In fall 2017, a high-ranking editor at Newsweek was fired four days after filing a grievance to the magazine’s human resources department, complaining of gender discrimination and bullying, and proposing an agreement to leave the company. Her termination letter, which Slate viewed, did not mention the HR complaints. Instead, it laid out a laundry list of performance and conduct concerns.
Sources familiar with her dismissal differ on its legitimacy, but some of the language from her termination letter is striking in light of what has transpired at the magazine since. Her alleged sins included undermining the company’s attempt to enforce aggressive page-view quotas for reporters, insufficient commitment to search engine optimization, and rejecting story proposals for being “not Newsweek.” (At most publications, shooting down story ideas that don’t fit the editorial ethos is an essential part of editors’ jobs.) The letter also faulted her for making an “inflammatory allegation” in a conference call with other top editors. Her inflammatory allegation, according to the termination letter: that “the company had real problem(s) of morale and credibility.”
Just a few months later, that assessment reads as a dramatic understatement. Newsweek is coming apart at the seams. On Feb. 5, the magazine fired three of its top journalists, including the editor in chief, who had been investigating the financial dealings of its parent company, Newsweek Media Group, in the wake of a surprise raid of its offices by investigators for the Manhattan district attorney. Those firings touched off a cascade of public resignations and recriminations at the once-proud publication, leaving its management jumbled and its newsroom gutted. Amid the turmoil, the magazine on Feb. 9 announced after an outside investigation that it was reinstating a top editor it had suspended just weeks earlier over sexual harassment allegations at his previous employer. That prompted a fresh exodus of female staffers.
This week, a cadre of Newsweek’s remaining top editors threatened to resign unless their bosses allowed them to publish one of the investigative stories the fired staffers had been working on. The company’s executives backed down, and the story—headlined “Why Is the Manhattan DA Looking at Newsweek’s Ties to a Christian University?”—ran on Tuesday. It began with an explosive editor’s note accusing Newsweek Media Group’s management of “egregious” breaches of journalistic ethics in the story’s review process.
That embarrassment was a price the company was evidently willing to pay to keep the magazine alive, for the time being. A Newsweek Media Group spokesman said in an email that the investigative Newsweek story and editor’s note “speak for themselves.” Other than providing comment about one specific editor, the company repeatedly declined to comment on claims raised in this article and declined all of Slate’s requests to interview executives and top editors for this article.
But Slate spoke with more than a dozen current and former Newsweek staffers across its New York and London offices, representing all levels of the newsroom’s organizational chart. Most spoke on condition of anonymity, whether due to nondisclosure agreements or credible fear of professional repercussions for speaking out. Taken together, their accounts make clear that the magazine’s core had rotted months before the Manhattan DA raid or the well-publicized firings. And they help to explain how a yearslong attempt to revive a marquee American newsmagazine turned from inspiring to, in the words of one Newsweek journalist, “holy-shit bad” in the span of 12 months.
Though Newsweek has had more than its share of instability over the past decade, the rapidity and sensationalism of the magazine’s latest implosion is, in ways, exceptional. (Disclosure: I interned at Newsweek in the summer of 2010.) Few other major U.S. publications have seen their internal strife strewn across national headlines; still fewer have to worry about their owners funneling money to a religious institution, as Newsweek’s parent company is alleged to have done.
But much of the story, as insiders tell it, will ring disconcertingly familiar to anyone involved in the modern news industry. It’s a tale of a precarious business model, a roller coaster of explosive growth and cruel contraction, mercurial corporate ownership, and journalists forced to produce work so shoddy and craven that they were embarrassed to attach their name to it, all in the name of “saving the company”—and their jobs. At a time when Google and Facebook have become the prime conduits to online news, Newsweek’s downfall highlights the existential vulnerability of even the best-known media brands to the whims of tech companies’ algorithms. It also suggests something more chilling: how quickly a reputable news organization can disintegrate in the hands of the wrong owners.
All media outlets are on a constant hunt for traffic, but not all newsrooms are managed the same way. With near unanimity, the staffers I spoke to described a newsroom ruled by fear, internecine rivalry, and a slavish obsession with clicks at all costs. They told of reporters covering beats such as science, culture, and foreign affairs being judged not on their work’s merit but on their ability to meet targets of 500,000 or 1 million page views per month. They told of top editors angling for one another’s jobs by trying to persuade higher-ups that they could bring in more traffic. Allegations of sexism, favoritism, and bullying were rampant.
At least five former staffers, including the editor who received the laundry list of alleged offenses, said they were fired shortly after either lodging HR complaints, raising questions about editorial strategy, or reporting suspicious irregularities in the company’s traffic data. No one could prove definitively that they had been fired in retribution, but each said they found the timing disturbing. These firings, many agreed—including several of their former colleagues who were not fired—sent a message within the company that dissent would not be tolerated. It was a message hammered home more publicly earlier this month with the dismissals of editor-in-chief Bob Roe, executive editor Kenneth Li, and reporter Celeste Katz.
That nightmarish picture contrasts starkly with the lofty hopes Newsweek staff had harbored for the magazine’s latest incarnation as recently as a year ago. That incarnation began in 2013 when the current owner—then known as IBT Media—bought Newsweek, revived the print edition that had been mothballed the year before, and installed New York Times veteran Jim Impoco as the top editor with the goal of making Newsweek “an indispensable read.”
IBT Media, a privately held firm founded by evangelical Christian friends Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis in 2006 when they were in their early 20s, seemed an unlikely candidate to restore Newsweek’s good name. Its flagship publication, the International Business Times, used cheap aggregation and search engine optimization to build impressive online readership figures. But IBT remained relatively little known, even within the industry, until the company purchased Newsweek from Barry Diller’s IAC in 2013 for a sum that was not disclosed. (Three years earlier, the magazine had been famously sold to Sidney Harman for $1 by the Washington Post Company, which also owned the Washington Post and Slate at the time.) It wouldn’t have been entirely unwarranted to predict that IBT Media would milk what remained of Newsweek’s name brand for short-term profit.
Instead, IBT Media gave Impoco space to run the magazine as he saw fit, insiders recalled, including publishing feature stories that seemed to go out of their way to tweak the owners’ religious sensibilities. Against the odds, the revival seemed to be working. Under Impoco’s editorship, Newsweek quickly regained traffic and stature, and in 2016 it was nominated for a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. The higher-ups at IBT Media, sources said, treated Newsweek as a prestige brand within a company whose profits were driven by its faster-paced digital properties.
It’s tempting to point to Impoco’s firing in February 2017, the reasons for which were never made public, as the turning point. His replacement, former Time and Newsweek International editor Matt McAllester, undertook unpopular traffic-boosting experiments, oversaw a slew of firings, and stepped down after just six months. Three former employees told Slate they believe McAllester won Impoco’s job by pitching a wildly ambitious plan to CEO Dev Pragad to make Newsweek.com one of the most heavily trafficked news sites in the world—at a time when the company’s owners were desperate to increase revenue. Six months later, McAllester was succeeded by Roe, whom sources described as a deft story editor who did little to stanch the chaos in the newsroom. (Impoco, McAllester, and Roe each declined to comment for this story.)
But multiple sources I spoke to with knowledge of Newsweek’s editorial strategy traced the magazine’s upheaval to a different, and perhaps surprising, source: a crisis at its sister publications, including the International Business Times.
The International Business Times’ rapid growth had fueled the rise of IBT Media and funded the company’s 2013 purchase of Newsweek, as well as some prestige journalism initiatives at IBT itself. By 2016, however, trouble was brewing: The company laid off at least 45 people across its brands as part of a “restructuring” whose motivations were not clearly explained. Those laid off complained publicly that they had not been paid severance.
Then, in March 2017, disaster struck: A major update to Google’s search algorithm, designed to crack down on low-quality, ad-heavy sites and “private blog networks” that are widely viewed as traffic scams, hit IBT Media hard. The flagship IBT publication’s organic search traffic plunged by 50 percent, according to the analytics site SEMrush, as did search traffic at other IBT Media properties. Reports from Social Puncher and BuzzFeed earlier this year revealed evidence of possible advertising fraud at the company. (The company denied that it committed fraud.) Earlier this month, co-founder Uzac and his wife, Marion Kim, the company’s finance director, resigned.
Numerous sources said the pressure to increase traffic at Newsweek was ratcheted up shortly after IBT’s traffic fell off. In the words of one former employee: “IBT was no longer the breadwinner, so Newsweek had to become the breadwinner.” Within weeks, the company shifted seven reporters and editors from IBT to Newsweek, assigning them to cover breaking news in much of the same clicky, rapid-fire style they had learned at IBT. The following month, April, it announced that the company was rebranding from IBT Media to Newsweek Media Group. By June, company leaders were circulating a plan called “Newsweek 100 million” to increase the magazine’s monthly views more than fivefold over the following several years. (Multiple sources showed Slate internal documents that made reference to the plan.) That’s when many of the traffic quotas and performance bonuses took hold.
Several sources said they believed Newsweek really did need to get more nimble: Under Impoco, certain full-time staff reporters had been producing just a handful of stories per year. But it appeared to many sources who spoke with Slate for this story that the company’s executives—including Pragad and Chief Content Officer Dayan Candappa—were trying to compensate for IBT’s lost traffic by turning Newsweek into a content factory in its own right. Several sources, while acknowledging the aggressively ramped-up goals, believed that the increased metabolism would help pay for the magazine to do good journalism. Two sources with knowledge of the company’s high-level operations said they believed the financial stakes were so high the orders were actually coming from the company’s co-owners, Uzac and Davis.
One of the editors who had come over from IBT, Cristina Silva, rose quickly to the position of news director. She became the enforcer of traffic targets, and after McAllester’s dismissal, some sources say she assumed day-to-day control of the newsroom. Others maintain that Roe and Li, her immediate superiors, remained in command, albeit in ways that were less visible to junior staff. Various emails viewed by Slate show both Li and Silva prodding staff to boost their traffic metrics and providing suggestions on how to do so. For all the outrage about the newsroom regime’s obsession with clicks, it’s fair to note that at least some of those suggestions involved original reporting and analysis. All three editors declined to comment for this story.
The staff received details of every writer’s daily and monthly pageview counts, which added to the culture of anxiety. One editor, referring to missed targets, said, “We were told that as editors that if we cared about our reporters we would make sure they didn’t fall into the ‘red zone.’ ” On multiple occasions, the staff was reassured that the traffic sprint was a temporary measure to save the company and that the pressure would soon relent if they met their goals. “Many editors believed—at least for some time—that the company was at a crisis point financially and this strategy was the only way to save it,” one former editor said.
There were carrots to go along with the sticks. Under Candappa, Li, and Silva, Newsweek implemented a magazinewide pay scheme that promised to offset low base salaries with significant bonuses tied to the number of page views each writer generated. Some staffers complained that the scheme failed to differentiate between reporters who were on click-friendly beats—like the Trump administration—and those who covered less trafficked topics such as arts and culture, the Middle East, or immigration. Reporter Christal Hayes, who worked at Newsweek from September to December before leaving, tweeted the bonus scale on Feb. 5, along with her criticism of the incentives it created. “[The] amount of corrections, retractions and issues with content there was pretty insane,” Hayes wrote. “The push was always to have a more ‘clicky’ headline—always—even if it was incorrect or completely not ethical.”
One former editor offered a partial defense of Silva. “I think it is too easy to paint her as the villain of Newsweek’s digital strategy issues,” she said. “She was enforcing targets set from above. Not many other editors were willing to drive staff as hard as she did. Though, to be clear, I don’t think staff should ever be driven that hard.” The company offered a full-throated defense of Silva in an emailed statement to Slate on Feb. 9, calling her “a tireless advocate for first-rate journalism” who “pushed for a more diverse newsroom that would include and empower women and people of color.” Newsweek’s acting editor, Nancy Cooper, also defended Silva. In an emailed statement, she wrote, “Under Cristina Silva’s leadership as News Director of Newsweek, traffic has grown exponentially.”
Indeed, to judge by traffic alone, the scheme worked wonders: Analytics viewed by Slate show that between June and January, Newsweek’s monthly unique views nearly doubled from 18.2 million to more than 34 million. Yet the quotas were never relaxed. And in the process, the magazine produced a string of embarrassing factual blunders and gained a reputation for trolling and click-bait, including (multiple!) pieces claiming that Hillary Clinton could still become president and straightforward science articles shamelessly dressed up with Trump-bashing headlines and tweets. That’s not to say the magazine was bereft of serious analysis or original reporting; all agreed that some journalists were managing to produce strong work under adverse conditions. Still, at least three former reporters on the digital side said they were embarrassed not only by their colleagues’ work, but by their own.
In a public resignation letter on Feb. 5, veteran political journalist Matthew Cooper said he had “never seen more reckless leadership.” He spoke of a “demoralizing” newsroom culture that relentlessly prioritized clicks over journalistic ethics and led to a litany of embarrassing editorial missteps. Even the company’s interns felt the pinch. Claire Shaffer, who interned at Newsweek last summer, said she was initially told she’d be paid. But before she arrived in New York for the job, she was informed that there had been a mistake and they “didn’t have the budget” to pay her: She’d have to work for school credit. She accepted the assignment anyway and spent the summer producing, in her words, “embarrassing click-bait.” More than one former reporter described the experience of working at Newsweek as psychologically traumatic. “My mental health was just down the toilet,” one said. “I had stomach pains going in there every day.”
One former editor said young reporters were driven to write five or six stories per day, and when they complained, they were told by editors that “this is the way it is everywhere” in online media. Shaffer confirmed that. “ ‘It’s like this everywhere’ was definitely something I heard a bunch,” she said, “which was pretty alarming with it being my first media job.”
The race for clicks, and the power of the platform giants to make or break media companies, will sound familiar to any casual student of recent media woes. Still, what happened at Newsweek was not inevitable. As it became clear, by 2016 at the least, that the wave of search- and social media–driven success stories (like IBT) were vulnerable to algorithm changes at Google and Facebook, a handful of media companies whose owners possessed both foresight and financial flexibility were actively tweaking their business models in order to survive. Newsweek Media Group’s leaders, it now seems clear, possessed neither. Many of its staff accommodated themselves to the single-minded strategy that was implemented; sympathetic colleagues noted that some were proud journalists who justified their compromises with the consolation that the traffic sprints were temporary. Some, of course, had families to support. And it quickly became clear that those who didn’t fall in line would be sacked. “People would get laid off and you’d never hear about it,” said a former reporter who was fired last year. “It was like the rapture.”
Some ex-staffers said the chilling effect of those firings also served to deter inquiries about the company’s ties to religious organizations founded by the controversial Christian pastor David Jang. Others disagreed that those ties had directly impacted the newsroom in any way or that newsroom employees had been dissuaded from talking about them before the Feb. 5 firings. The religious college Olivet University, which Jang founded, has at least twice received contracts worth more than $1 million from Newsweek’s parent company, according to recent reporting by Newsweek’s own Katz, Josh Saul, and Josh Keefe. This week, their latest report—the one editors got published by threatening to resign—revealed that in 2016, Newsweek Media Group also gave free, full-page ads to county officials in upstate New York, where Olivet was seeking tax breaks and permits to build a new campus.
The company’s CEO, Pragad, is a former academic adviser at Olivet; Uzac, the co-founder and chairman who stepped down in February, had previously served as Olivet’s treasurer and vice chairman; and Kim, the former finance director and Uzac’s wife, has close ties to Jang, according to a 2014 Mother Jones investigation headlined, “Who’s Behind Newsweek?” Staff concerns intensified after the DA raid, which reportedly focused at least partly on loans the company had taken out. In a staff meeting held amid this month’s chaos, which one staffer described to the New York Post as “batshit crazy,” Davis pleaded with reporters to stop investigating the company’s ties to Olivet. Davis’ wife is the university’s president. He closed the meeting by suggesting that staffers who weren’t “on board” could find new jobs. And, somewhat bizarrely, he said in an International Business Times story this week that Newsweek Media Group would be working more closely with Olivet University from now on.
Nevertheless, Ronn Torossian, a spokesman for Olivet, pointed to a statement the company gave on Jan. 25, which said that media reports linking Olivet to government probes or to Newsweek were inaccurate. (Newsweek’s story alleging otherwise was published Feb. 20, and Davis gave his interview to the IBT on Feb. 21.)
The company’s Olivet connections, its journalistic compromises, and its alleged treatment of its staff could all be considered evidence of a company willing to blur ethical boundaries. The recent reports from Social Puncher and BuzzFeed implicated only IBT in allegations of buying traffic and ad fraud, and not Newsweek.com. However, three former Newsweek employees separately told Slate they had internally raised questions about Newsweek’s own advertising and traffic-reporting practices. All three said higher-ups had discouraged them from pursuing such questions. Another said that when they expressed concerns to company leaders, “I was told to fuck off 100 different ways.” All three were eventually fired, although there’s no evidence that their termination was related to those inquiries. Newsweek did not comment on the claims.
In a twist, the same editors who were accused by some former staffers of turning Newsweek into a glorified content farm have been among those standing up to executives when it comes to investigating their parent company’s finances. Li was one of those fired on Feb. 5, and Silva was among the group who had prepared letters of resignation in case their bosses blocked publication of the Tuesday story. For all their detractors, it’s easy enough to imagine that both hold journalistic principles that might have held up better under more favorable circumstances. “I think Silva really did think she was saving the company,” one former editor said. A current staffer with knowledge of the company’s strategy said it’s possible that Silva’s click-savvy editing did in fact play a large role in saving the company, or at least prolonging its life.
It now appears rather unlikely that Newsweek’s goal of 100 million page views will come to fruition. Then again, IBT reached 55 million at its peak—nominally, at least—and Newsweek has in many ways become the heir to the IBT business model. Executives seem intent on wringing what remains of the company’s name brand for clicks and ad revenue for as long as they can—even though every recent tweak to the Facebook news-feed algorithm has made it less friendly either to low-quality journalistic content or to journalistic content in general. Departed Newsweek reporters and editors have been replaced with a fresh influx from IBT.
“We used to sit in the newsroom and joke that they’re eventually going to fire all of us and replace us with IBT people,” said one former Newsweek editor. “And then, of course, that’s exactly what happened.”