How the $4.5 Billion Crypto Money Laundering Suspect Became an Unedited Business Columnist

Heather Morgan Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Tuesday, the The US Department of Justice arrested a couple in Manhattan, both in their 30s, and accused them of conspiring to launder cryptocurrency stolen in the 2016 hack of virtual currency exchange Bitfinex. The amount of cryptocurrency seized by the Department of Justice is currently worth approximately $4.5 billion, making it by far the largest seizure in federal government history.

As the stories pile up, we learn more about the couple, Ilya Lichtenstein, 34, and Heather Morgan, 31.

One fact I learned about Heather Morgan that particularly alarmed me is that as recently as at the end of January she has contributed occasionally to Inc.com, dating back to January 2016, when I was editor of Inc. magazine and Inc.com. It may surprise readers to know that I have no idea who she is, and no recollection of anything she posted on the site while I was working there (I left Inc. at l fall 2019).

In a 2019 YouTube video, Morgan explained that she found her place in the annual Inc. 5000 conference and approached an editor from Inc., who told her how to apply for a column. No one I spoke to remembers signing it up. (The current Inc. editor did not respond to an interview request.)

How, one might ask, does an editor repeatedly publish the work of a writer he knows nothing about? Good question. In 2014, following several other publications, Inc.com decided to create an “open contributor network”. The large-scale online contributor network has its origins in the launch of The Huffington Post in 2005. Initially, founder Arianna Huffington designed the site as a group blog for some 250 literary, media and Hollywood personalities, including Walter Cronkite, David Mamet, Nora Ephron, Warren Beatty, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Diane Keaton and Norman Mailer. Ten years later, the company had been sold to AOL and claimed to have a network of 100,000 contributors, with plans to expand to 1 million.

Although The Huffington Post expanded and evolved in various ways, the extensive network of contributors – most of whom were not paid to write – was a significant factor in the company’s financial success; at the 2011 sale The Huffington PostAnnual revenues of were estimated by AOL to be at least $60 million. (In 2018, The Huffington Post announced that he was stepping away from his network of contributors.)

The model evolved at Forbes.com in a direction largely attributable to an executive named Lewis DVorkin. In 2009, DVorkin launched True/Slant, a general interest website in which contributors did not receive a flat fee per submission, but rather based on the traffic their posts generated. Another crucial element of this model was that contributors, once recruited and trained, published directly to the site, without any pre-publishing editing. True/Slant didn’t stick around very long, but Dvorkin sold the company to Forbes (an early True/Slant investor) and began to reshape Forbes.com along those lines.

By the time Inc. began seriously considering its own network in 2014, Forbes.com had over 1,000 contributors and had experienced dramatic growth in web traffic (and therefore digital revenue, because the more web pages read, the more ads served, which means more money for the publisher).

We did not envisage this step mainly for editorial reasons. Instead, we recognized in 2014 that while Inc.com’s traffic grew, there were a large number of competitors in online business journalism, and our size ranking – mid to bottom end of the list – was holding back our business. Additionally, we felt there was ample room to expand not only the volume of what we release, but also the range. The Inc. brand was a credible vehicle for many more story types (such as personal finance and product reviews) and formats (such as video) than was possible in a monthly print magazine. We thought Inc.com readers would benefit from hearing from a much broader group of columnists: company founders, academics, experts in particular business fields (such as law, human resources and accounting) , marketing experts, cutting-edge technology CEOs, and many more.

We started a massive effort to recruit contributors online, and I was very impressed with the number of contributors we found in a fairly short period of time. Those who posted once a week or less frequently were not paid for their work. To get paid, contributors had to post a minimum number of posts per month and, as with Forbes.com, their payment would be tied to traffic – a fixed amount per 1,000 page views. Since we were selling ads on these pages for more money than we were paying contributors, our interests and those of the contributors seemed aligned.

But there have been abuses: Beginning in 2016, we learned that a group of unscrupulous marketers were offering to pay our contributors to connect with their customers. We have found ways to contain and suppress this practice, and also assigned one of our reporters to investigate the practice. We also reported our findings to the Federal Trade Commission, although it must be said that the agency took no action to follow up.

This week’s news convinces me that, however effective, the open contributor network is carrying too much baggage for editors.


James Ledbetter is the author, most recently, of A Nation Under Gold: How a Precious Metal Dominated the American Imagination for Four Centuries. This essay is adapted from his chapter in Media capture: how money, digital platforms and governments control the news.

How the $4.5 Billion Crypto Money Laundering Suspect Became an Unedited Business Columnist