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Who's Behind Newsweek?

Why are the new owners so anxious to hide their ties to an enigmatic religious figure?

| May/June 2014 Issue

Despite Jang's hopes, IBT didn't immediately rain down blessings. Internal documents show that when IBT was low on cash, it would receive injections from other Community-affiliated organizations. A 2006 news item from Verenet titled "The Servitude of Veremedia" brags that "over 95%" of all revenue at Veremedia, a Community-affiliated ad agency, "goes to supporting missions and other ministries, including…IBT."

This money wasn't simply payments for ads Veremedia sold for IBT, the article explains. "Veremedia has begun selling for companies outside of our own ministries," it continues. "Revenue generated from these sales is used to support IBTimes until the sales agencies begin to bring in large advertising deals."

Internal Veremedia emails tell a similar story. "By grace of God, PD gave us honor to help…IBTimes and other ministries," Sophia Yu, Veremedia's accounting manager, wrote in an October 2007 email. "Soon, we will know that money we spent to help other ministries were truly put to good purpose. It's all used to build our kingdom that we will live in. I am really thankful that God chose our team to be used in that way."

Veremedia and other Community ministries didn't always come through. In November 2009, the First Bank of Missouri sued IBT and Verecom, the Community-affiliated web design firm, for more than $113,000 in back rent and associated fees. When the companies didn't pay, the bank went after their guarantor: Olivet. The parties settled out of court. Olivet guaranteed Verecom and IBT's debt because it saw "an opportunity to get an internship program with this company in a way that was very affordable to the school," Olivet President Tracy Davis said in an interview.

"When PD comes, we will give him tithe about $2k to him directly."

Two former IBT employees told me that the company's payroll was sometimes behind schedule and employees were frequently scrambling for cash. Yet despite its financial struggles, IBT made donations to other Community entities. In the fourth quarter of 2008, according to internal budget documents, IBT donated more than $10,000 to Olivet's San Francisco and New York City campuses, and tithed $6,400 to the Olivet Center for World Mission, which three former members told me was an internal unit of the Community that also handled Jang's expenses. The same documents indicate that during this period, IBT was behind on the $20,000-per-month rent on its New York office. (Tracy Davis acknowledged IBT had made donations to Olivet in the past, and said the Olivet Center was started by Olivet alumni and focuses on missionary work abroad.)

IBT wasn't the only Community-affiliated business sending money to the Olivet Center. A 2007 annual balance sheet for Veremedia shows $53,444.04 of donations to it. Occasionally funds appear to have been given to Jang himself. "When PD comes, we will give him tithe about $2k to him directly," Yu, Veremedia's accounting manager, said in the October email.

Though Jang did not lead a lavish lifestyle, the Community also struggled to finance his expenses. A November 2009 message outlining various financial shortfalls and asking for donations lists $50,000 for Jang's son's wedding among the outstanding debts. In March 2010, a senior Community leader wrote that a Korean Community leader had phoned to express her frustration with the group for allowing Pastor David to get behind on his car payments.

In the fall of 2010, Uzac sent an email from his IBT account to Davis and other senior IBT employees. Olivet's extension campus in Kirkwood, New York, he wrote, owed $9,000 to various creditors. A check to one of them had bounced.

IBT had just $4,200 left in its Citibank account, Uzac warned—and that was only thanks "to the return of a blank check we gave to OU. So we put that in OU NY account along with 2.2k left in our Chase, ran to Chase deposited everything, so OU NY had enough money to get that check force paid. The branch manager was very angry at Ruth as she did the same thing yesterday for another check."
 

IBT was always publishing "slideshows of Miss America winners and things like that," one former employee told me. "As a journalist, it was just an incredibly demoralizing place to work." Management, another former employee told me, issued "impossible" demands for ad sales and content—in one month, they were to increase revenue by millions of dollars, a minimum of 10,000 hits per article—and fired those who couldn't deliver. In late 2011 and early 2012, IBT brought on an entirely new sales team, four former employees told me, and then sacked them all in March 2012, without severance or explanation.

The constant demand for clickbait meant that staffers spent much of their time rewriting and aggregating stories from other sites. It's a common practice, but at IBT the pressure led, in at least one instance, to a major ethical lapse. In the summer of 2010, Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, reported that of the 432 articles IBT's Japan edition published between July 1 and August 19, 302 were created by copying sentences from Japanese newspapers, wire services, and broadcasters and combining them, collage-style, to create seemingly new stories. The company's Japanese CEO apologized for the incident, blaming it on a contract employee.

Many early IBT employees were Community members, and low salaries were sometimes supplemented by rent and food subsidies. IBT financials from this period list "housing" and "living expenses," as well as "tithe" to the Olivet Center, among the company's expenses. In December 2008, for example, 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.

"Will they starve?"

In March 2010, Johnathan Davis wrote to Veremedia, the Community-affiliated ad agency, to beg for money to pay IBT workers who lived with their small children on Treasure Island, a community in the San Francisco Bay. Staffers normally commuted by bus to the company's downtown office, where they could eat at Olivet's Student Union, but with cash running short, Davis said with palpable concern, they couldn't afford the fare. His correspondent noted that people at other ministries were being paid sporadically too, asking, "Will they starve?"

 


One day, about three years after Anne joined the Community, her pastor asked if she wanted a job. "My pastor said, 'We have this ministry, we have that ministry. We have this company, we have that company. Who wants to go to this company? I can recommend you.'" She asked to be sent to IBT, where she hoped to learn more about journalism. She met Caleb while working for IBT in China, and the following year the couple flew to Korea, where Jang bestowed his blessing on them and 11 other couples.

A little more than a year later, Anne and Caleb applied for F-1 student visas so they could move to the United States and attend Olivet. This was not an uncommon trajectory for Olivet students. One, who remembers the experience fondly, said that among Jang's followers in China, Olivet was seen as a place where people could "worship God and learn the words of God in a free country…In addition, they enjoy the free housing, free meals, and free course study. What a miracle! They call the campus heaven!"

Caleb received his F-1 visa without much difficulty, but Anne failed the interview for hers, and instead received an F-2 visa, which is given to the spouses and dependents of F-1 student visa holders. In March 2011, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Caleb continued working for IBT, and Anne found a job on Olivet's campus.

"The members suffer. They are young, naive, believe the teachings. And they work basically for free."

That, too, wasn't unusual: Every former member I spoke with told me that all of Olivet's students and their spouses, regardless of visa status, worked for the Community's ministries in some capacity. In addition, Olivet documents list numerous students as holding positions at IBT, Christian Post, and other ministries. Seven former students I interviewed told me that they worked at ministries elsewhere in the United States while enrolled at Olivet in San Francisco; like Caleb, many of these people believed they were working illegally. Four of these students, including Caleb, worked at IBT.

The law governing F-1 visas allows students to work on-campus for 20 hours per week. They can also work off-campus as part of "practical training" in their field—but only with special permission from the school. A spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) explains that while the rules are "broad, so as not to be restrictive," work should be directly related to the student's major area of study.

Olivet documents show that the school periodically sent out reminders urging students to ensure they complied with visa regulations, and Tracy Davis says that while compensation in these internships was left up to employers, no one was allowed to work illegally. She also says that in OU's view, theology studies inform "all walks of life," and students should not be "prohibited from any vocational internship." OU says that it had an internship program with IBT for several years (during a period when Johnathan Davis served as both the head of Olivet's journalism program and IBT's executive editor). Tracy Davis says the IBT internship program ended two or three years ago.

Yet as recently as 2012, Olivet students were listed on IBT's staff roster and emails in a variety of positions, from editors to sales and IT staff. Asked about six such individuals, Davis responded that "each of the individuals was, or is, either an intern or employee of IBT Media and satisfied relevant employment eligibility requirements including, where appropriate, visa requirements." However, OU documents do not refer to students working at IBT as interns, and a number of former OU students I spoke to said the work was not characterized to them as an internship.

"Give it to students at OU, and they'll do it."

Jang also appears to have counted on Olivet students to help IBT. Notes taken during a March 2008 meeting with Jang and sent to IBT staffers record his suggestion that IBT leaders have Olivet students implement new features on the company's site. "Give it to students at OU, and they'll do it," Jang said, according to the notes. The students, he said, should work in teams and compete to see "who will make it better and who makes…millions of unique visitors."

Rules on how and where international students can work have historically been spottily enforced. In 2011, ICE did shut down a Bay Area Christian school, Tri-Valley University, for admitting F-1 students who held jobs while taking a few classes online. But according to a February report from the Government Accountability Office, Washington "has not consistently collected the information and developed the monitoring mechanisms needed to help ensure foreign students comply."

But if there's room for interpretation in the F-1 rules, the regulations for F-2 visa holders, such as Anne, are quite clear: They may not work, on campus or off—not even in unpaid internships. Yet Olivet officials appear to have instructed these visa holders to do just that. "If every single person attends all ESL classes and other major courses, we can't really find enough workers for each ministry on campus," Lydia An, an employee in Olivet's finance office, wrote from her official Olivet account on January 2012. "We cannot let everyone on campus to focus on study only…We've came to a decision that F-2 students should focus on ministries more while F-1 students study in classes for 2011 winter quarter. Rooms and food will be provided free of charge as long as F-2 students work and maintain a certain work performance in a ministry."

 

That makes no sense, says Anna Stepanova, an immigration lawyer who has worked on F-1 and F-2 visa cases: "There are no F-2 students," she said. "They're dependents. They accompany F-1 students. They're not supposed to work."

Tracy Davis says An's email referred to cooperative child care. "This is an email that's talking to married students in the context of family work and child rearing," she said. "If you put the word 'family' in front of this word 'work,' it's not talking about work where you get a W-2. It's talking about family work and shared child care."

"Rooms and food will be provided free of charge as long as F-2 students work and maintain a certain work performance in a ministry."

Susan Chua, who says she was dispatched to the San Francisco offices of the Christian Post after coming to Olivet on an F-2 visa, says that doesn't reflect what she was told. For believers like her, she says, working in the Community's businesses was simply another way of serving the Lord. "Whether they came to US with F-1 or F-2 visas, the majority of them were devoted members to the community and their belief system. They were going to work extremely hard and sacrificially and obediently and joyfully for the building of the ark—the various ministries in the whole community."

"There was no concept of pay at that time in the community," Chua added. "You were feeling obligated to donate and contribute instead of receiving. The little money given by the ministry office you were working in was to cover bus fares and cheap meals in [Olivet's] Student Union."

Another former student told me, "The members suffer. They are young, naive, believe the teachings. After some time they find themselves without money, because they donated what they had. And they work basically for free…The visa thing and being far from home makes things more complicated."

Not everyone working for Olivet—or IBT—was in a position to know about these practices. Although most Community-affiliated companies initially employed only Community members, by the end of 2010, IBT and Veremedia had begun hiring nonmembers. At one point, Veremedia marketing manager Sophia Yu wrote that she was worried the new hires would find out the company was hiring "illegal people," since she knew it was a "crime."

William Willis was hired as the part-time, advisory dean of the Olivet College of Journalism in 2008 by Johnathan Davis, then its director. For the first year of his affiliation with the school, Willis told me, he couldn't get a student roster or a complete list of classes. "At times," he wrote in a July 2009 email to a fellow faculty member, "it seems like most of the administrators there are—like me—in a part-time and advisory capacity, and that the place is almost being run by remote control. I can't even get a full operating budget for the OCJ, of which I am listed as dean."

When Willis finally did receive a budget, it was one sheet of paper with what he described as two "very large" numbers (he couldn't recall what they were) written on it.

Public documents Olivet filed about its finances also provide a confusing picture. Documents submitted by the school to the IRS show total revenue, including donations, of a little more than $1.5 million in 2007. Yet in an annual report submitted by Olivet that same year to the Association of Biblical Higher Education, its accrediting agency, the university claims $9.7 million in total revenue for the same year. Donations accounted for $4.7 million of that amount. Tracy Davis says this is due to normal differences between 990 filings and internal financials. "For example, Stanford, which is also in Silicon Valley, has [a] huge difference between their 990 filings and their financials," she said. She added that at Olivet, the difference was accounted for by "collaborative projects that we work on with partners," as well as "operations, especially abroad, to support our online students."

Ron Kroll, the director of ABHE's accreditation commission, told me that the organization had investigated the matter and found that the school was "fulfilling its reporting requirements appropriately."

Willis, for his part, was disquieted by the lack of transparency and came to feel that Olivet is "more shadows than substance." When university officials, including Davis, ignored his repeated requests for more information, he took the issue to the school's then-president, David Randolph. After an email received no response, "I went up to him and said, 'Look, I need to know where this place is getting its money from,'" Willis told me.

"As an educator, I couldn't in good conscience continue on."

"That's a good question," Randolph replied, according to Willis. "I never figured it out either." (Randolph did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

With no answers forthcoming, Willis resigned. "As an educator," he said, "I couldn't in good conscience continue on. I felt the students that were drawn into the program weren't being well served." Olivet's website continued to list him as a faculty member long after his departure, removing his name only after repeated requests. Journalism professor Bill Alnor was listed as the instructor for seven classes for nearly a full year after his death in March 2011.
 

Despite the multitude of businesses in its orbit, the Community was regularly short of money, former members told me. As recently as 2012, internal emails indicate that Olivet struggled to pay its rent and feared having its utilities shut off. Community members "borrowed" and "begged," to help out, one source who worked as a reporter at IBT told me: "PD would explicitly or implicitly ask them to take money from their families." Jang "told us to look into our parents' eyes and ask them for money," another member said.

Not even Uzac escaped the pressure. In January 2009, IBT was at least $100,000 in debt to various creditors. The company owed the Associated Press $33,000 and had lost its subscription to the news service, a serious obstacle to keeping the site's firehose of content flowing.

During an emergency online conference with Jang and other members of IBT management to discuss the problem, Uzac offered to approach his grandparents for the money, according to a transcript. "Call them up today and ask them if you can borrow," Jang wrote, in Korean, with Uzac's wife, Marion Kim, translating. (Kim denies translating this exchange.) "You're indebted against the office that Pastor made for you. This is shame," he continued. "In the midst of such imp. battle, the ones who are sluggish and not working and quarreling won't be forgiven from now on. Since it's a challenge against our authority and power will be given a great punishment later and not use them again. Understand?"
 

By January 2013, Anne and Caleb had left San Francisco and returned to China. They were living in Beijing, and Caleb was working as a translator. Like other former members I interviewed, they saw the Community as being in decline.

But when news came, in August, of IBT's purchase of Newsweek, that perception changed. Community members saw the deal as a potent sign of Jang's power, and some former members I spoke to wondered if it meant his teachings might have merit after all. Suddenly, people who had agreed to speak to me on the record changed their mind.

Their concern was not unreasonable. The Community is litigious. "We have to punish them," Jang said of his critics, according to the transcript of an August 2008 sermon in Korea. "We have many organizations so if they compensate, they should compensate a lot. After one is over, another organization will sue them again so all their lives they will be sued." He has been true to his word: Community ministries have legally threatened or sued at least five people who have written about or come out against the group. And after Ted Olsen and Ken Smith (who provided me with some documents and introduced me to Susan Chua) wrote about Jang in Christianity Today, the Jang-founded Christian Post published a story headlined "Christianity Today Writer Ken Smith Is Founder of a Company Fined for Deceptive Business Practices; With Child Porn Ties." The Post didn't address Olsen and Smith's claims about Jang in that story, and didn't disclose the Post's association with the pastor. Instead, it targeted Smith, outlining how Zango, a company Smith cofounded, had produced software that some users later used to distribute pornography. Smith wrote that he took the article to imply that he was "all but a purveyor of child pornography."

"We have to punish them."

Today, most IBT employees are not members of the Community. As of February 2012, only around 20 of the 100 employees listed in the company's US directory had worked for other Community-affiliated groups. Impoco and the rest of the Newsweek staff are accomplished career journalists with no ties to the Community's religious endeavors.

"I'm satisfied that I'm stepping into a professional newsroom, and I'm simply not very interested in the personal beliefs of whom I'm working alongside or for," Goodman, IBT's new editor, told Mother Jones. "I can't speak to [Uzac and Davis'] decision to discuss their faith or not discuss their faith, but I can tell you every conversation I've had with them since I met them has been about the journalism. There's just been nothing unusual that caught my attention."

We spoke on March 24, his first day on the job.

Additional reporting by Alex Park and Nick Baumann.

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