The layoff business


capitalism media work buzzfeed

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When I was growing up I sometimes thought I wanted to be a writer, but I quickly realised that doing it for a job wasn’t going to be fun or rewarding. My position is that I took the coward’s way out in choosing to go into software engineering, for a more financially stable existence, but I went into the world with a respect for the writing staff and a general dread at their constant mistreatment.

At least in the time since I’ve entered the profession, software engineering has been a “seller’s market”. The pay is good, there are lots of jobs, and there’s generally good job security. In the same period the media industry has been collapsing in on itself. Ad revenues have fallen because of things like the platforms hoovering up all the views and dollars and we seem to be approaching the end of unbridled targeted advertising on the web.

Media companies have been merging or going out of business1, and in the meantime they lay off swathes of reporters at every turn. When I joined BuzzFeed, the UK operation had a pretty healthy set of reporters. Sitting in the physical newsroom you had a big news desk with an editor-in-chief and deputy editor, an investigations team of six or so, about six news and politics reporters, and a collection of “desks” with one or two people covering science, celebrity, and so on. There were copy editors, a picture desk with a photographer, an illustrator. There was an art director.

That didn’t last. The newsroom was gutted in a deep round of layoffs that saw off at least half of them. Coverage contracted to pull out of regular Westminster beat reporting (gone were the political reporter who became the first female Chairman of the Lobby and the other reporters who regularly appeared on the morning TV news). All news had to be reported with a global focus so that their content could serve audiences where ad revenue could support it. A year or so later and another round of layoffs. Most of the remaining reporters reporting into editors in the US.

Following the fortunes of those writers for a while after BuzzFeed, they are subjected to a relentless game of musical chairs and new media startups make some splashy hires and then contract or fold, leaving their writers to head back out to complete for a seat after another chair or two has been whipped away. I developed a certain dread every time we made new hires on the editorial side. My overwhelming feeling became “we can’t be trusted with the care of a writing staff”. We couldn’t provide an environment for them to report the news, or to comment thoughtfully on culture and so on.

I worked closer with the senior figures in the US newsroom while we built a rebranded news website for them. Indeed it was a project for them. Our splashy editor-in-chief Ben Smith wanted to distinguish the BuzzFeed News brand from the “quiz people” so people could wrap their heads around the idea of reading a multi-part investigation into the Uyghur concentration camps by the people who did The Dress. The mis-alignment with what the readership cared about what typified by the time we spent on a front-page that could be curated into a number of layouts to present the nature of the news day when 90% of traffic went straight to an article page from a tweet, never seeing the homepage.

On a trip to the newsroom in New York during the project, I happened to be in the room when an all hands meeting was called. The podcast production team was summarily laid off. The team had produced at least two cult classic shows, Another Round and See Something Say Something. The former was an “unapologetically black space”, a very successful black culture show presented by two black women. The latter was a funny and thoughtful podcast that discussed the Muslim experience in America. The team comprised a deep bench of reporting, presenting, and producing talent for the audio format. Bim Adewunmi, a producer on the team who I watched fiercely quiz the sweaty leadership team on the cuts, has gone on to be a producer for This American Life.

Later that afternoon, in a bar on the same block as the office that has since closed (cause of death: COVID-19), the newsroom commiserated as audio of the fraught meeting circulated on gossip sites. It was autumn and the rain was pouring down in the city. An aptly timed torrent of water broke through the ceiling in the middle of the newsroom and somebody tweeted a video, something about leaks at BuzzFeed News.

I began to worry about what business we were really in. We came here to spend investor money and lay off journalists, and we’re all out of investor money. It seemed our remaining business function was to make incredible quantities of journalists jobless in annual or biannual cycles. Some organisations will proudly point to their alumni and what they’ve gone on to be, to claim to be an incubator of great talent. They hope others will infer that they are great talent scouts, that something in the practices and culture on the team cultivates outstanding reporters that go on and do amazing things elsewhere. It obviously begs the question as to why you have quite so many alumni, and whether in all honesty you really set out to be a journalism school or you’re just a media organisation who has a habit of losing (by laying off) great staff.

BuzzFeed has lately shifted to a strategy of mergers and acquisitions. They acquired HuffPost and then Complex. This seemed to be an acceptance of the fact that their existing audience was not going to grow and they didn’t have any ideas to fix that. Instead, they can buy other peoples’ audiences. So they bought HuffPost’s audience. They also bought their staff but had even fewer compunctions about stripping it down. Another of the great new UK newsrooms was scattered to the wind before they even got everybody on the same Google Drive account. Nevertheless, the audience had been bought and hopefully the remaining staff can keep up the output to keep them.

I’m out of the business now. I never had any bold ideas about how to fund media companies, my year on ads saw to it that I was left with no grand illusions about Another Way. So once again I can’t blame anybody in particular for the crap conditions that exist for the people who actually write the stuff that we read. Once again the enemy is capital. There’s a new wave cresting where writers have to cultivate their personal brand independent of their current employer so that they can fire up a successfully monetised Substack newsletter when they get laid off. I’ll probably soak up some opinions on all of this while the remnants of Media Twitter still populate my feed, but hopefully in time that’ll be replaced with thoughts about renewable energy and grid balancing. Or even better, with nothing.

  1. The Max Read newsletter has an interesting take on why media organisations with big stable staffs used to be viable:

But by the 1990s, faced with mounting costs and declining budgets, the CIA stopped covering journalists’ bar tabs, and instead began investing most of its money and talent behind important new agency projects like Google and Mark Burnett Productions. This is called neoliberalism, and it’s why it’s much harder to maintain steady employment in newsmedia in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

Max Read, 9th March 2022