Yesterday, Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey, of the Wall Street Journal, broke a huge media-business story: BuzzFeed is buying HuffPost in a stock deal, part of a broader package that will see Verizon Media, HuffPost’s current owner, take a minority stake and make a cash investment in BuzzFeed. The two companies will also collaborate in areas including content sharing and advertising. Online, media-watchers made variations on the same joke: HuffFeed, BuzzPost, HuffingBuzz, BuffPeed. (The tech blogger Jane Manchun Wong coded a script to exhaust all the portmanteau possibilities.) Meanwhile, staff at HuffPost were reportedly finding out about the deal the same way as the rest of us. “Reading a copy-and-pasted version of the story about my media company being acquired because I couldn’t get past the WSJ paywall,” Christopher Mathias, who covers the far right for HuffPost, tweeted. “2020 media babyyyyy.”
As Mathias also noted, news of the acquisition came two years to the day since a New York Times interview with Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO (and a founder of both BuzzFeed and HuffPost), made a splash in the media word: Peretti mused about a possible mega-merger involving a bevy of digital publishers who would, in his conception, consolidate to demand better financial terms from Facebook and Google, and namechecked Vice Media, Vox Media, Group Nine Media, and Refinery29 as examples of competitors doing “interesting work.” Since then, all those companies have been involved in acquisitions—Vice Media bought Refinery29, Group Nine bought PopSugar, and Vox Media bought New York Media, which publishes New York magazine. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, has retrenched, implementing sharp cuts both before and since the start of the pandemic. As the Journal has reported, the scale of cuts this year, including layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions, will allow BuzzFeed to break even for the first time since 2014. (Disclosure: I worked for BuzzFeed as an intern in 2017.)
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Peretti says that there will be no further layoffs at BuzzFeed as a result of the HuffPost acquisition, but he hasn’t made a similar commitment on the HuffPost side, saying only that BuzzFeed executives will wait to finalize the deal and review HuffPost’s business before making any big decisions. Media acquisitions typically involve layoffs (often dressed up in the soulless language of “synergies”), and as Alexandra Steigrad recently reported for the New York Post, industry insiders expected that a (then-hypothetical) HuffPost sale would likely involve heavy staff cuts given the outlet’s falling revenue and high operating costs. Yesterday, sources with knowledge of the deal told Edmund Lee and Tiffany Hsu, of the Times, that Verizon is giving BuzzFeed cash, in part, to help pay severance packages. For now, we know that the BuzzFeed and HuffPost newsrooms will continue to operate independently of each other (no portmanteaux here, then), though Mark Schoofs, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, told staff in a memo that there will be room for collaboration, and HuffPost’s editor in chief (a position that has been vacant since Lydia Polgreen departed for Gimlet Media earlier this year) will report to Schoofs, albeit in an “oversight” rather than a “management” capacity. We also know that HuffPost’s union has “successor language” in its contract, meaning that the union will survive the takeover.
After news of the deal broke yesterday, media-watchers began to chew over what it might mean in a broader sense, beyond newsroom dynamics. Sara Fischer, of Axios, wrote that BuzzFeed will get “scale for cheap” out of the deal, whereas HuffPost will get “a lifeline”; Bijan Stephen, of The Verge, noted that Verizon Media taking a minority stake in BuzzFeed is a “little funny” given reports that the company has been trying to get out of the digital-media business, not further entangle itself. My CJR colleague Mathew Ingram speculated that the minority stake could eventually help pave an “exit route” for BuzzFeed; Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted that the acquisition is not good news for AOL and Yahoo, other Verizon Media properties. The deal will likely mean integration around commerce opportunities: Verizon Media has sought to expand in this area, both through affiliate links (which drive sales to third-party retailers) and the production of original content, while BuzzFeed has expanded its affiliate business, too, including in partnership with an adult-entertainment company that, as of last week, makes a BuzzFeed-branded sex toy. (Yesterday, Peter Kafka, of Recode, asked Peretti whether we can soon expect to see a HuffPost-branded sex toy, too. “We don’t own HuffPost yet, so we’ve got to wait to have those important conversations,” Peretti replied.)
Consolidation has become so common in the media industry that the sadness of the trend—good outlets being forced into defensive maneuvers by a terrible business climate—can sometimes feel secondary to its sense of inevitability. “BuzzFeed and HuffPost, for all their issues, represented prototypes of good faith digital news operations,” Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, tweeted yesterday. “As they consolidate, and possibly shrink a little, consider the political money currently growing bottom-feeding wildly misleading networks of local and national news.”
Management at BuzzFeed is projecting positivity about the deal: Schoofs characterized it as “hopeful and exciting news” that constitutes a vote of confidence in BuzzFeed’s business model; Peretti told Kafka that, having spoken to staff, “there’s a general feeling of excitement from everyone so far.” Management, of course, would say that. But, within the constraints of the current digital-media landscape, there is a path forward here that would warrant such positivity; if the retention of editorial staff can be prioritized and the deal helps generate revenue that can be reinvested in journalism, then the readers of two outlets that do much great work and employ many talented, straight-shooting reporters stand to benefit. As one such reporter, Mathias, put it on Twitter yesterday, “what if this… is actually good media news and not bad media news?”
Below, more on the media business:
- The Boston Globe: Linda Henry—who, along with her husband, John W. Henry, owns the parent company of the Boston Globe—has taken over as its CEO, having previously served as managing director. (The company also owns Boston.com and Stat, which covers health and medicine.) Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, writes for WGBH that the appointment signals that the Henrys are committed to the paper for the long term, and also means that there will no longer be a middleman between the Globe and its owners. The paper’s union is currently embroiled in tense, protracted contract talks with management; this week, union members criticized the Henrys for the paper’s use of Jones Day, a law firm that has represented Trump in his election legal fight. (ICYMI, CJR’s Andrew McCormick profiled Jones Day last year.)
- The Ringer: For the Times, Noam Scheiber reports on tensions at The Ringer, the Spotify-owned sports-media company where a push to bring on celebrity contributors has rankled union members, who fear they are being sidelined by non-unionized contract workers. Management at The Ringer moved to recognize the union but have yet to agree a contract with it, and some staffers have said that Bill Simmons, The Ringer’s founder, unfollowed them on Twitter after they expressed support for the union—a damaging move, the staffers said, since “Simmons’s Twitter account, with its millions of followers, was a significant source of web traffic.”
- Lenfest: For CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project newsletter, Lauren Harris reports from a virtual summit convened by the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, dedicated to reimagining journalism in Philadelphia. (You can subscribe to Harris’s newsletter here.)
- CJR: For our new magazine on a transitional moment for journalism, Darryl Holliday, who leads the news lab at City Bureau in Chicago, outlines what journalism can learn from mutual aid. “As I witnessed the collective efforts taking shape around me this summer, I considered, not for the first time, the role that journalists occupy in a community—and our failure to address the fundamental human needs within it,” Holliday writes. “I wondered: What is the mutual aid equivalent for local news?”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, lawyers for President Trump held an absolutely unhinged press conference to launder a massive election-fraud conspiracy theory involving Hugo Chávez, the (long-dead) former president of Venezuela, and George Soros. Glenn Kessler, a fact checker at the Washington Post, called the presser “the craziest news conference of the Trump presidency,” but that didn’t stop Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN from airing the whole thing live for ninety minutes. At one point, Rudy Giuliani cited the Joe Pesci movie My Cousin Vinny by way of evidence; at another, a strange black liquid started to ooze down his cheeks. The internet suspected that it was hair dye, but “several Manhattan hairdressers” consulted by the Times doubt that hypothesis. (ICYMI last week, I wrote about how Trump’s attack on the election can be funny and scary all at the same time.)
- Paul Farhi, of the Post, writes that pool reports—the typically mundane accounts of the president’s daily business that White House correspondents produce on a rota for distribution to other outlets—have often taken on a snarkier tone as the Trump presidency nears its end. The shift has “started to irritate” White House press staffers, Farhi reports, and in response, the White House Correspondents’ Association is discussing “what it can do about pool reports that stray from its rules of the road.” (One would think that its time might be better spent discussing something else.)
- The Post’s Joyce Sohyun Lee, Robert O’Harrow, Jr., and Elyse Samuels investigated what happened when Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager from Illinois, shot and killed two men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August, amid protests that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the city. Rittenhouse spoke to the Post in his first interview since the shootings. He was too young to buy a gun himself, so arranged for a friend to buy one for him using government stimulus money that Rittenhouse had received.
- The union representing staffers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette elected Lacretia Wimbley, a breaking-news reporter at the paper, as its new president; her predecessor, Michael Fuoco, recently resigned from the union and the paper after Mike Elk, of Payday Report, outlined allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Members of the union have had tense relations with management, and recently voted to authorize a strike. Elk has more.
- Alex Paterson and Brianna January, of Media Matters for America, identified 139 stories, across 109 different outlets, that collectively misgendered or deadnamed twenty-three of the thirty-seven trans people reported killed in the US this year. (Deadnaming is when a trans person is called by the name they used before they transitioned.) The errors were “often a result of media parroting police reports,” Paterson and January found.
- Amid growing antitrust scrutiny, Google will stop rewarding publishers who use AMP, a Google-designed mobile format, with preferential placement in search results. Publishers have long complained about AMP; The Markup’s Adrianne Jeffries has more. Elsewhere, Google signed copyright deals with six French publishers, including Le Monde, after EU regulators said news outlets could make Google pay to show snippets of their stories.
- Also in France, fallout continues from a bill that would crack down on the sharing of images that show police officers’ faces. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, has now promised to exempt journalists from the proposal, but the details remain sketchy, and Darmanin also this week defended the arrest of a reporter at a protest on the grounds that he didn’t “approach the authorities” first. Meanwhile, the daily Libération protested the bill by publishing a cover image with President Emmanuel Macron’s face blurred out.
- In the UK, a libel case in the “WAGatha Christie” affair is underway; Rebekah Vardy, who is married to a soccer star, is suing Coleen Rooney, who is married to another, after Rooney alleged—after mounting an elaborate Instagram-based sting operation—that Vardy was leaking stories about her to the press. Rooney’s attorney said in court that, technically, Rooney blamed “………Rebekah Vardy’s account,” not Vardy herself.
- And Rachel Maddow was back hosting her MSNBC show from her home last night, after she had to quarantine following her exposure to covid. On air, Maddow revealed that Susan Mikula, her partner, had contracted the disease. “At one point, we really thought there was a possibility that it might kill her,” Maddow said. Mikula is now recovering.
From the magazine: Tax Dollars at WorkJon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.