Killing The Messenger: My Final Days Working at a Disaster

Photo-Illustration: Intelligener; Photos Getty Images

A text time-stamped 1:19 a.m. early Wednesday read, “I think it’s over, man.” It was a Los Angeles–based colleague at The Messenger. He’d received an unanticipated direct deposit and the sum totaled his unused vacation days. I guess in addition to good weather they have some solid labor laws in California. In New York City, I was laid off without additional pay. Plus it was raining.

When I tell you I was the film critic and a senior entertainment writer for The Messenger, you’ll have to take me at my word. The website is a blank white page now — the most terrifying image for any writer — with just the company’s name and an email address. I doubt any correspondence sent there will be returned.

I knew taking the position was a roll of the dice. It was a start-up and the CEO, Jimmy Finkelstein, had already been mocked for making grand statements at the website’s launch, comparing it to Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes. Still, I was told there would be freedom to get creative with how I wanted to cover movies. Though I have bylines everywhere, it’s been a while since I had a staff position. Sure, this Finkelstein character seemed a little questionable (my God, his wife came up with Melania’s Be Best campaign), but they were offering a dental plan. I took the job in late June, already a crisis or two deep into the company’s short life.

I’m proud of much of the work I did there, like a career-spanning chat with Godfrey Reggio, a very funny back-and-forth with Cord Jefferson, and a review of Barbie that included extra commentary from Amy Taubin, which went a bit viral. But it was clear, pretty much on day one, that in addition to writing with an authoritative and articulate voice with over 15 years’ experience, I would be expected to help shovel the furnaces with SEO coal. I was happy to pitch in. But I soon recognized that time-consuming reporting or rich critical essays were less valued by upper management than quick hits. I’ll never forget the day I was told, breathlessly, by the then-head of the entertainment channel that Toni Collette was trending. (Trending, I say, trending! Do you hear me? Toni Collette is trending!!! I believe it was her birthday.)

Swiftly, I put aside whatever it was I was doing to meet this task head-on. I dashed off something to the tune of “8 Toni Collette Performances You Need to See” and was sure to shout-out About a Boy and the Nightmare Alley remake that was somehow nominated for a Best Picture Oscar even though no one watched it. (It’s pretty enjoyable!) If I may be so bold, I wrote a damn good article about Toni Collette. But even working at supersonic speeds, by the time I finished, Toni Collette wasn’t trending anymore. Heck of a way to run a business.

Anyway, with that 1 a.m. text in my head Wednesday morning, I still had to go to work. Someone needed to review the movie Argylle. Going to work meant moving from my bedroom to a chair in the living room, because that’s how media is these days. Despite this obvious fact, The Messenger’s executives — masters at long-term thinking — rented the entire 26th floor of a skyscraper downtown. It is an enormous space and, the few times I visited, was nine-tenths empty. Just rows and rows of spotless, expensive-looking desks that could rise to a standing work station with the push of a button.

I finished my review of Argylle at around 11 a.m. (Since you can’t read it now, I’ll just say Bryce Dallas Howard is a peach, but the picture is lousy.) On Slack, the West Coast employees (including my marvelous editor, a creative and sharp individual) were waking up to their newfound riches, realizing this was not a late Christmas bonus. Chaos ensued.

Now, we all knew the company was in trouble. There’d been plenty of stories and we even had channel-specific Zooms with Finkelstein. (Though never a town-hall-style address. Not once, ever.) Our editor-in-chief, Dan Wakeford, even emerged from the shadows to appear at these Zooms. Not that he talked much. I can’t offer a real opinion of this man I’ve never formally met.

Oddly, I did meet Finkelstein once. We had the saddest Christmas party — some hummus tubs from Fresh Direct in the break room. He shambled over like Boris Karloff to shake my hand. I mentioned something about the hummus and someone else mentioned that hummus was topical that day because of the Israel-Hamas war (actually couscous was in the news), and then Finkelstein barked that he would never let his kids go to an Ivy League school today, an apparent reference to the antisemitism controversies. This represents the entirety of my interaction with Jimmy Finkelstein, a very wealthy man who decided not to give his employees severance.

Later, I took a seat on a couch and introduced myself to a man nearby. Turns out it was the company’s then-president Richard Beckman. I’d never seen him in a Zoom so I didn’t know what he looked like. He seemed like a cheery guy, actually. I told him to go see The Holdovers. A few days later he quit the company.

By midday Wednesday, everyone realized no news was coming from management, so we all shared photos of our pets on Slack. A colleague wrote that he was spending on a trip to Las Vegas to cover the Super Bowl. Would he be reimbursed? Another worried about an upcoming surgery she had planned. Would she still have medical coverage?

Then, finally, after 4 p.m. the New York Times’s story about The Messenger shutting down hit. Wakeford made a rare slack appearance to say “I am not in the loop.” Soon thereafter, we were shut out of Slack. An email arrived afterward from “CEO Communications” in which Finkelstein apologized to us for failing to raise more capital. Later, all our work was deleted. Thousands of stories and hundreds of my own. Some of them were great.

Many of my old editors wrote to me to check in, and I’ve already got some pitches in my Schedule send. Someone has to review Bob Marley: One Love. It’s kinda the only thing I know how to do.

Killing The Messenger: My Final Days Working at a Disaster