The Media Today

A brutal week for American journalism

January 28, 2019

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.”

ICYMI: Reuters publishes ethically questionable story

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.

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ICYMI: Massive layoffs hit news outlets: BuzzFeed, HuffPost, 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:

ICYMI: Reuters article highlights ethical issues with native advertising

Jon 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.