In the final days of doomed news website The Messenger, insiders painted a chaotic scene of checked-out-bosses and furious staffers — some of whom had already “tapped out” because they had no faith in CEO Jimmy Finkelstein.
The accounts from several of the roughly 300 journalists who were fired when the startup went belly-up Wednesday tell of the growing disconnect between highly-paid editor-in-chief Dan Wakeford and the beleaguered staff, according to insiders who spoke to The Post on Thursday.
With news swirling that Finkelstein was scrambling to shore up funds in order to save the company — launched just last May with $50 million in funding — employees either “tapped out” by calling out sick because they believed their fate was already sealed or “worked harder” in the misguided hope that last-minute scoops could show potential investors that The Messenger was worth saving.
“Top editors were assigning stories two days before the site shutdown,” said one staffer. “It wasn’t clear that leaders had any clue what was going to happen.”
Even Wakeford was said to be out of the loop about the impending implosion, writing on the company’s internal Slack messaging system that he wasn’t aware that the site was shutting down after the news first broke.
Other top editors also were kept in the dark, with one female supervisor chewing out staffers that had inquired about the company’s dismal-looking future.
With tensions high, the editor was angry that they had the “gall” to ask her if she knew whether the site would close down.
“If you’re in a high position, you make it your position to know what’s going on,” said one angry reporter who felt the editor’s wrath.
Late Thursday, the laid-off staffers fired back, filing a class-action suit in New York that alleges the company violated the state’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act by failing to give them 60-days notice ahead of the mass culling.
Finkelstein did not return calls for comment.
Tempers remained high, with the fired journalists pointing to a lack of leadership and communication as The Messenger’s tragic flaw.
Many of them pointed the finger at Wakeford, who was paid around $900,000, for being allegedly “MIA” from the company’s expansive, and expensive headquarters in the Financial District, especially when it came to big editorial decisions.
“People did not know he was British,” said one surprised staffer, who said the first time they heard Wakeford speak was during an emergency meeting held two-and-a-half weeks ago — as reports surfaced about The Messenger’s imminent demise.
By then, Wakeford had a fraught relationship with Finkelstein, who “restricted” him from holding meetings and sending out staff emails to boost company culture and morale, a source close to the situation said.
“There was no management. There was no leadership,” said a seasoned editor who had stints at major networks and news organizations prior to being lured to The Messenger. “I’ve never seen dysfunction quite like this.”
Wakeford — who was hired to run the site after previously helming celebrity glossies like “People” and “InTouch” — was out of his depth when it came to coverage of breaking news, especially the war in the Middle East, sources claimed.
“The only time he would light up is when he talked about Taylor Swift. What was he doing leading a news operation?” the insider said.
Another staffer added that the editor was “silent” on how to cover big news stories like the Israel-Hamas war, only periodically chiming in with: “Did we get this celebrity break up?”
Wakeford pushed back on claims he rarely showed up at the office at 195 Broadway and denied he was raking in nearly $1 million.
“I was in the New York office more than any executive in the company,” Wakeford told The Post on Thursday. “I worked to the bone to try and make the brand a success.”
In the last few days, Finkelstein had been trying to lock down a funding deal, telling The Post on Tuesday that staff would learn of their fate in the next 48 hours.
He even held talks with Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong — who last week fired a quarter of his staff — about buying The Messenger but the offer had fallen through, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Earlier this month, a group of conservative media and business executives led by Omeed Malik, a financier who backed Tucker Carlson’s new media venture, met with Finkelstein in Mar-a-Lago and had reportedly proposed $30 million for a 51% stake in the news site, putting its valuation at $60 million.
Finkelstein tried to reassure employees that he would find the money to keep the site afloat during a meeting — before berating them that leaks about The Messenger’s financial “were making it harder to do his job,” a staffer said.
The source said Finkelstein “rambled” about his meetings in Mar-a-Lago with high-powered investors and expanding the Messenger team.
“It was wild,” the source said. “It made things worse. That’s when we realized we were all f–ked.”
That realization only grew worse after the sudden shutdown as they learned they would get no severance and would immediately lose their health benefits.
The only thing they received was a FedEx account number to return their company-issued MacBooks to the New York office.
“I’ve got news for you, nobody is sending their laptops back, I can promise you that,” a staffer said.
Wakeford, like others at the outlet, were lured by the lofty promises of Finkelstein and his lieutenant Richard Beckman, who crowed to The New York Times before launch that The Messenger would bring in 100 million readers and $100 million in revenue in 2024.
The duo told The Times they envisioned a 500-person newsroom that would produce hard-hitting stories found on “60 Minutes” and punchy profiles and buzzy investigations found in Vanity Fair.
The reality hit the men hard when they could only drum up a fraction of that traffic — bringing in just 12.5 million unique viewers in November and $3 million in revenue with its 300-person staff.
“Many days our top stories were about gang rape or aliens,” said a staffer. “There were no editorial standards. The motto was — whether they said it aloud or not was — traffic at any cost.”
Inside the company, top brass pointed to Beckman — who sources said was making $1.5 million — as being instrumental in the company’s demise because he relied on a dated media playbook.
Beckman did not return requests seeking comment.
Beckman, an exec known for aggressively drumming up advertising revenue at magazine giant Conde Nast, sounded the alarm bells to employees that the site was running out of money in November.
CNBC reported that the company spent roughly $39 million on hiring and that it ended 2023 with a net loss of $43 million and laid off two-dozen employees to stem costs in early January.
Still as the end neared, Finkelstein shot down reports that he was considering shutting down over cash shortfalls.
Beckman, meanwhile, stepped down in October, with sources telling The Post he did “not see eye to eye” with Finkelstein on the direction of the business.
Sources close to the situation said the two men, who had been partners in various media ventures, including at now-defunct Prometheus Global Media and Finkelstein’s publication The Hill, which he sold in 2021, are no longer speaking.