Several Newsweek staffers threatened to resign earlier this week, accusing the company of attempting to muzzle the publishing of a story further detailing internal turmoil at the magazine and ties to a controversial Christian college.
On Tuesday evening, Newsweek published a story about previously unreported ties between Newsweek Media Group (which also owns International Business Times) and Olivet University’s efforts to develop a campus in upstate New York. Olivet, which is affiliated with a mysterious religious sect called “The Community,” has numerous connections to former leaders of NMG.
But not before several reporters and editors made it clear to management that they would quit if Newsweek did not publish the story.
The team of journalists including Newsweek deputy editor Ross Schneiderman, news director Cristina Silva, politics editor Michael J. Mishak, and IBT reporters Josh Keefe and Josh Saul mulled resigning in protest on Tuesday if the article was not published.
“Newsweek Media Group has made it clear it will not allow us to publish a credible, independent story about the company’s financial ties to Olivet University—even though our reporting shows the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is scrutinizing those ties as part of a long-term fraud probe,” the protesting journalists said in a letter drafted—but never sent—to management, reviewed by The Daily Beast. “For this reason, we are immediately resigning from the company.”
According to one source directly involved in the process, the editors informed acting Newsweek editor Nancy Cooper of the group‘s intention to quit.
The group had been preparing a story for weeks, and met significant headwinds from the company's management.
According to a source familiar with the reporting, last week the journalists reached out to Olivet University and several others with close ties to the church, despite protests from Newsweek’s owners and previous company-wide warnings from editors advising staff against continuing reporting on the company’s financial woes or Olivet ties.
But according to the drafted resignation letter, the editors and reporters felt the story was compromised.
According to a source familiar with the reporting, subjects of Newsweek’s story began sending the reporters strange statements, arousing suspicion of a “corrupt legal review process” in which the company asked the team to name sources and demanded the team “water down or remove” NMG’s financial problems and its connections to leaders of the church.
The reporters alluded to the incident in an editor’s note on Tuesday’s story.
"We were asked to take part in a review process which, we ultimately learned, involved egregious breaches of confidentiality and journalism ethics," the group said. "We believe that subjects of the story were shown parts of the draft, if not the entire piece, prior to publication by a company executive who should not have been involved in the process."
Keefe and Saul were among several staffers whom Newsweek management considered firing earlier this month. But both were ultimately spared while management fired editor-in-chief Bob Roe, executive editor Ken Li, and reporter Celeste Katz, who had investigated the company’s recent financial woes and ties to the university, were all given the axe.
Sources familiar with the ordeal said Keefe and reporter Josh Saul were both locked out of their company accounts earlier this month and were instructed to speak to human resources, but editors intervened to reverse their firings.
Company higher-ups did not give a public explanation for why Roe, Li, and Katz were fired, though interim chief content officer Johnathan Davis told editors repeatedly in a recent meeting that Newsweek and IBT’s reporting on their parent company was degrading the publication’s brand.
“The recent string of articles has done real damage to our business relationships, to our partners,” Davis told editors, according to audio of the meeting obtained by The Daily Beast.
“Why do we need to do this necessarily to ourselves?" Davis asked later. "In the name of integrity?"
After being away from the company for 18 months, Davis was back in the building for meeting shortly before the company announced that he would be the new interim chief content officer while Dayan Candappa was investigated for sexual harassment during his previous job at Reuters (NMG later cleared him, and he returned to the company last week).
But Davis’ reappearance in the office provided an opportunity for staffers hoping to push the company on its ties to the university. This is because Davis is married to Olivet University’s president.
And so late last Monday, Keefe stormed into a meeting in Davis’ office to confront executives. According to two sources familiar with the incident, executives including NMG CEO Dev Pragad refused to answer questions and quickly bailed.
Beyond that, Newsweek has been roiled with turmoil over the past several weeks—starting when Manhattan District Attorney investigators raided the company’s office in January and hauled off 18 servers as part of a long-running investigation into the company’s finances.
Chairman Etienne Uzac and his wife Marion Kim, who also has ties to the mysterious church and was NMG’s acting finance chair, stepped down following the raid.
BuzzFeed News also reported last month that IBT was buying traffic as part of an ad scam, prompting an investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, one of the company’s advertisers.
While remaining editors told reporters not to worry about traffic, many reporters wondered whether they should bother pursuing longer stories, and if sources would want to talk to an organization in turmoil.
“I have never experienced a newsroom with such astonishingly poor leadership and lack of transparency about what is actually happening with our parent company,” one staffer told The Daily Beast. “It’s an absolute shit show and no one has any idea what’s going on.”