Post-Mortem Praise for The Messenger

February 7, 2024
One hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt said that it was not the critic who counts, but rather those who strive, err, and “fail while daring greatly.”

Roosevelt’s words came to me earlier this week, when The Messenger’s long-predicted demise became reality. A website once teeming with daily articles and op-eds is now a blank page with an e-mail address. And many of the company’s critics, who correctly predicted that its business and revenue models would fail, are now pouncing.

It’s easy to criticize failure, especially high-profile failure. And in the era of media outlets losing money, downsizing, and closing, a cottage industry has been built on such navel-gazing commentary – from the comfort of couches, with lattes in hand.

The Messenger’s business model clearly was flawed. Critics were right that revenue projections were unreachable and that the revenue model wouldn’t work. Having a large, expensive, and allegedly little-used office in New York City wasn’t a good use of company money. And staff finding out they were laid off via a New York Times article may indicate a poor company culture.

But none of these flaws was exclusive to The Messenger. And much like Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong did in 2018, when he hired hundreds of staffers, The Messenger’s leadership strove, erred, and failed in ways that indicate they genuinely used their time, money, and knowledge to save a dying industry. And, like the Times (which laid off hundreds of staff last month), they eventually had to acknowledge that it simply wasn’t working.

I don’t have any inside knowledge of what happened to The Messenger; I only interacted with two of its opinion staff. But its leadership’s efforts to do big things in a shrinking media era deserve praise, not Monday-morning quarterbacking.

First, they actually tried to do something big. The founder is a former owner of The Hill, and when he made $130 million upon that publication’s sale, it appears that he didn’t retire to an island. Instead, he tried to make a workable model that could break the media norm of layoffs and shutdowns.

One way they broke the norm was by not scrimping on talent. In an era when staff-level work goes to interns (at intern-level pay) and experienced journalists are forced to take smaller and smaller paychecks, The Messenger reportedly paid above-average salaries to very experienced staff, enticing them to work hard and smart for the outlet and its audience.

Lastly, they were genuinely nonpartisan. In the era of media that is increasingly speaking to exclusive audiences – political and otherwise – The Messenger published my clients’ political op-eds, my personal apolitical pieces, and hundreds or thousands of other thoughtful pieces across the political and apolitical spectra.

Look, The Messenger failed. According to some reports, it failed pretty badly. But that shouldn’t be a green light for all the onlookers to pile onto its leadership. They look like the early 20th-century people Roosevelt criticized a century ago, keyboard warriors who jump on MMA fighters who brave the ring, and the navel-gazing media commentariat criticizing Soon-Shiong.

On the contrary, let’s remember the sort of guts it takes to do – or even to try to do – big things in a fearful, shrinking industry like modern media. Not every big endeavor is going to succeed. That was Roosevelt’s point. The Messenger was a “doer of deeds” even as the critical commentariat is cashing out. That calls for respect … or at least a viable alternative from the people so eager to kick a man while he’s down instead of work towards the changes they all say they want to see.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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