A Messenger from the Past
Why the Messenger and the Washington Post are drowning
As much as I do otherwise, I do not like to predict the future. But sometimes prognostication doesn’t require any luck or even intelligence. You can consume the facts, formulate a thought, and know what’s going to happen.
The Messenger was always, absolutely, doomed.
An online news site launched last May by Jimmy Finkelstein, the former owner of The Hill, its goal was to generate $100 million in revenue in 2024. It generated $3 million last year and is about out of cash. There’s a strong possibility it might shut down altogether. None of this is surprising because The Messenger has no viable business model. It operates with a distinctly 2010s outlook: generate traffic booms and hope, somehow, that turns into cash. The Messenger is avowedly centrist, and this will invite a few tut-tuts from liberal media commentators who believe, to succeed, a publication must argue for or stand for something. Given the state of the digital landscape, and the number of left-leaning news organizations that are struggling mightily right now, politics isn’t likely playing much of a role in The Messenger’s failure.
The rule is old now, but bears repeating: virality means nothing if you can’t monetize it. Scoops are useless if no one is paying for them. The Messenger hoped saturation would be enough, that it could rack up eyeballs and eventually online advertisers. But Google and Facebook are king there, and will be indefinitely. If you are an advertiser, you will go to one of those two or both. Online ads, in general, are producing diminishing returns, as consumers get smarter about tuning them out. Corporations might reconsider, in the coming years, how valuable these ads really are.
No one is paying to read The Messenger. No paywall, no subscriber base. How would they make money? Investors aren’t philanthropists. If Finkelstein, the son of a major publisher and power broker and the brother of a man who, once upon a time, was talked about as the first Jewish president, wanted to go the nonprofit route, he could have. But he wants to make money. This simply isn’t the way to do that.
In other dire media news, the Washington Post is losing cash and slashing staff. Jeff Bezos is not interested in media philanthropy, either. Alarmingly, the Post has lost more than half the traffic it saw in 2020, the last year Donald Trump was president. Various theories have been proffered for the Post’s struggles. It is, as always, a rather lousy time to run a newspaper, but the Post’s chief competitor, the New York Times, is decidedly not struggling. The Times is not laying anyone off. Rather, it has expanded in the last few years, acquiring Wordle and the Athletic. In any given month, the Times is the most visited news site in America, battling for the top spot with CNN. The Washington Post isn’t even the web site that does the best traffic among newspapers with “Post” in their name. The Murdoch-owned New York Post outstrips it, and if combined with FoxNews.com, it beats even the Times.
Josh Barro has posited that the Washington Post is failing because it leaned too hard into its anti-Trump branding and couldn’t figure out how to pivot in the new era. This explanation always felt right to me. The Post gave itself a new tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and positioned itself fully as a liberal outpost for those most alarmed by Trump’s autocratic impulses. The Times, in essence, did the same thing, but also didn’t throw every single egg into the anti-Trump basket. Its leadership was savvy enough to realize it still had to be the Paper of Record for the United States and offer a compelling product for those who were not addicted to politics from 2016 through 2020. The Times wanted to be the place where you read up on business trends, play your puzzles, and consume splashy features on the national scene. Its international coverage remains the standard bearer. If the Times was rolling back its metro coverage—slashing the standalone print section, ditching granular reporting on the five boroughs and suburbs, laying off its city columnists—it was aggressively making the rest of the product something that was, no matter your inclinations, subscription-worthy. I have biases here, as someone who is a contributing writer to the Times Magazine, and I think the institution is far from infallible. But the Sulzbergers have done, unquestionably, an effective job steering the ship through the media upheaval of the twenty-first century.
Here’s a thought experiment: if you subscribe to the Times and read Politico for free, why would you pay to read the Washington Post? If the Times is one of the few winners during this economic cataclysm for conventional newspapers, Politico is another. Founded just before the sexier start-ups of the 2010s, Politico has become a leading national politics publication with a genuine foothold in Europe. Politico does what it does very well: report tirelessly on politics and policy from a Beltway perspective. They pioneered and still dominate the morning email space. They also have a very good media columnist in Jack Shafer and produce memorable features, like this one on Bernie Sanders. If you want to know what’s going on with Congress and the White House and occasionally freshen up on foreign affairs, Politico is as fine a choice as any. Their business model isn’t terribly complicated: they sell privileged information to lobbyists, corporations, and other business interests through Pro subscriptions. A lot of Politico isn’t behind Pro and this is why it’s still well-read. Building a publication predicated, in part, on ferrying informational nuggets to the privileged is far from ideal, but it’s what underwrites everything else. Politico has been smart, too, about building bureaus in lucrative markets like New York and California. When it comes to coverage of City Hall and Albany, particularly the New York Playbook, Politico is difficult to beat.
Politico has kept their politics in The Messenger zone. Their bias is to the establishment, the operators, the elite center. And they do fine that way. They covered the Trump administration aggressively and they were no less prepared to hum along when Joe Biden became president. Republicans can read Politico and take it seriously, like they still care about the Times, even if they won’t always admit it. Again, in this context, consider the Washington Post. It’s not as if the Post bests Politico when it comes to coverage of the White House, Congress, and various fights in the state legislatures. It’s not as if, if you care about the war in Ukraine or Israel’s shelling of Gaza, you’d turn to the Post before consuming whatever it is the Times has produced. The Post cannot, in this sense, differentiate from the Times or Politico in any meaningful way. The more uncharitable view is that they are like both publications, only worse.
There is one place the Washington Post could differentiate from the Times, Politico, and all the rest—and it’s in the name. The Post could recalibrate and start writing about the city of Washington again. Like the Times, it has slashed its metro coverage, leaving neighborhoods without reliable, daily news. Unlike the Times, it has no other business fallback. Writing about the city itself, once regarded as a money-loser, now may be the equivalent of exploiting a market inefficiency, playing a little Moneyball in the media game. Who else is doing it? Who is going to get in the streets and report on the public schools, the courts, the rampant gun violence? It’s good for democracy and it might just be a good business proposition too. Bezos, who can only be appealed to on these grounds and not anything related to sentiment, may eventually understand this. The Post will never beat the Times in the Middle East and it’s losing to Politico on Capitol Hill. It will never make money aping MSNBC, either. But it can return to its own city. There is work to do there, and maybe a future to win.