Last week was brutal for American journalism. By one estimate, BuzzFeed and media properties owned by Verizon and Gannett made plans to lay off more than 1,000 people between them, then got to work carrying them out. On Saturday, the president of the United States rubbed salt in the wound, tweeting that “Fake News and bad journalism have caused a big downturn.” As well as being wrong, the tweet was, as Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor, replied, “a disgusting thing to say about dozens of American workers who just lost their jobs.”
Trump may briefly have stolen the limelight, but he wasn’t the foremost target of the anger that swelled over the mass layoffs. Recriminations ranged from the broad-based (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, blamed tech monopolies and concentrated media ownership) to the specific. Writers Guild of America East pointed out that Verizon, the owner of HuffPost, Yahoo News, and AOL, reaped more than $4 billion in government-funded tax breaks last year. And, according to an internal message feed obtained by Splinter, staffers at BuzzFeed took management to task for axing colleagues in an “unnecessarily cruel” way, and for refusing to reimburse any paid time off they may have accrued (BuzzFeed initially guaranteed such payouts only in California, in line with state law). On Saturday, more than 300 surviving and laid-off employees put the latter complaint in a formal open letter. Managers responded that they were “open to re-evaluating this decision.”
For anyone immersed in media Twitter late last week, it was impossible to avoid the barrage of “I’ve just been laid-off” tweets emanating from the newsrooms of BuzzFeed and HuffPost, in particular (full disclosure: I interned at BuzzFeed in 2017). Among those affected were senior journalists with stellar track records and prominent followings, including deputy national editor Marisa Carroll and former DC bureau chief John Stanton on the BuzzFeed side, and culture and politics reporter Laura Bassett and Pulitzer finalist Jason Cherkis at HuffPost. Colleagues from across the industry rallied round online, sharing farewell messages and listing job openings and newly available talent. And the cycle isn’t done yet. More layoffs will hit BuzzFeed this week: news emerged this morning, for example, that the site is cutting its UK editorial staff by half.
Beyond sad individual stories, attention has focused on the coverage capacity that major newsrooms just sacrificed. BuzzFeed eliminated its national and national security desks—both of which burnished the site’s reputation for hard-hitting news—and pared back other staffs that have helped make its offering distinctive. On Twitter, Molly Hensley-Clancy, a politics reporter for BuzzFeed who identifies as gay, called the decision to reduce the site’s LGBT desk to a single journalist “part of a really heartbreaking move over the past few years away from content that BuzzFeed used to be so, so good at: speaking to minority groups in a way that felt so personal, specific, and meaningful, and wasn’t happening in any other mainstream outlets.” HuffPost, meanwhile, cut its opinion section, while both BuzzFeed and HuffPost gutted their health desks.
Across the country, other vital, community-facing beats are disappearing. While they attracted less social-media chatter than their digital-native counterparts, around 400 of last week’s job losses fell at publications owned by Gannett, including the Arizona Republic, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and the Record, in North Jersey. As local-news jobs continue to be cut, scrutiny around key areas of public policy will continue to diminish. As Emily Goldstein wrote for CJR late last week, the loss, earlier this month, of 43 jobs at the Dallas Morning News could weaken that paper’s work on immigration, transport, the environment, and more.
This latest round of layoffs goes beyond personal and institutional tragedy—it’s further, frightening evidence of an industry whose old and new players are locked together in crisis. Writing for CJR on Friday, Alex Pareene assessed the scale of the damage done and still to come. “The ‘corrections’ are coming for the digital outlets that were supposed to have been the survivors,” Pareene writes. “Tens of millions of people read BuzzFeed, Gizmodo, Slate, and The New York Times monthly—and every one of them that is not browsing at a public library, or stealing WiFi, is paying for the privilege. They’re just not paying the people who are making it.”
Below, more on the bleak state of journalism in the US:
- Union drives: While HuffPost’s newsroom unionized in 2017, BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, has long said a union would not “be right” for his staff. For CJR’s Spring/Summer 2018 print issue, Steven Greenhouse and Anna Heyward looked, respectively, at the history of journalism unions, and the wave of union drives now sweeping digital newsrooms.
- Now this? BuzzFeed is in talks with Group Nine—the company behind Thrillist, NowThis, the Dodo, and Seeker—about a merger, Recode’s Peter Kafka reports. While a deal is not imminent, the talks follow Peretti’s public remarks last year that digital publishers should club together to leverage better terms from Facebook and other content distributors.
- Red alert: Slate’s Jeremy Littau writes that the crisis facing American journalism did not start with the internet. “While a lot of the attention is focused on national players HuffPost and BuzzFeed, the cuts at Gannett are the most worrisome,” Littau writes. “That the Gannett news is not a red-alert story in the US reflects a misunderstanding of the major problems facing American newspaper companies.”
- Cut to the bone: For The Washington Post, Steve Cavendish writes that local newspapers have been gutted so brutally there’s nothing left to cut. “Since 1990, nearly 65 percent of all newspaper jobs have been eliminated, more than in the fishing, steel or coal industries,” Cavendish points out.
Other notable stories:
- The longest shutdown in US history ended on Friday as Trump signed a bill reopening the federal government for three weeks without securing funds for a border wall. After certain right-wing outlets and commentators lit into the president for caving to House Democrats, Trump punched back yesterday—telling The Wall Street Journal that Ann Coulter had become “very hostile” because “maybe I didn’t return her phone call or something,” then taking aim, in a tweet, at Fox’s John Roberts and Gillian Turner.
- While long magazine articles are often rigorously fact-checked, the process is surprisingly absent from the world of nonfiction-book publishing, CJR’s Alexandria Neason finds. Book publishers tend to see fact-checking as the writer’s responsibility—in part because it’s the writer’s credibility on the line if they get something wrong.
- Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, used an interview on 60 Minutes last night to announce that he’s seriously considering a presidential run as a “centrist independent” (Twitter did not seem impressed). Fresh off a buoyant campaign launch in Oakland, California, yesterday, meanwhile, Kamala Harris will be in Iowa tonight for a CNN town hall with Jake Tapper. Proceedings will start at 10pm Eastern.
- The National Association of Hispanic Journalists criticized Tom Brokaw after the veteran former NBC anchor said, on yesterday’s Meet the Press, that Hispanic people should “work harder at assimilation” into US culture. Brokaw’s subsequent apology didn’t cut it with NAHJ, which called it “not an apology at all. It only further demonstrates Brokaw’s lack of understanding of what forced assimilation does to communities.”
- In a bid to ease longstanding financial pressures, the Newseum agreed last week to sell its Washington, DC, premises to Johns Hopkins University in a $372.5 million deal. The journalism- and news-themed museum plans to stay open on its current site through the end of this year, then relocate to a new home.
- Last week, Jeffrey Miller, a California newspaper reader, asked Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at the Post, whether he should retain his subscription to the San Jose Mercury News. Miller fears his dollars are not being spent on good journalism, but instead swelling the coffers of Digital First Media, the News’s unscrupulous hedge-fund owners. But Sullivan concludes that he should stick it out. “There is value here still,” she writes. “And there are working journalists… who are doing their best, in tough times, to serve you, while a beleaguered news industry tries to find a path to a sustainable future.”
- The Economist writes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsession with the media could lead to his downfall. Police recently recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for massaging the regulation of Bezeq, a telecoms company, in exchange for favorable coverage in Walla!, a news website that Bezeq owns.
- British newspaper The Telegraph apologized and agreed to pay damages to Melania Trump after accepting that a recent story in its magazine supplement contained false statements relating to her family background and modeling career.
- And today sees the launch of The Delacorte Review, a new long-form magazine published out of Columbia Journalism School. You can check out its website here.