The media industry’s preexisting conditions

In March and April—as the economic crisis linked to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, started to hammer the media industry—news organizations made cuts. Some of these involved layoffs; others, including furloughs and salary reductions, were billed as temporary, storm-weathering measures. At the time, such claims attracted skepticism. Last Wednesday, two major media companies which already made COVID-era cuts deepened them. Condé Nast, which moved to cut pay for higher-earning employees in April, laid off around a hundred staffers, and put roughly the same number on furlough. And BuzzFeed—which imposed tiered salary reductions in March, then put 68 staffers on furlough in May—furloughed a further four US-based employees, as well as its entire local-news teams in the UK and Australia; sources told The Guardian that the latter staffers are “highly unlikely” ever to come back, with BuzzFeed planning a strategic pivot to “news that hits big in the US” under its new editor in chief, Mark Schoofs. As CNN’s Kerry Flynn noted in a story on the two rounds of cuts, “media executives are signaling that pay cuts implemented at the beginning of the pandemic are no longer enough to stave off the economic headwinds stemming from the crisis.”

From Wednesday on, last week only got worse. On Thursday, Quartz laid off around 80 employees—nearly half its entire staff—and said it would pursue other cost-saving measures, including cuts to executive pay, and the closure of its physical offices in London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. The Financial Times also announced pay cuts, and said it would spend less on non-staff contributors going forward. On Friday, the owners of The Economist cut 90 non-editorial roles, and made 1843, their bimonthly lifestyle magazine, digital-only. The same day, VICE Media Group laid off 150 employees, roughly a third of whom were based in the US. “This was such a horrible week,” Flynn wrote on Twitter. “335 media jobs eliminated. 120 jobs tbd…”

Related: The many coronavirus conspiracy theories

As expected, the March and April cuts weren’t a one-time deal; furloughs are already becoming layoffs, and plenty more are “tbd,” at news organizations across the board—from those founded in 1843 to those founded in 2006. To date, tens of thousands of media workers, at companies of all sizes, have been affected. Local news is in particularly dire straits right now—as Poynter’s Kristen Hare, who has been keeping track of all the recent cuts, noted Friday, beneath the headlines about Quartz and VICE, last week also saw buyouts at Minnesota Public Radio, as well as the closures of NUVO, an alt-magazine in Indianapolis, and San Diego Home and Garden Magazine. The coronavirus crisis, as we know, has led to heightened interest in the news, but has also devastated the advertising revenue on which many outlets rely. In a memo to staff outlining the cuts at Quartz, Zach Seward, the site’s CEO, argued that due to the ad-revenue collapse, “prior assumptions about our business no longer apply.”

Clearly, the pandemic has dealt publishers a massive, unexpected blow. Industries across the economy are reeling right now. Still, the vulnerability of the news business is not entirely circumstantial; “prior assumptions,” for many outlets, were dire enough, for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus. In addition to local news outlets, digital disrupters—who looked like the future, at one point—have struggled financially, and have had to scale back their operations; in early 2019, for instance, BuzzFeed and VICE each cut over 200 positions within a few weeks of each other. Last week was horrible, but it was hardly unprecedented. (Last year alone, I wrote, in this newsletter, about so many “brutal weeks for American journalism” that I ran out of variations on the phrase, and retired it.) 

In a memo to staff on Friday, Nancy Dubuc, VICE Media’s CEO, wrote that the pandemic had “intensified the tensions we all know exist between publishing and advertising,” and blamed big tech for a longer-term degradation of digital ad revenue. “We grew our digital business faster than anyone at a time when we believed that as more pies were baked, we’d keep getting a slice,” she wrote. Instead, she argued, we’ve reached a point where “platforms are not just taking a larger slice of the pie, but almost the whole pie.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Whichever way you slice it, it’s clear that the coronavirus didn’t start the industry garbage fire as much as it threw accelerant on it. Last week, CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism launched the Journalism Crisis Project, a weekly series of webinars that aims to explore that dynamic, and work out its likely consequences. Introducing the first of the webinars, on Thursday, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, noted that “the media industry—especially the local-news business—was not very healthy going into this pandemic, and even larger digital outlets weren’t very healthy going into this pandemic. And I think it’s gonna prove just devastating.” 

Amid the devastation, we must remember the industry’s underlying health conditions; asserting that the “coronavirus is killing our industry” risks obscuring the deeper reasons for the malaise, and letting those responsible for it off the hook. And we should remember, too, that cuts are always a choice. In her memo Friday, Dubuc wrote that VICE Media had done “everything we could” to avoid layoffs, but the union representing company staff disputed that, claiming that management refused to consider alternative solutions including worksharing and deeper cuts to executive salaries. (Workshare arrangements, such as the one recently implemented by the LA Times, can allow staff to claim unemployment benefits while also retaining some pay. BuzzFeed is reportedly exploring the idea.) Even when there are no good options on the table, some options remain better than others. Framing such options clearly requires an honest appraisal of all the ways our business went wrong—whether or not they’re linked to the pandemic.

Below, more on the coronavirus: 


Other notable stories:

  • Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, asks whether Ronan Farrow, of the New Yorker, is “too good to be true.” Farrow’s work “delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic—with unmistakable heroes and villains—and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic,” Smith argues. “At times, he does not always follow the typical journalistic imperatives of corroboration and rigorous disclosure, or he suggests conspiracies that are tantalizing but he cannot prove.” Online, reactions to Smith’s column were mixed. Felix Salmon called it “next-level” fearless, but Ashley Feinberg, of Slate, said it included “a lot of throat-clearing and implication” while simultaneously trying “to ding Farrow for doing just that.”
  • Trump’s slow-motion Friday-night massacre continues; on Friday, Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general, became the third IG to be removed in the past six weeks, all at the start of a weekend. The Post’s Aaron Blake notes that while the Friday news dump is not new, “few are as blatant about using this tactic” as Trump is. Reporters who were working on the weekend homed in on the story regardless: NBC News reported last night that Linick was investigating claims that Pompeo had a staffer walk his dog, among other errands, and that Pompeo recommended to Trump that Linick be fired.
  • Andrea Fuller, Kirsten Grind, and Joe Palazzolo report, for the Wall Street Journal, that individuals and companies, often using false identities, commonly invoke bogus copyright claims to demand that Google hide negative content about them, and that Google often complies. After the Journal shared its reporting with Google, the search engine determined that it wrongly removed more than 52,000 links, and reinstated them.
  • Late last week, Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, told the Post that a nonprofit run by Michael Pack—Trump’s nominee to lead US-funded broadcasters including Voice of America—is under investigation by the District of Columbia’s attorney general. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote on Pack’s nomination last week, but the vote was postponed. (Menendez is the committee’s ranking member.)
  • According to WWD, a judge in Texas dismissed a lawsuit brought by Lara Logan, the CBS reporter turned Fox personality, against Joe Hagan and New York magazine, over a 2014 story about Logan’s retracted reporting on Benghazi for 60 Minutes. Logan had asked the judge to send a “very strong message” to “other so-called ‘journalists.’”
  • Jorge Armenta, the director of Medios Obson, a news outlet in northern Mexico, has been murdered while under government protection; local officials said a police officer was killed in the same attack. Armenta is the third journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, following a spate of murders in 2019. (In August, I wrote about the trend for CJR.)
  • And Phyllis George, a broadcaster who was the first woman to anchor The NFL Today, has died. She was 70. George’s daughter, Pamela Brown, a White House correspondent for CNN, said that George “paved the way for other women to become sportscasters.”

ICYMI: The last days of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newsroom

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.