Owners of the parent company of Newsweek magazine and International Business Times plans to deepen its business relationship with a small Christian university founded by controversial Korean-American pastor David Jang.

The plans were discussed by Newsweek Media Group co-owner Johnathan Davis and Olivet University President Tracy Davis in an exclusive International Business Times interview conducted by Newsweek Media Group editors.

The Davises addressed their relationship with Jang, who leads a Christian denomination known as the World Olivet Assembly, the couple’s intertwined interests and their goals for Newsweek and the growing Olivet campus in upstate New York. They also showed Newsweek Media Group editors around the newly renovated campus, where residents were gathering for a Friday night worship service and some students could be seen through the windows in a dormitory.

In the interview, Johnathan and Tracy Davis, who are married to each other, discussed the much-scrutinized business ties between the company and the university for the first time. They addressed questions that have arisen over the years about Jang’s role in the business and attributed the small university’s expertise in technology to its history of supporting underground churches in countries where Christian teaching is restricted.

Johnathan Davis, who founded IBT Media with Etienne Uzac in 2006 in New York City, said he was able to start the digital media company with technological and other support from Olivet, where his wife was employed.

Olivet, which is associated with the World Olivet Assembly, is rapidly expanding with campuses in California and New York. Its revenues grew from $1.4 million in 2006 to $28 million in 2015 with roughly 1,100 students. During that time, Olivet University and its affiliates purchased nearly 3,000 acres in Dover, New York, about two hours north of New York City, where Tracy Davis said the school planned to build a sprawling campus with 15 dormitories, six buildings devoted to its R&D operations, a medical school and a preschool-12th grade academy for young members of the Christian organization.

Tracy Davis attributed the school’s rapid success to its Evangelical Christian worldview and its R&D deals with various digital media companies linked to Olivet, including Newsweek Media Group. She compared Olivet’s relationship to Newsweek Media Group to the close ties between Stanford University and Google in California and Mark Zuckerberg launching Facebook at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Olivet University Campus The Olivet University campus, Dover, New York. Photo: Josh Keefe/Newsweek

The Friday interview occurred a month after the Manhattan District Attorney’s office raided Newsweek Media Group’s offices, revealing the existence of a 17-month-long investigation into the company’s finances, and two weeks after Newsweek Media Group fired Newsweek Editor Bob Roe and two others as an IBT/Newsweek team looked into the DA probe. After a public backlash over the dismissals, Johnathan Davis said he planned to appoint an ombudsman to oversee standards going forward.

The following are excerpts from the three-hour interview with Jonathan Davis and Tracy Davis, as well as Dev Pragad, CEO of Newsweek Media.

Tracy Davis: We have a very specific mission and vision as an educational institution… Our mission is to train people who have a very clear view of the world, essentially a Christian worldview that God exists, sin entered, the only way to remedy that problem that is leading to destruction of this world and ourselves is through salvation. We need to be saved through Jesus Christ. And this world is going in a good direction to the Kingdom of God… So that’s the clear worldview that people who attend this university have. It’s a Biblical worldview. And we are working together to train, basically as an educational training ground for everybody who shares this worldview. And we are a training ground for a denomination… That denomination is named the World Olivet Assembly. So we are not a church: we are a religious school that serves, as let’s say the West Point Military Academy, the spiritual military academy, I suppose, of the World Olivet Assembly.

Johnathan Davis: The first company server actually was off of my credit card and I remember that very well actually because it was big expense for me. But as we started to get readership, then the server crashed, so there was only so much we could do so we needed help essentially. So we started to explore avenues to help us build out this company and there was one thing that was very clear that we didn’t want to do, which was to give up equity in the company. We saw that as something that looked to be very detrimental. Also, considering, how we envisioned the company to build itself out, we didn’t want to give up ownership that could potentially come back and bite us. So we explored various ways. At that time, my wife, Tracy, as you guys have come to know, was the academic dean at that time… We explored some products together and the product of that exploration was basically R&D and licensing.

Newsweek Media Editors: So the IT was two parts. It was the CMS, and it was the advertising system, or the ad server?

Johnathan Davis: Correct…  

[After the interview, CEO Pragad emailed the following statement to Newsweek Media Group editors: “Since 2006, the University developed various versions of digital publishing platform which IBT used to build and scale its digital media business. The University shared its proprietary technology solutions to assist in building out these platforms through multiple phases of research and development. IBT currently has royalty free use of the IP after completing licensing and R&D payments to the University... Digital publishing platform included CMS, ad server that was phased out in 2010 and various other publishing and API features.”]

Newsweek Media Editors: At the time they worked on this project… were they on Olivet’s payroll or were they on IBT’s payroll?

Johnathan Davis: The alumni were clearly on our payroll and also the people inside the company who were interns were on our payroll but we had programs where they had credit, for example. It was like a back and forth.

Newsweek Media Editors: We are talking about IBT starting in 2006 and the school was founded in 2004… Obviously you have a variety of schools you could partner with. Why Olivet?

Johnathan Davis: There are several aspects to that. First is, we saw the capabilities and the type of people that were coming out of the university and we felt that they had what it took to essentially co-work together with us. They are producing quality graduates, one. Two is that we all share the same worldview.

Newsweek Media Editors: How has Olivet grown and become so successful in such a short amount of time? Is it through the R&D deals? Is it through tuition?

Tracy Davis: It’s a combination, along with contributions from alumni.

Newsweek Media Editors: Has David Jang been an adviser in any way to IBT Media and did he perhaps help create this relationship between Olivet and IBT?

Johnathan Davis: To the second question no, and to the first question, he has no formal relationship with IBT Media.

Newsweek Media Editors: Did he provide any of the money that helped start it up?

Johnathan Davis: No.

Newsweek Media Editors: You used a very specific formulation, though, to answer the first question, which is did he play any role in advising. You said he has no formal relationship, so it implies that there is an informal relationship, are we reading that implication correctly, and what is that informal relationship?

Johnathan Davis: We, as young entrepreneurs struggled with a lot of different challenges building the company, and we would take advice wherever we could get it. But the decision making for the company was ours and ours alone.

Newsweek Media Editors: Right, but I am going to press again. So you sought advice where you could get it. Does that include from Pastor Jang?

Johnathan Davis: It doesn’t preclude him. We sought advice everywhere to build the company and given his background, we valued his advice also. But it was something where we would seek it out and if he had advice that was helpful for us then we would take that into consideration. It was something that we looked for.

Newsweek Media Editors: Did Olivet or someone else, some other entity help buy Newsweek? How did you fund that purchase?

Dev Pragad: The university did not help, nor did the church help.

Newsweek Media Editors: The reason that we started writing stories about the company was the day that we all came in and there were investigators from the District Attorney’s office when we showed up to work. Naturally we started asking questions ... and that becomes a natural news story, that’s why we are all here talking about this... And trying to understand these links and these relationships becomes even more important when we learn what the investigation is looking at and what investigators are interested in. And one of these links that they are interested in are the financial ties between Olivet University and Newsweek Media Group. I wanted to ask about Olivet’s statement from just a couple of weeks ago. Right after the raid, the school offered a statement that said, any reports tying Olivet to either Newsweek Media Group and/or the Manhattan District Attorney probe of Newsweek Media Group are inaccurate. That, from what we understand now, from even our conversation today, it’s obvious that it’s not inaccurate.

Tracy Davis: That sounds accurate, that sounds accurate to me, because, if you can read it once again.

Newsweek Media Editors: OK. Any reports tying Olivet to either Newsweek Media Group and/or the Manhattan District Attorney…

Tracy Davis: That’s right, and/or.

Newsweek Media Editors: …probe “are inaccurate.”

Tracy Davis: That’s correct… There is no connection there.

Newsweek Media Editors: I want to do a sort of step-back question about media and the media community… As I am sure you understand, firing Bob [Roe], Ken [Li] and the reporter, Celeste [Katz], for working on the story, caused a lot of damage to the brand and its credibility. And I’m wondering if you anticipated that and what you are thinking about doing to repair that.

Johnathan Davis: I am not going to comment on any past employees of our company, however, I will reiterate that an independent and free newsroom has always been our intention, now and moving forward.

Newsweek Media Editors: I think we should then follow up with this, Johnathan… the story that they were working on is going to be published… Should any of the people working on it be concerned that they will be fired if the story goes out, and if not, why not?

Johnathan Davis: My intention is not to do any type of censorship. Our intention is to have a free and independent newsroom. However, we want to make sure that the reporting and the stories that we are doing are adhering to the highest standards possible. And I think if you can assure that as the editor, and your team is assuring that of the reportage that is coming out, then everyone is happy.

Dev Pragad: Johnathan, can you talk about the future of Newsweek and Olivet?

Johnathan Davis: I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to continue the relationship with the university and to take advantage of the incredible resources that the university has at hand to help... And I think this is going to give us a strategic advantage to continue to compete in the global marketplace. We need to see this as an advantage that we have as a company versus the competitors that we are going against in this difficult and hostile environment. So developing out the technology is obviously an important aspect of that, continuing to globalize, to launch editions, whether that’s with your alumni or not, is going to be an important aspect of that, and essentially keeping our company at the cutting edge of digital publishing… I anticipate and hope that the relationship with Olivet University continues to be a fruitful one.

Tracy Davis: I feel like this is a proposal. [laughter]

Newsweek Media Editors: How does a Bible college have such deep technical expertise?

Tracy Davis: R&D is just a tool for mission inside of our school and that’s how it came out, just like many of the best companies, they came out of trying to solve a deep need or pain in the world. Well, it’s the same for research and development at Olivet. So, there is a deep need and pain in people who don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ according to our faith and so trying to reach those people especially in countries and places where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not, there’s a lot of hostility to preaching it, then these tools emerged from quite normal people but some of whom were gifted by God with the charisma of technology talent, IT talent, design talent, content development talent, and working together to find ways to reach at least one more person with this good education that Olivet offers. That’s how R&D emerged.

Newsweek Media Editors: What I am trying to understand is as a commercial entity, Newsweek Media Group would turn to you and your technology resources rather than say another entity, because your resources are simply better, or because they are more cost effective?

Tracy Davis: Both.