Feb 13, 2024 - Business

Exclusive: Messenger CEO Finkelstein says he's weighing severance options, may restore site

Photo illustration of Jimmy Finkelstein next to a pattern made from the logo of The Messenger.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic

The Messenger founder and CEO Jimmy Finkelstein is considering ways to help fired employees, he told Axios, and may also reopen the company's shuttered website.

The intrigue: Finkelstein could have closed The Messenger weeks earlier and used his remaining cash to pay out his 265 employees, many of whom had severance payments guaranteed in their contracts.

  • Instead, his failed bid to save the site put those promises at risk — a choice that not only cost him his legacy but also abruptly left hundreds of people without work or health insurance two weeks ago.

Details: Pushed on how he is trying to make good on obligations to his former employees — some of whom have begun to apply for Medicaid and other assistance programs — Finkelstein suggested, "There are some things I might consider doing," but he offered no further details.

  • "We are gathering all of our assets and we'll see what happens."
  • Former employees Axios has spoken to believe employees who didn't get severance could take further legal action.

Between the lines: Finkelstein declined to discuss how any remaining money would be prioritized over severance payments to various creditors and vendors.

  • Asked why he didn't pay out employees' severance with his own cash, Finkelstein — a multimillionaire who made his fortune buying and selling media assets — said, "I put a lot of money into this site at the end to keep it going."
  • Finkelstein said he put in "millions toward the end" to save the company, along with some of the company's initial investors.

Former Messenger employees have been airing their grievances publicly and in a private Slack channel. Many told Axios that their frustration stems not just from losing their jobs but from Finkelstein's lack of communication about the next steps.

  • Some employees Axios has spoken to said their emails and outreach to Finkelstein about issues like severance pay and health care have gone unanswered.
  • Finkelstein said he gave staffers passwords last week to get their content from the site, but that he's "actually considering opening it up again" to make the publication's old work accessible. He offered no details about when that would happen.

The Messenger has already been sued in a class-action lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York by former employees a day after the company shuttered, claiming Finkelstein and the firm violated the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires large employers to give advance notice of major layoffs.

  • The WARN Act does provide some exceptions for businesses actively seeking to raise capital.
  • Finkelstein would not comment on the suit but said, "We are not concerned about that."
  • Former staffers have launched a GoFundMe page to raise $50,000 for colleagues who lost their jobs abruptly. Finkelstein called it "wonderful."

The big picture: The Messenger's stated mission from the beginning was to be centrist and reach a wide audience. Reports suggest Finkelstein played a very hands-on role in trying to dictate the site's direction.

  • "I was very involved in the content from 5 in the morning till about 9am," Finkelstein told Axios. "I made sure that, basically, we were covering everything we should be covering and that, essentially, everything was reasonably fair."
  • Asked about a Semafor report that suggested Finkelstein directed site editors to remove stories about former President Trump's civil fraud trial from the site's homepage, Finkelstein called it "100% false" and said, "We ran more stories on the trial of Donald Trump and did better journalism on that than any other site in the world."
  • Finkelstein splits his time between residences in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Hamptons. While he has spoken at length about his desire for The Messenger to stick to the political center, his personal politics are known to lean more conservative.

Zoom out: Asked about his legacy, Finkelstein said he wants to be remembered for his successful media ventures.

  • Finkelstein sold The Hill, a D.C.-based political newspaper, to Nexstar in 2021 for $130 million.
  • Previously, he co-founded a media holding group that purchased outlets like Adweek, Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter from Nielsen in 2009 and bought out of that investment in 2013.

What's next: Asked if he would ever start another media company, Finkelstein said, "It's hard to say you're going start another media company when this was a great media company to be."

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