Inside the Very Tough Business of Trying to Disrupt Media
By Oleksiy Boyko / EyeEm/ Getty Images.

Inside the Very Tough Business of Trying to Disrupt Media

Grid News, a one-year-old start-up, shuttered this week after getting acquired by The Messenger, which launches next month. Grid promised a different kind of news. The Messenger has even loftier ambitions. Will this media marriage work?

On Monday, Grid News, a one-year-old online news start-up, went dark; its articles and teal branding disappeared, and its web address redirected to a navy blue page with bright yellow text that read: “Grid has been acquired by The Messenger.”

It all happened suddenly. Last Wednesday, Grid staff got on a Zoom meeting for what some expected to be an announcement of new hires. Perhaps executives from IMI, the Abu Dhabi–based majority investor, had found a new chairman to replace Grid CEO and cofounder Mark Bauman, who departed back in November. Instead, they would learn, IMI had found a new owner: the yet-to-be launched news site by media entrepreneur Jimmy Finkelstein.

Finkelstein joined the meeting, as did his politics editor Marty Kady, but they didn’t take questions. IMI would make a minority investment in The Messenger, which is set to launch in May, as part of the deal. The acquisition came as a surprise to Grid staffers, who said they had been told their start-up, which had roughly 50 employees, had a two- to three-year runway. One staffer I spoke to hadn’t yet heard of The Messenger, the latest media start-up pitching itself as a nonpartisan alternative to what’s currently out there in a glowing announcement in The New York Times. The Gray Lady gave Grid a similar treatment when it launched last January, when the cofounders said they wanted to give readers a “fuller” picture of the news than mainstream media offered. 

By the time staffers signed off the Zoom, the acquisition had already been announced to the public; Semafor’s Max Tani tweeted the press release of the deal minutes into the 10 a.m. staff call. Thus commenced roughly 72 hours of chaos: Some in the Grid newsroom left the meeting unclear whether they’d have jobs at The Messenger, or when to stop publishing, or why the acquisition was happening. Grid cofounder and executive editor Laura McGann was on the Wednesday call, but she didn’t say anything, according to two staffers. She made no public statements after the announcement, either—no one from Grid’s management did—raising some eyebrows in the industry. “My priority is figuring this out for the staff,” McGann told me. “I am not up to speed on every detail of this merger, and certainly wasn’t when it was announced, and I’m not going to put myself out there as an authoritative voice when I don’t have all the answers. Certainly the business side was taking the lead.”

Finkelstein and Kady came to Grid’s DC offices the following day to take questions; Grid staff said new leadership emphasized that their idea of a successful news model was one that’s scoopy and fast—neither of which, staffers noted, were consistent with Grid’s focus and intended mission. Some writers spent Friday downloading their articles, not knowing when they’d become inaccessible. By this week, some Grid staffers were still unclear on what they should be doing, with little to no communication from leadership at The Messenger. 

Come Monday, the weekend’s episode of Succession—in which the Roy kids plan to launch a “high-visibility, execution-dependent disrupter news brand” and “bespoke information hub” called The Hundred, only to promptly abandon their start-up at the opportunity to buy a legacy media brand—felt all too poignant. (You’ve probably heard Kendall’s description by now: “Substack meets MasterClass meets The Economist meets The New Yorker.”) Grid’s end feels like a critical point in today’s venture capital–funded media landscape. There’s no shortage of media start-ups claiming to shake up the industry, getting tens of millions in funding, and building full-fledged teams. Now, the snake is starting to eat itself; left unclear is what happens to the journalism, and the writers who produce it. 

Grid launched with about $10 million in first-round funding from IMI and the tech executive Brian Edelman, at a time when a flood of other start-ups—like Semafor, the buzzy site from Ben and Justin SmithPunchbowl, the Congress-focused outlet launched by a group of ex-Politicos; and Puck, the media start-up boasting lots of big-name writers—with similar ambitions to disrupt the digital news landscape, had emerged. But it struggled in its first year with slow revenue and audience growth. “I don’t think that Grid ever reached a point where somebody would say, ‘This is what Grid does.’ And successfully starting any new media operation is a near impossible needle to thread if you don’t have a very clear mission that distinguishes you from current offerings,” said legal journalist Chris Geidner, who worked at Grid for about six months before leaving to launch his own Substack. The sentiment was echoed by several former staffers, who painted the picture of a newsroom operating without clear “marching orders” and that “didn’t have a super strong mandate.” “Exactly who our funders were and what they wanted was always kind of hazy,” said one. The early months appeared to be for experimentation, only to land writers in “a big meeting where we all got chastised” for not meeting expectations, another former staffer recalled. It was in that meeting, per audio reviewed by Vanity Fair, that writers were told they would be held to publishing goals, be given access to how much traffic their pieces drew, and that they weren’t hitting targets. “It is not enough to come in and spend the day on Slack, and on Twitter, and sort of thinking, maybe reading,” McGann said in the recording. “Your job is not to be on the internet every day. Your job is to contribute to Grid and do the work. Was your day fundamentally about building Grid’s business?”

Grid wanted to distinguish itself “through the journalistic equivalent of multidisciplinary work,” Geidner said, pointing to its 360 format, where the newsroom would team up to analyze a single topic from different angles, which the Times hailed as Grid’s “magic bullet.” There were many talented journalists at Grid doing good work, but the 360 format and broader multidisciplinary aims ended up being, among other things, a logistical challenge, Geidner said. Grid ended up publishing only a few 360s a month. More often it was publishing single-bylined stories, much like other news outlets. The idea behind Grid, ultimately also ran into a bigger issue. “I think they had this model of: Let’s look differently, let’s be thoughtful, dive into the news and give people what they aren’t getting,” said a current Grid staffer. “They held true to that mission. The question they were trying to solve is just, when you’re doing non-clickbait, how do you make sure you can monetize that?”

McGann said Grid’s daily newsletter had amassed more than 200,000 subscribers by the time it was acquired, and they were thinking about expanding it further. (McGann, who started Grid after six years at Vox, declined to offer specifics on what’s next for her other than being in talks with The Messenger.) “I don’t think we are being sucked into the ether,” she said when I asked her what Grid’s story says about the broader media start-up landscape. “I think that we built something really good, and someone with a lot of money who’s building something even more ambitious sees value in what we built, and wants to expand and grow in other directions. And that’s the point of all this.” 

The Messenger has set lofty goals: It wants to be free but generate more than $100 million in revenue next year, mostly through advertising and events; is anticipating more than 100 million monthly readers; and expects to hire about 550 journalists in a year, according to the Times—ambitions that struck some as absurd. Acquiring Grid seems to be, more than anything else, a way for The Messenger to scale quickly. Executives told the Times that the site will launch this spring with at least 175 journalists across New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. A company spokesperson said that the “vast majority of Grid’s editorial team will join The Messenger.” Finkelstein is pitching what he claims is a bygone era of unobjectionable news: “I remember an era where you’d sit by the TV, when I was a kid with my family, and we’d all watch 60 Minutes together,” Finkelstein, who sold The Hill to Nexstar for $130 million in 2021, told the Times. “Or we all couldn’t wait to get the next issue of Vanity Fair or whatever other magazine you were interested in. Those days are over, and the fact is, I want to help bring those days back.”

What that means functionally is more opaque. “I think we have learned that if people with enough of a pedigree make a pitch to rich people about ‘unbiased media’ that will present the ‘straight news,’ those people can still convince themselves that they will be the ones to do it properly,” Geidner said of the broader start-up media environment. 

There are lessons to be learned from Grid in that regard. “There seems to be a feeling that there’s a huge market out there for people who don’t want Fox and don’t want MSNBC and just want a straight newsfeed. More power to them, if it’s true. The question is, how do you find the market and how do you monetize it?” said Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin. After all, CNN has been trying to do this, and “is finding it pretty hard.”