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Shaun King Keeps Raising Money, and Questions About Where It Goes

‘LEVELS OF CONFLICT’
He blamed issues at The North Star on over-ambition, but seven former employees of the site King launched with great fanfare painted a darker picture.

Kali HollowayMay. 25, 2020 8:29 PM ET

When Shaun King and progressive journalist Benjamin Dixon launched an ambitious multimedia reboot of Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, last February, it was celebrated across social media by prominent voices including Susan Sarandon, Michael Eric Dyson and Megan Mullally. A month later, the company boasted on Twitter that it already had “multiple angel investors” and more than 30,000 subscribers contributing $5 per month for students and $10 a month and up for the general public. 

Subscribers at the highest giving levels, according to one former employee I spoke with, included Sigourney Weaver, Brené Brown, and black billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith, who gave a healthy $10,000 a month. If every single subscriber gave at the lowest $5 a month “student plan” level, subscriber revenue totalled more than $125,000 monthly, or $1.5 million a year, per figures tweeted by both King and The North Star

“Remember — this is not just the cost of membership — we are going to be building multiple studios and offices and will be hiring nearly 50 world class journalists and staffers for The North Star,” King wrote in a fundraising letter last November. “We are going to be launching a full news website, an iPhone & Android app, four brand new podcasts, online video news broadcasts, and so much more. We are building The North Star together.”

But 14 months after launching, almost none of what King promised to build has appeared and the site has struggled with issues that alienated many subscribers. The headquarters and television studio was quietly shuttered last summer, and all Atlanta-based staffers laid off. The mobile app disappeared for over a year, and the “full news site” displays branded The North Star apparel for sale alongside relatively scant original journalism. 

King told me in an extensive email exchange for this story in early April that The North Star’s stumbles, including the dearth of deliverables promised, can be chalked up to the same overzealousness that has been the downfall of his other projects—the result of his tendency to take on too much, too soon.

“When we launched The North Star, virtually every advisor I had insisted that we should not do written articles, podcasts, and video news at the same time,” King wrote. “I just knew we could do it. They were right.”

But seven former employees of The North Star — three of whom spoke anonymously out of fear of reprisal by King, and six of whom were told they had to sign non-disclosure agreements to receive severances — said the issue was less King’s over-ambition than his absenteeism, insistence on absolute control, and radical incompetence. They said he had little interest in feedback from staffers he had ostensibly brought on for their lengthy resumes and media experience, despite his own lack of the same. Two iterations of broadcast news shows were scrapped, and their staffs and hosts fired, before they ever aired, and Dixon was pushed out even as money poured in and the site remained underpopulated. 

It’s well documented that King—one of Bernie Sanders’ most prominent surrogates in both 2016 and 2020—has used his social media platforms to garner national headlines for stories of racial injustice that would likely have otherwise been neglected or ignored. The outrage and media attention that followed King’s sharing of graphic and horrific footage of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man, being gunned down in February by two white men, was the catalyst for Georgia law enforcement to finally arrest the killers. In 2017, King successfully crowdsourced the identities of at least two of the white racists who brutally assaulted DeAndre Harris during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

As those headlines have raised his profile, King has continued to raise money, including through a Patreon fundraising campaign launched this April—again requesting $5 per month from students, $10 and up from general public subscribers—to turn The Breakdown podcast into a “daily video news broadcast.” Critical observers were quick to point out that King’s earlier fundraising letters for The North Star had also promised subscription fees would underwrite “daily online video news broadcasts.” In the letter announcing the relaunch, King explicitly asked contributors to the original The North Star fundraiser to also become monthly paying subscribers to a live broadcast version of a podcast that’s part of The North Star, a project that was already funded, per King’s own tweets, in February 2019. "Before we announce this to the public,” King wrote in the email, “we want the original Breakdown Crew to join us.” 

The announcement of the new crowdfunding campaign revived rumors that have swirled on social media since it first launched that The North Star is more of a money-making maneuver than the “fully independent, unbought, unbossed media company focused on freedom” King had promised. 

It has also fueled long-standing accusations—primarily lodged by black women and queer folks, nearly all of whom are his former co-organizers, colleagues, employees and supporters—that King has inflated, mismanaged or failed to account for funds he’s raised for various social justice causes. 

While it should be noted that no criminal or civil charges have ever been filed against King, the story—in the words of former employees of The North Star—was one of “self sabotage” by him, and “really shady fucking business” with “a liar & a fraud.”

‘Questions That Remain Unanswered’

The #ShaunKingLetMeDown hashtag, a recurring Twitter trending topic, is often used to tag threads that enumerate the issues with the many projects King has launched, fundraised for, then abruptly shut down before completion. The list includes a 2011 fundraiser to climb mountains, abandoned four days into training per King’s own book; a 2014 fundraiser for King’s Life Goals University; and a crowdsourced fund paying for tips leading to the identification of Neo-Nazis

Members of Justice Together, the anti-police brutality group King pulled the plug on in 2015, posted an open letter accusing him of gross mismanagement. Days later, members of another group he formed co-signed their own open letter making similar accusations. In 2019, a broad coalition of activists from organizations including Black Lives Matter, Socialist Party USA, Ferguson Response Network and Veterans of Foreign Wars signed a post tagged #SitDownShaun stating that “in the past 4 years, King has launched several efforts, all of which failed or faded away without explanation…Each of these efforts had substantial monetary investment from both community and donors with questions that remain unanswered to this day.” 

Last year, King responded to the sustained calls for greater transparency around his personal finances and fundraising totals by issuing a 72-page report compiled by an “expert review panel” made up of seven people with close business and personal ties to him that he says details “every penny” he has raised for social justice causes dating back to 2014, a figure he puts at $34.5 Million. 

It’s hard to quantify or put a dollar value on what they've done, but I do so without hesitation.
Shaun King

But most of that money, $20.8 million, is based on a 2018 fundraiser created by Charlotte and Dave Willner to benefit the immigrant advocacy group RAICES. While King promoted the fundraiser to his followers via social media, “it’s definitively false that any boosting he did was responsible for the amount of money that was raised,” Dave Willner told me. “We tracked growth pretty carefully—I was graphing it, in some cases, minute by minute. We have all the data. This isn’t my opinion. It definitely wasn’t him.”

“We had 22 volunteers in our living room at one point,” Charlotte Willner told me. “Shaun was not one of them...Any one person taking credit for it is antithetical to what we were trying to do.”

Asked about the Willners’ claims, King writes, “To this day, multiple staff members from RAICES have full unfiltered access to my Twitter and Facebook pages. They are my close friends. And they have used my pages hundreds of times to amplify countless fundraisers, petitions, news stories, and more. They have had access for several years now and use my pages almost daily. It's hard to quantify or put a dollar value on what they've done, but I do so without hesitation.” 

This is, essentially, a reiteration of King’s response to questions raised by activist DeRay McKesson. But however close King is to RAICES employees, the fundraiser he claims credit for, the largest in Facebook’s history to that point, wasn’t launched by the organization or its staffers but by the Willners on their behalf. When I pointed this out and again asked for comment, King did not respond. 

King also did not respond to my question about the report’s omission of a $17,500 grant to Justice Together, the anti-police brutality organization he disbanded in 2015. King cited the grant in this Facebook post from 2015 and in emails he sent to Justice Together board members the same year. The money is further confirmed by a 2015 IRS filing from the Proteus Fund, the grant-giving organization. 

(King noted in a Medium post that he never filed taxes for Justice Together “because every dollar that was given online was returned.” The IRS revoked its tax exempt status in 2018, three years after the organization had been dissolved by King.)

King’s auditors wrote that when he abruptly and unilaterally shuttered Justice Together in 2015, he “refunded 100% of the donations made.” But a representative from the Proteus Fund, which provided the $17,500 grant, told me that King never returned that money. Nor did he submit the mandated report explaining how the funds were used to support justice work. King did not respond to a question about that disparity.

Also omitted from the report is a $10,000 donation made to Justice Together by David Heinemeier Hansson, a former member of the organization’s board, which he told me “had no resemblance to any legitimate board in terms of responsibilities and insight.” Hansson resigned from the organization in November 2015.

“I would want to know where it went,” Hansson says. “Shaun promised me accounts on spending. Never arrived. I just chalked it up to, ‘Okay, well I'm just not going to get involved in anymore of that with him.’ That doesn't mean the causes that he's pushing aren't worthy of support. It's just that maybe he shouldn't be the one collecting or holding the piggy bank.”

King did not respond to a question about the missing $10,000; in 2019, he wrote that Justice Together was “an experimental idea, launched in good faith, that I simply could not effectively manage. I privately owned this failure and I publicly own the failure today.”

“The lessons that I learned from those early failures in 2014 & 2015 are the very things that make the work I do now at Real Justice, at The North Star, at The Action PAC, and with our Flip The Senate campaign so effective.”

According to the auditors he selected to go through his finances, King received “absolutely no compensation, directly or indirectly, from the tens of millions of dollars that he has helped to raise for families in crisis during this five year period of our review,” with the exception of “a modest income of $4,166 per month” from his work with Real Justice PAC. They also write that they “reviewed Shaun’s full tax returns filed jointly with his spouse” for a time period including 2013—though tax filings for that year are inexplicably omitted from their report.

The inconsistencies and lies become really clear. It just doesn’t add up.
DeRay Mckesson

But an IRS filing from that same year for HopeMob, the crowdfunding site that King established in 2012, shows that he was paid more than $160,000 for tax year 2013 as CEO of the organization, nearly 40 percent of the funds it raised that year. King did not respond to questions about the discrepancy between IRS documents and his previous statement that he was paid that money “over a period of a few years.” 

King promoted the release of the report across social media, including with paid ads on Facebook. When McKesson accused King of using money from Real Justice PAC and Action PAC—funds that “are supposed to be going to support electing prosecutors across the country and fighting racism, respectively”—to pay for his self-promotion, King denied the charge in a lengthy Medium article

“It was $3 and was done so in error,” King wrote. “It was stopped immediately when it was discovered. It was reimbursed immediately.” 

But according to Facebook’s Page Transparency summaries, which provide totals for ad expenditures, that’s not accurate. In fact, the site shows there were three different ad buys—two paid for by King’s Real Justice PAC and one by his Action PAC—totalling a minimum of $1,300. Those are relatively small ad expenditures, which is why it seems odd that King would choose not only to address them at all, but also to offer a rebuttal that’s so easily undercut by discoverable evidence. King did not respond to a question about the discrepancy.

“When people actually engage with the facts and ask questions instead of defending past support of Shaun, the inconsistencies and lies become really clear. It just doesn’t add up,” McKesson wrote me. “In organizing, it's critical that we model the type of community we aim to build — one fundamentally rooted in reducing, not increasing, harm. That means not allowing people to exploit crises by repeatedly promising to do things and then not following through.”

‘Levels of conflict’

As King has used his expansive platform to bring attention to racist violence overlooked by mainstream outlets, he has also been accused of turning his following—more than 4.5 million followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—against his detractors, and of retaliating most harshly and publicly against those without the means or resources to fight back. 

That charge gained deeper traction last year when King issued lawsuit threats against two young, black and queer activists who’d tweeted skeptically about his fundraising. After critics, primarily on black Twitter and in black media outlets, called out his threats, issued after the activists had already deleted their tweets, King penned and posted a lengthy apology

The previous year, King made headlines when he misidentified the killer of Jazmine Barnes — a 7-year-old black girl murdered in what initially appeared to be a racist drive-by shooting — in a tweet that went viral. While King eventually erased the message, the man’s family told a news outlet that violent threats poured in even after two different suspects were arrested. The man King wrongly identified reportedly committed suicide in his cell several months later, after he had been jailed on unrelated charges. As of this writing, King has not publicly apologized for or retracted his claim about the killer’s identity. 

If this was something that had happened with right-wingers, everybody would be pointing and trying to figure out how to get some type of accountability.
Anoa Changa

As a high-profile Sanders surrogate this year, a role he also played in 2016, King came under fire for repeatedly propagating messages of questionable authenticity and reliability. Rachel Maddow took to Twitter to discredit a Super Tuesday tweet from King claiming that the MSNBC host had reported “multiple ‘senior officials’ within the Democratic Party are interfering with the primaries to stop” Sanders’ campaign.” (“No,” Maddow responded tersely. “I didn’t report any such thing.”) A month later, after King pointedly asked Senator Brian Schatz — a co-sponsor of Sanders’s Medicare for All Act of 2019 Senate bill — if he supported the proposition, the Congressman sent a curt reply: “I don’t know why you are tweeting this like some sort of gotcha but I am a cosponsor of the bill.” 

Anoa Changa, a lawyer, progressive podcaster and grassroots organizer for Sanders’s 2016 campaign, provided pro bono legal guidance to one of the activists King threatened to sue. Changa says that upon learning King was again being considered for a 2020 surrogate role, she shared concerns with Winnie Wong, the campaign’s senior political advisor. 

“Having someone drift their way so high up is deeply disconcerting, particularly with his history of turning on activists,” Changa told me. “Just because people have had what appear to be good results doesn't mean that we still shouldn't question the method they used to get there, particularly in this moment, when we have issues with disinformation and making sure we're getting good content. If this was something that had happened with right-wingers, everybody would be pointing and trying to figure out how to get some type of accountability.”

But the controversies surrounding King have done little to diminish his status among high-profile admirers. Last year, he was honored with an award at Rihanna’s Diamond Ball. His Real Justice PAC is supported in part by Cari Tuna, the wife of Dustin Moskovitz, one of Facebook’s three co-founders whose names you don’t know. At Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign kickoff event in Brooklyn, King delivered the keynote. And his most recent book, Make Change, features a foreword by Sanders, as well as glowing blurbs from Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe. 

“He has a lot of black celebrities on board who aren’t particularly dialed into the activist community, but when money is needed, they're more than happy to throw money at a problem. That’s fantastic. I'm not asking that much from Rihanna—she’s a busy woman and I’m glad so many black celebrities are willing to put their money where their mouths are,” Imani Gandy, an attorney and journalist who has been one of King’s most vocal critics on social media, told me. 

“But there are also white liberals who want someone or something they can give their money to (as if that) washes away all of your sins, and absolves you of any requirements to do any self reflection, to do anything that would make you understand that you need to be helping people at a grassroots level, not just giving money to one guy who you probably never really researched. He makes white folk feel safe because he doesn't ask anything of them besides giving money—he sells wokeness to white people.”

King has consistently said that he has “never received, held, touched, managed, or even had access to any money I’ve ever raised,” often pointing to outsized ambitions that overwhelmed his administrative capabilities, as when he told The Daily Beast in 2015 that his accusers “need to understand that failure is not fraud.” (As someone who never finished a book project that friends crowdfunded 10 years ago, I understand the general sentiment.) 

“There are levels of conflict built into what he is doing. There’s this lack of accountability for these well-funded projects that don't necessarily deliver,” says Changa.

”Startups are hard. Most of us, though, do not get to do multiple startups, and fail, and mismanage money, or screw people over, and keep doing it, and then get national platforms for presidential candidates. But because it’s someone who's the white liberal favorite, it's a completely different story.”

‘I would never have done it the way we did it’

As of this writing, The North Star website features the two podcasts starring King, branded apparel for sale, and scant original journalism. The outlet’s four most-read articles, according to its homepage — Jersey City shooting Suspect Linked to Black Hebrew Israelite movement, Banking While Black: Former NFL Player and Bank Employee Expose Racism At JPMorgan, Immigration Rights Group Sues ICE to Restore Immigrant Hotline, Soccer is Plagued By Racism All Over the World, and Brazil Is No Exception — were all published last December.

Despite King’s promotion of the site and the money it’s raised, a Google search for “north star” shows it at the bottom of the second page of results, behind nearly a dozen articles about the star Polaris and results for the North Star Fund, “a social justice fund that supports grassroots organizing led by communities of color,” the North Star Group, a financial planning company, and North Star Teens, “an alternative to school where teens learn in the way that suits them best.”

“Straight [out] of the gate, we quickly learned that it was too much for our new staff, in multiple states, to manage,” King emailed. “Again, almost every advisor we had told our team not to start out the company with an office in multiple states. We did it anyway. They strongly advised us to not do that until our company was a few years old. They were right. It was just too hard to manage… We've now written nearly 2,000 articles from dozens of writers in our first year, and have had a lot of success with our podcasts, but if I could do it all over again, I would never have done it the way we did it. We should have started with just one division, nailed it, like completely nailed it, and grew from there.”

King’s co-founder Benjamin Dixon, according to multiple former employees, was sincerely committed to The North Star’s progressive political vision far beyond the clicks and likes it might garner. In fact, Dixon had envisioned the “blueprint” for The North Star years before the company was launched, but lacked the name recognition and capital to make the project happen.

“People don't want to fund us the same way. We're not pulling down Chapo Trap House money,” Changa, who was brought on as a consultant on the news broadcast that never happened, told me. “In the scope of independent leftist media, you see things like The Majority Report, or Dave Pakman or Thom Hartmann. It's very white and it's very male. We saw a real need for black progressives to have good conversations about political issues in context. This was something for years that Ben had been trying to get off the ground. And finally, he had developed a relationship with Shaun.” 

King’s fundraising helped provide money for those ambitions. The crowdfunding phase was followed by the build-out of The North Star’s Atlanta studio and hub. Early iterations of The North Star site included video of the soundstage being constructed alongside the boast, “We purchased and completely renovated our own television studio so that we could broadcast the news to you daily.”

But King, according to one former employee I spoke with who was familiar with The North Star’s backend, unilaterally made decisions on things he knew little about. “He doesn't offer explanations,” the staffer told me. “Just generally, he makes a decision and then everybody scrambles to fix it.”

At that point, we no longer trusted the authenticity of this effort.
A former employee of The North Star

The website was besieged with problems from the very beginning. In November 2018, while the project was still crowdfunding before its official site launch, King sent a fundraising letter implying that dark forces were already trying to take it down, writing, “we've been under attack all day, with hackers deliberately crashing the website with DDOS attacks 4 different times… Clearly people know what we're building is going to make a major impact.”

But according to two people familiar with the site’s backend and the issues that plagued it, there were no significant outside attacks. The problem was the site’s shoddy construction. 

Along with a host of smaller issues, like having no way for members to reset their own password, members were sometimes double charged, undercharged, or not charged at all—issues requiring constant fixes, one former employee said. According to that same staffer, there was no terms and conditions form, a serious problem for a company that collects money from people via credit card. King did not respond when I asked him about this.

When beta testing of The North Star app ended last April, King—the liaison between the company’s IT contractors and its internal support staff—neglected to inform both and its subscriber base and his own employees, who then had to respond to complaints from confused supporters. For more than a year, there was no app for The North Star, which had been one of the key pieces of collateral promised during the fundraising stage. King told me in early April that new versions of both an iPhone and Android app were "awaiting approval in each App Store.” The North Star app finally became available in late May.

About a month after the beta version of the app was pulled, a backend problem led to many subscribers being undercharged or not charged at all. Once the error was caught, King was advised by support staff not to charge those subscribers before sending out an email asking explicit permission. There were reasons for that: to avoid opening The North Star to legal hazard—since members had, technically, not agreed to any terms and conditions—and to avoid blindsiding members who might be financially unprepared for a random charge on a date they hadn’t planned for.

“I was somewhat invested in the membership, our community, because I’d been communicating with them, and hearing people's stories,” a former employee told me. “Like, ‘I'm a student, I don't have much, but I want to support this cause.’ Or one member who had to cancel because their house burned down, and they moved into a new house and a couple of months later they rejoined. I wanted to protect The North Star, but I also felt like it was my responsibility to care for their memberships.”

Just after 4 p.m. on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend 2019, against the advice of his staff—and without their knowledge, the employee says—King sent a mass email from the support staff account informing members they would be charged, according to one former employee. Among the recipients were roughly 1,000 people who had already cancelled their The North Star memberships. When angry complaints broadsided support staffers on their way out the door for vacation (“Some of them were cussing,” the employee recalls), the employee pleaded with King to send an email countering the first letter, and promising that support staff would be in touch with members to get permission first. 

King sent an apologetic follow-up email from his “personal” account, writing, “our team just sent out the below email about our brand new payment processing system…but I wanted to write to you to let you know that I've asked the team to hold off on any charges for missed payments until we confirm that you directly approved the missed charge. Again, no charges will be made without your expressed permission.” Support staffers felt like King had thrown them under the bus, but felt the decision to hold off was a minor victory. Less than a week later, without any warning, King went ahead and charged those member accounts. 

“At that point,” the employee told me, “we no longer trusted the authenticity of this effort.”

Asked about the incident, King wrote, “Last May our company transitioned from one payment processing company to another. It was an amazingly difficult and clunky migration process. I consulted a number of experts in the field on how to best do it — including best practices in the space. When we realized that some customers were not charged for their monthly fees, we made those charges as soon as we could. Again, our small company lives month to month without outside investors. Our only income at that time was our monthly fees.”

‘Be your best black self’

In December 2018, Rebecca Azor and Valeria Sistrunk were hired to anchor The North Star’s video news show “The North Star Today.” For eight weeks pre-launch, under Dixon’s direction, they shot mock episodes of the broadcast that were then sent to New York for review by King, who they say never visited the Atlanta studio during their employment. Azor says that while Dixon “was doing six jobs,” King—despite his inexpertise in broadcasting—merely sent highly critical, vague and dismissive critiques of their work through his co-founder, rarely communicating with the anchors directly or responding to their questions. Both say King demanded changes that differed by the day, requesting output far beyond the budget and capabilities of a small, understaffed, scrappy start-up.

“I guess what was really frustrating to me was that Shaun had a lot of unrealistic expectations,” Sistrunk, a former news anchor, told me. “He had this skeleton crew but wanted to make this huge cable network show. No one could reason with him or explain to him that his expectations were too high. It was almost like self-sabotage.”

“He sent us an email, and he said, ‘I don't know, you guys [are] not being true to yourself. Just remember to be your best black self,’" Azor told me, noting that she saw the message as a request to be a stereotypically “blacker” version of themselves. “We all found it offensive. At the end of the day, my codes switch all day. I can go from here to there. When I do my job, I do my job. Period. But now you're telling me to be my best black self? What does that mean? I'm like, ‘Please don't. You're projecting. We're black. Stop.’” 

I asked King what he meant in his message, which included the line, “Be your best, of course, but be your best Black self.” King responded, “I had a few conversations with our staff about how being Black in white dominated, white owned, white managed media spaces often means that being ‘professional’ means leaving multiple elements of your Blackness and culture at the door. In that email, and over the past year, I've continued to communicate to our staff, which is 95% Black and Latino, and 65% women, that we don't have to do that at The North Star. We can speak with our language, with our vocabulary, that we can use our stories and illustrations, that we can speak with our full range of emotions, from anger to joy, and do so without hesitation.”

Azor and Sistrunk were fired in January 2019, before The North Star even launched. The second iteration of the daily news show, co-hosted by Dixon and local Atlanta news figure JaQuitta Williams, began test shoots just after the site went live. A new group of production staffers were brought in. Aisha Westbrook, one of those new employees, says King’s absence, along with poor communication and disregard for feedback, created an atmosphere of “confusion.” Another former employee told me that after King launched his podcast in April, much of his attention was diverted from The North Star to his solo production. 

“Everybody believed in what we were trying to do,” Westbrook told me. “I think if Shaun would have been down there, would have been present, I think it would have been a lot more effective as far as being able to pick out what it is that he was wanting to be seen and what kind of stories [he] wanted to be told and the actual look and feel of the show.”

At least as late as June 2019, The North Star site falsely included the message, “Our first television broadcast in our new studio is later today!” Instead, the second version of the news show and a planned docuseries were scrapped before they ever aired, and most of the associated staffers laid off. 

Several ex-employees told me that during this period, Dixon was ousted by King and muzzled with an NDA as part of the settlement deal. (Dixon declined to comment for this article aside from briefly citing “creative differences” for his exit, and King did not respond to a question about the terms of his departure.) 

Greg R. Jackson, who survived that cut, says that in the summer of 2019, The North Star flew him and one other production staffer to New York. The two were tasked with creating a camera setup in King’s podcast studio that would allow The North Star CEO to single-handedly record his podcast being made. This new program concept—a broadcast version of King’s podcast, The Breakdown—is essentially the project King is currently fundraising for. Within three months of Jackson’s return to Atlanta, he and Westbrook would both be laid off, just days before they say their health care benefits were due to kick in. Like all but one of The North Star employees I spoke to, they told me they were informed that severance packages were contingent upon signing NDAs.

There are a lot of people that are culture vultures who say that they’re doing stuff for the betterment of people. But really, this is just how you pay your bills.
Aisha Westbrook

“It was just a little strange. We had just finished the paperwork to get our medical benefits, literally maybe that Friday, before we got laid off,” Jackson told me. “After I got laid off, I was instructed that we could get some extra pay if we signed some papers, and I declined that because I felt like, ‘Why should I sign some papers for $2,000 or whatever it was for my freedom of speech? What are you trying to hide?’ I have nothing negative to say about [King] as a person, but the way he handled business was a little odd to me.”

“It's just a whole bunch of really shady fucking business, is what that felt like,” another former staffer told me. “I was promised healthcare and I never received health insurance. I started asking, ‘Listen, when is this going to happen? Are you going to reimburse me for the cost of having to get my own health insurance?’ I think I was the only person who got any money for health care costs, after advocating for months.”

King rejected any link between layoffs and healthcare benefits, writing, “One didn't have anything to do with the other. We have more people covered under our health insurance plans, 100% of our staff, than we ever have in the 1 year history of our young company. In fact, any time we've let an employee go, we've offered at least 1 month of severance and have covered health insurance for up to 3 additional months for several employees that we let go. Every employee of The North Star has the full cost of their health insurance paid for them, and their families. We also have a robust paid sick leave policy, vacation day policy, mental health day policy, and more.”

King did not respond when I asked if severance packages were contingent upon signing NDAs.

“There are a lot of people that are culture vultures who say that they're doing stuff for the betterment of people,” Westbrook told me when we talked. “But really, this is just how you pay your bills.”

‘Just funding his ego at this point’

According to Azor, when rumors surfaced a month after launch that The North Star was in trouble and there had already been layoffs, King flew to the Atlanta offices for a rare visit and staged this photo with remaining employees. The same day, The North Star Twitter account sent a message calling the reports “fabrications” and stating, “Because of the generous support of nearly 30,000+ members & the backing of multiple angel investors — @TheNorthStar has cash reserves to fund our operation deep into 2020.”

But about four months after that, the rest of the Atlanta staff was laid off without warning and the offices closed. A number of employees told me the cuts were particularly surprising since staffers had been told the company was gearing up for a new membership push, just as King tells potential subscribers in this fundraising video that remained on The North Star site until late November, long after the Atlanta offices were closed. 

“It was our single biggest expense, both monthly and total cost,” King wrote me about the Atlanta office, “and we had to make a tough decision to close it. I don't think we could've survived another month had we not done so.”

King continued, “When we launched The North Star we did so without $1 in start up funding or any loans or credit cards. That sounds noble. It is noble. But ultimately we struggled to build the systems, structures, infrastructure, teams, staff to manage three separate divisions of articles, podcasts, and video in year 1. It almost killed the company to try to do it.”

I wish him the best, but I’d never be led astray by somebody's social media following ever again.
Greg R. Jackson

But just four months prior to the shutdown of operations in Atlanta, King had tweeted that the company had “over 28,000+ founding members” signed to monthly subscriptions of $5 per month for students and $10 and up for the general public, though a former employee told me the majority of subscribers paid “at least $10 a month.” At the very minimum, 28,000 student members would mean that The North Star was bringing in $140,000 a month for a company with just “22 full-time staff members” per King’s own tweet—rather than the “50 world class journalists and staffers” promised during fundraising.

In April, King emailed me that current membership levels are now at “about 12,000,” and that the “average member is now [contributing] at the $5 level” per month. That conflicts with information on The North Star website, which still touts “over 25,000 members,” as well as a fundraiser letter King sent just two weeks prior to his correspondence with me, in which he stated that “our average member gives at the $25 a month level.”

If what King said in the email to me is accurate, that would mean that The North Star is pulling in at least $60,000 a month. If what he said in the fundraising letter is accurate, that would mean that The North Star is pulling in $625,000 a month. 

The company now employs just 14 employees, King wrote me. One of those employees appears to be King’s wife, Rai King, whom The North Star site at different times has variously identified as the company’s Chief Operating Officer and as its Operations Manager

“He seems to be a genuine guy and all that stuff, but you go off of how people treat you, not what they say or how it looks on IG, because I could paint myself as a beautiful human being on IG, too,” Jackson told me. “You know what it all boils down to? How did you handle the people that gave you their all? I wish him the best, but I'd never be led astray by somebody's social media following and all that stuff ever again.”

“Shaun and the word ‘accountability’ should never appear in the same sentence,” The North Star’s former Editor-In-Chief, Keisha N. Blain—who one former employee told me was King’s staunchest ally at the company—wrote in a tweet thread. “So many people warned me about him and I didn't listen. But I learned through experience — not rumours or innuendos but real life experience with a liar & a fraud.” 

Blain went on to write that she was “thinking of financial matters when I wrote the tweet (since he has always framed them as rumours and not facts),” and added that there “is nothing to celebrate about my collaboration with Shaun and The North Star. It was a f*cked up situation from beginning to end. And there's a lot I simply cannot say because I signed an NDA. I am just owning my shit and trying to do better and move forward. That's all.”

Blain declined to comment for this article, citing the aforementioned NDA, but wrote, “I will simply confirm that I am no longer associated with The North Star and deeply regret my previous collaboration with Shaun King.” King did not respond to questions about her departure.

Two former Atlanta employees I spoke with expressed astonishment that King’s new fundraising announcement includes the boast that “we have not had to let a single employee go or even reduce their hours,” which he may have meant as a reference to the coronavirus pandemic. Subscription dollars, King’s letter promises potential donors, will “allow us to keep our staff, and even hire new staff that have been fired from other companies over this past month.” 

“Shaun is outright lying when he says he hasn't fired anyone,” Azor wrote me. “He's gone through three different teams in a single year, and I can guarantee you that not a single person who worked for him at The North Star has a positive thing to say about him as a leader, activist, or businessman. Now he’s fundraising yet again for something he promised to deliver years ago. Shaun is really just funding his ego at this point.”

‘A missed opportunity’

In addition to his new Patreon—which currently has more than 2,200 subscribers—and weekly live broadcast, King announced his COVID-19 Help Squad in mid-March. Wary skeptics and critics tweeted their suspicions that the project was a scam, warding off potential supporters

King has countered those accusations via social media, tweeting that he has no coronavirus fundraiser, and the COVID-19 Help Squad has not directly solicited donations. But a March fundraising letter for King’s Action PAC noted its goal was to “raise $28,000 in the next five days” partly to aid “people in need due to COVID-19.” King did not respond to a question about the Action PAC’s fundraising call, and how that related to the Help Squad.

Two months after its launch, King’s COVID-19 Help Squad has just under 400 Twitter followers, and cautionary reviews on its Facebook page explain the 2.1 rating. But on Instagram, the project has amassed more than 30,000 followers, pointing to the enduring power of King’s platform, despite all critiques. 

“You’re naming something after Frederick Douglass’s The North Star—that’s the pinnacle,” Changa told me. “There's something so insidious about just taking the legacy of movement journalism. When we really look back at Ida B. Wells, at Frederick Douglass, The Chicago Defender, The Amsterdam News, we have so much history and excellence in this lane, and we're so lacking in political discourse and commentary through this particular progressive lens that is centered around blackness. And this was such a missed opportunity.”

In an Instagram video posted in early May about his work drawing attention to Arbery’s murder, King said that people questioning his integrity “stresses out the families of the victims [he] fights for.” 

In his written comment posted with that video, King stated that “I DO NOT TAKE A SALARY” at Action PAC. “I make money to feed my family in four primary ways. 1) from the media company I founded 2) from the books I write 3) speaking engagements and 4) consulting work.”

He continued, I have never received a penny I've raised for families or causes. To say I have is an outright and unfounded lie. 

“Please know that I answer these charges not for the haters, but for you to know & understand the amount of thought and effort that goes into this work. The Action PACs filings are PUBLIC.”

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