Meet the Weird Christian Content Mill Behind Newsweek's New Owners

Last year, when it was announced that International Business Times had bought the shrinking Newsweek brand, some media organizations started asking questions about IBT's connection to a shady Korean-born Christian minister. Now we have some new, weird info on that connection.

A new feature story in Mother Jones by Ben Dooley details the role played in IBT—and in Newsweek—by David Jang, an enigmatic pastor who has spent the past decade helping to assemble the Community, a Christian ministry, and a religiously oriented media empire that uses Jang's faithful for cheap labor.

Here are some of Dooley's major revelations:

  • International Business Times, the "flagship publication" that made IBT Media a mint and enabled his purchase of Newsweek, runs at least in part on illegal labor.
  • The way it works is: Jang courts members of his flock abroad, then brings them to the US on student visas to attend Olivet University, a Christian school in the Bay Area that he founded in 2004. But the students only do a little Bible study, instead spending "10 to 12 hours each weekday" and some weekends working for news sites, including translation of articles from English to Chinese for IBT.
  • For this, the students make "between $500—their part of the rent for the group home they shared with 8 to 10 other Community members—and $1,000, depending on the month." That's less than minimum wage.
  • IBT's "chief content officer," Jonathan Davis, formerly ran Olivet's "School of Journalism" and is married to Olivet's president. (He also is a believer in gay conversion therapy.) IBT's CEO, Etienne Uzac, used to be the university's treasurer and is married to Jang's translator.
  • "Both Olivet and IBT described these positions as internships, and said no-one was allowed to work illegally," But MoJo spoke with several students who "say they were not told they were interns, and documents from Olivet and the businesses list students as reporters, editors, and salespeople."
  • Many of Jang's followers believe he is the second coming of Christ: "They make you confess it," she told me, "like Peter did to Jesus Christ." The secret of Jang's true identity, she was told, must be protected because nonbelievers would "kill the Second Coming Lord as they did the first one."
  • International Business Times, according to a former church member who helped in IBT's launch, "was founded because Olivet University had just been started and it really needed money. [Jang] founded it by basically choosing some members of his church who had proved their business savvy."
  • Jang has claimed in sermons to his flock that the Community controls 1,400 web domains, along with click-ready "news" sites like Christian Post and Christian Today (whose name sounds a lot like Christianity Today, a much bigger publication connected to Billy Graham that's done an exposé on Jang's Community.)
  • IBT is a content mill that started with Community members as employees under draconian conditions, even plagiarizing Japanese newspapers for content. In late 2008, "total salaries, living expenses, and commissions for IBT's employees in New York and San Francisco (at least 18, according to a staff photo from this time) are shown as $11,743, with another $1,834 in tithe to the center." Two years later, staffers couldn't afford even eating at the Olivet student union, where they were bussed for cheap meals. One employee asked a company officer in an email: "Will they starve"?
  • Olivet University engages in shady visa-credentialing practices to ensure its related websites have enough workers, according to internal emails. It makes either $1.5 million or $9.7 million a year, depending on which public documents you read. One professor quit over the university's lack of transparency, but couldn't get the school to take him off its faculty list. Another professor was kept on the site as a faculty member for nearly a year after he'd died.

Does any of this bear on Newsweek's future? IBT Media's ostensible owners, despite their ties to Jang and the Community, downplay his role in the company. Yet they were clearly excited about purchasing Newsweek's "cachet," and IBT's labor supplier, Olivet University, makes no bones about spreading a "Gospel message" through its media holdings.

The question is how long Newsweek's cachet might actually pay off for its new owners, considering how the brand's shrunk over the years, and how its first big scoop in the IBT era—the "outing" of Bitcoin's founder—blew up in its face. But who knows? With God, all things are possible.

[Photo credit: AP]