After a handful of top reporters and editors were fired in a purge of the Newsweek masthead on Monday, about 40 of the magazine’s staffers ignored management’s invitation to go home and busted out wine and bourbon for what one employee described as “half funeral, half party.”
“Nobody knows what’s up,” the staffer told Splinter. The gathering and gallows humor came hours after a storied publication beset by legal and financial troubles was thrown into a new round of chaos—this one of its own making.
On Monday, editor in chief Bob Roe, executive editor Kenneth Li, senior writers Celeste Katz, and reportedly senior writer Josh Saul were abruptly sacked. Senior Writer Matthew Cooper resigned in protest of the firings.
Management was mum as to why they made the initial changes, according to three current Newsweek staffers who spoke to Splinter on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, and an expected meeting between remaining editors and the company’s chief executive, Dev Pagrad, never occurred. The haziness left the newsroom to speculate not only whether their colleagues had been fired for reporting on the recent intrigue roiling their parent company, Newsweek Media Group, but also whether management had any plan to right the ship.
Newsweek Media Group didn’t respond to Splinter’s request for comment.
Last month, investigators from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office raided the company’s Lower Manhattan office as part of a reported probe into its finances. Current staffers said that Roe and Li assigned Katz, Saul, and Josh Keefe, a reporter at the Newsweek’s sister site, The International Business Times, to cover the investigation and its fallout. Keefe tweeted late Monday that while he was not fired along with the people who reported on the scandal breaking at their own company, “that was very clearly the plan.”
According to their reporting, a grand jury investigation into Newsweek Media Group “has been ongoing for at least 17 months” and a “probe was likely looking at loans the company took out to purchase the servers” removed by investigators.
Two weeks after the raid, Newsweek Media Group Co-Founder and Chairman Etienne Uzac and his wife and financial director, Marion Kim, resigned. Questions remain about executives’ unpaid debts and shady business dealings.
The drama unfolding at the Newsweek offices have been compounded by dueling BuzzFeed News reports. The first documented how the publisher had hired a new chief content officer, Dayan Candappa, just months after he was ousted from Reuters amid a sexual harassment investigation. Candappa has since been placed on leave. Days later, another story alleged the publisher had been “engaging in fraudulent online traffic practices that helped it secure a major ad buy” from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
An online media company founded in 2006, The International Business Times purchased the famous newsweekly in 2013 from IAC as part of a decoupling of the magazine from The Daily Beast. The publisher, which switched its name to Newsweek Media Group in 2017, includes the websites IBT, Latino Times, Medical Daily, and Player.One.
While the magazine still produces in-depth reporting and the occasional scoop, staffers said the parent company had gone on a hiring spree last fall, grouping mostly young writers into a breaking news team of more than 20 staffers. These reporters are tasked with churning out an unheard of level of content for massive web traffic.
One staffer on that team told Splinter they’re getting paid less than $40,000 a year. Breaking news writers are expected to draw 1 million page views a month, they said, with traffic bonuses starting thereafter. “We get chastised if we don’t [meet 1 million page views],” they said, “and get assigned garbage, clickbait articles to compensate.”
It’s a cheap play for one-time digital ad revenue, the media equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme. The idea is to maximize page views and sell ads against them—a ploy aided by Newsweek’s well-established brand name.
In his resignation letter on Monday, Cooper, a magazine veteran, nodded to this strategy while condemning the publication’s “reckless leadership.”
“Leaving aside the police raid and harassment scandal—a dependent clause I never thought I would write—it’s the installation of editors, not Li and Roe, who recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall,” he wrote.
In an email to staff obtained by Splinter, Newsweek Media Group announced Monday afternoon that it had named Nancy Cooper, managing editor of The International Business Times, as acting editor of Newsweek. Jonathan Davis, co-founder of the parent company, would also return as chief content officer “pending the outcome of an independent investigation into sexual harassment allegations involving the current CCO Dayan Candappa.”
“The company will not be commenting any further on these personnel changes at this time,” the company said.
Responding to the announcement, a current staffer told Splinter: “It’s a disgrace and it hurts our credibility as reporters. Just a fucking joke.”
The in-house coverage of Newsweek’s turmoil was seen by some on staff as an answer to the publication’s gradual decline in quality. Now management will be tasked with rebuilding the trust of a newsroom deprived of some of its top editors and reporters.
“They did not ask to report on the company,” one reporter told Splinter on Monday. “The were assigned it...to literally restore our credibility.”
Update (Feb.6, 10:05 a.m.): David Sirota, who reports on money in politics primarily for IBT, tweeted Tuesday morning that he is also resigning.