenger has covered the Trump trial sagas more than any other U.S. publication.”

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Max’s view

The Messenger launched with a plan to find an elusive center of media and politics, to blend the ambition of the Washington Post and the traffic of the Daily Mail, and to win skeptical conservatives and skeptical liberals alike.

That combination may be impossible. But the Messenger has lived up to some of its initial promises. It’s broken some interesting stories about New York City Mayor Eric Adams and the 2024 presidential campaign, and quickly gaining a large online audience by pumping out pieces: The Daily Beast reported that Finkelstein told staff that the publication had 63.8 million page views in October, a 34 percent leap over the previous month, and that it exceeded 77 million page views in November. That’s no easy feat in an environment where social media traffic has collapsed and AI content has made search traffic harder to come by.

It’s unclear, however, how the publication plans to convert that traffic into revenue, a goal that eluded a generation of publishers.

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Notable

  • Last week, the Daily Beast’s Confider reported that the Messenger fired Letostak after she wrote in the company’s Slack channel that she felt she was being “asked to lie” when she was asked to place an e-commerce post into a prominent slot of the site’s “Popular” section typically denoting articles that have been widely read or shared. A spokesperson told the Beast that performance issues were the reason for the decision to part ways with the editor.
  • The Messenger is trying to recapture some of the magic of the old internet. Much of the publication’s audience strategy has been driven by Chief Growth Officer, Neetzan Zimmerman, who has largely tried to avoid having a point of view in favor of chasing traffic. “If you understand that platforms come and go, and that your primary responsibility is to provide your reader with interesting, engaging, and accessible information regardless of where they happen to be, then you will always be one step ahead of those forces that are beyond your control,” he told Semafor earlier this year in an email.
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