Things may have seemed bad a year ago, but we’re entering into an even darker age for the media industry.
Two of the biggest digital news players–HuffPost and BuzzFeed–announced sweeping layoffs last week that impacted hundreds of employees. Now over 400 BuzzFeed writers are petitioning the company for better severance after it refused to pay them out for earned time off. “[F]or a company that has always prided itself on treating its employees well, we unequivocally believe it is the only justifiable choice,” the employees wrote on Medium, imploring the company to include the paid time off.
This development is especially chilling, given BuzzFeed’s checkered past with regard to organized labor. CEO Jonah Peretti, ever the shrewd businessman, knew how to exert maximum control over his employees. While multiple media companies have unionized their newsrooms over the last couple years (disclosure: Fast Company, too), the BuzzFeed CEO successfully quashed any attempt at his own company. At a companywide meeting in 2017, Peretti told his staff that, though he likes unions, he just simply doesn’t think they they are right for BuzzFeed. This pressure continued during a U.K. unionization drive, which was ultimately voted down.
Now, the laid-off employees are given no choice but to accept what BuzzFeed has offered them. Notably, the severance package didn’t include earned time off, and without the leverage of a union, BuzzFeed has no reason to meet these people halfway. It’s an especially ruthless decision, given the company’s years of trying to bill itself as a haven for millennial creatives.
BuzzFeed is not planning on paying out vacation days to laid off workers (outside of CA, where it’s state law). Some people had many days, especially essential staff who worked weekends and holidays in exchange for extra comp days. I signed this. https://t.co/sekPMIxXGQ
— Katie Notopoulos (@katienotopoulos) January 27, 2019
In response to the employee calls, BuzzFeed‘s chief people officer Lenke Taylor sent the following memo to the organizers of the petition:
We would like to have a dialogue with the news staff council and staff from other departments on PTO payout. We are open to re-evaluating this decision but we think it is important for everyone to understand the tradeoffs in changing the PTO practice, how we came to the decision to offer everyone a minimum of 10 weeks salary, and the ways we’ve adjusted our severance to be fair and competitive in every state where we operate.
We will follow up soon with next steps so a representative group of employees from across the company can meet with Jonah and me about this. You’ll hear from us by the end of the day Monday on scheduling and next steps.
(Update: see below.)
Of course, BuzzFeed and HuffPost aren’t the only companies announcing sweeping cuts, nor is Peretti the sole media executive strategically circumventing organized labor efforts. At the end of last year, digital news startup Mic laid off nearly all of its workforce and sold to Bustle founder Bryan Goldberg in a fire sale. In the last month, Mic quietly relaunched with a brand-new staff that seems to be regurgitating old, unfinished work–despite the fact that Mic‘s old staff writers were in the process of unionizing. Other large media companies have seen big cuts in the last year too, including Gannett, Vox Media, and Vice.
All of these events occurred for roughly the same reasons: The digital advertising headwinds of the last few years have meant that executives and investors haven’t gotten the return on investment they expected from these once-hot media startups. As Google and Facebook continue to control the majority of the online ad revenue, the companies whose business models depend on ads suffer. Since 2016, there have been thousands of pivots, shifts, layoffs, and reorganizations.
How did we get here?
Why they happen is twofold: The Google-Facebook duopoly took control of the ecosystem when no one was looking, and media executives–high on VC cash infusions–bloated their businesses in the name of scale, often without regard to sustainability.
Underlying the greed of Google and Facebook that brought us to this point is the folly of the media executives and their growth-minded investors. BuzzFeed is the perfect example. For years, it was lauded as the poster child of a media company in the digital age. It started as a content farm and meme factory, and then added journalism to its offerings. Over the years, it simultaneously broke stories and brought in page views. At the time, legacy news organizations first scoffed at, then mimicked BuzzFeed‘s social-first approach to news distribution. It was a growing media empire that couldn’t be ignored in the new technology age.
But as an outlet largely dependent on social platforms like Facebook, BuzzFeed was forced to follow platform trends. When Facebook announced it was focusing on video content, BuzzFeed turned its resources just to that. Brands like Tasty were born, which force-fed ubiquitous birds’-eye view videos of generally unappetizing food to the masses. And for a while, this seemed to work. Videos were performing well, thanks to Facebook’s algorithmic push, and BuzzFeed once again looked like a digital trailblazer. But this bet was predicated on the whim of a social network known for pendulum strategy shifts at the expense of its clients; this pivot didn’t take into account what would happen if Facebook changed course. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Facebook did precisely that.
Once Facebook de-emphasized videos to promote more “personal” content about a year ago, the bloodbaths followed. Layoffs continued as video views and page views declined. It was a classic bait and switch: Facebook had spent years wooing publishers and advertisers to depend on it–driving massive amounts of traffic as more and more people took to the platform. In the meantime, its share of the advertising revenue grew enormously, taking up more than 20% of the digital spend. And when Facebook decided to focus its algorithm elsewhere, the media businesses that depended on this revenue flow were screwed.
Now publishers are in a bind and forced to figure out ways to diversify revenue and grow their audiences after years of bloated growth, thanks to platform machinations. Peretti was long considered a soothsayer when it came to digital consumption. But he did not have the foresight to see why a platform-reliant path to profitability was a reckless bet. Nor did he factor in what sort of impact on the industry as a whole his moves would make.
Which leads us to the present. BuzzFeed, in its pursuit to become profitable, has laid off hundreds. Thousands of others have been let go over the last many months. It’s now becoming clear that the business path was misguided from the onset. It followed the ethos of tech’s scale and conquer–build, break, invest, repeat–for a revenue model that simply doesn’t work that way. BuzzFeed was trying to build and scale by following any algorithmic quirk it could; the hidden engine was the investors demanding quicker growth and greater abilities to achieve return on investment.
The real cost
There’s no silver bullet for fixing the media business model, beyond companies realizing that the margins are tough, and that it’s an ecosystem whose growth potential and profitability likelihoods are diametrically different from tech. We’re in the midst of a giant consolidation because of a false myth that fed entrepreneurial greed.
The next few years are going to be interesting, and probably devastating. Media companies are realizing how unsustainable their business strategies have been until now. And many don’t seem to have a solid grasp on how to go forward.
Companies will likely merge, others will shut down. The collateral damage is always the same: The employees caught in the middle, with no job security, and the dimming hope that their industry can rebound and regrow.
Update: Following the outcry, BuzzFeed decided to include PTO in its severance package.