Given their appalling regularity these days, media layoffs have begun to take on the character of a grim ritual that follows a now all-too-familiar pattern. With great pomp, a big industry player, media baron, or venture capitalist will announce a bold new merger or acquisition, often promising to rescue or streamline a flailing venture. Within a few years, or sometimes a mere few months, this chirpy PR will suddenly give way to the language of hardheaded financial calculus, after which a spate of layoffs invariably follows.
In this respect, the devastating closures and layoffs announced earlier this week by the Huffington Post struck quite a few familiar notes. Acquired late last year by BuzzFeed, the company will not so much be shedding talent as hemorrhaging it: some forty-seven jobs being axed across the United States while Canada’s fully bilingual arm will be shuttered altogether and cuts loom for its staff in Australia. BuzzFeed’s 2020 acquisition of the Huffington Post from Verizon Media came barely five years after its sale by AOL, which itself purchased the outlet in 2011.
A few short months ago BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti (who last year bought himself an estate in Los Feliz valued at $5.2 million) was all smiles about the move. “I have vivid memories of growing HuffPost into a major news outlet in its early years,” said Paretti in a November statement. “BuzzFeed is making this acquisition because we believe in the future of HuffPost and the potential it has to continue to define the media landscape for years to come. With the addition of HuffPost, our media network will have more users, spending significantly more time with our content than any of our peers.”
Needless to say, the cuts will affect an astonishing roster of skilled and experienced journalists — the circumstances surrounding them being especially cruel, even by industry standards. As journalist Laura Bassett reported, some staff were summoned to a virtual meeting (inexplicably given the password “spr!ngisH3r3”) only to be informed that layoffs were coming and that an email might or might not be forthcoming in a few hours regarding their termination. Calling the situation “a bloodbath,” one member of the Huffington Post’s staff union told Defector “It’s worse than the worst-case scenario for what any of us thought we would see when we got this announcement a couple hours ago.” Employees at HuffPost Canada, meanwhile, saw their site shut down suddenly and without warning. Management insists the layoffs have nothing to do with the successful union drive that concluded two weeks ago.
The past twelve months have been especially bad for people employed in the media, with an estimated 28,637 jobs disappearing between January and October of last year. The pandemic notwithstanding, the industry has been hemorrhaging jobs and trending toward further consolidation for quite some time — US newspapers having shed roughly 50 percent of all newsroom employees since 2008. Despite the long-term decline of newspaper jobs, digital and alternative media projects have not really succeeded in making up for the losses (the former experiencing a somewhat negligible uptick before the wave of pandemic layoffs).
Needless to say, the industry’s weakening capacity to sustain stable or gainful employment has consequences that go far beyond the livelihoods of individual journalists or other employees. Taken as a whole, the landscape of American media is trending toward something increasingly consolidated, centralized, and conglomerate-controlled. Alt-weeklies are practically dead. Gawker and Deadspin are gone. Digital ventures are either struggling or being kicked around like footballs by media oligarchs. Local news is a desert. The buzzards of organized wealth, meanwhile, are perpetually circling the corpses and picking away at whatever meat remains. As Brendan O’Connor, formerly of Gawker, put it earlier this week:
In a decade all media will be the New York Times and the Washington Post, all the former startups will consolidate into a single ViceFeed conglomerate that publishes a quarterly New York magazine and is owned in part by Facebook, and everything else will be Disney or Amazon.
Whatever patterns develop across the media in the years ahead, this week’s layoffs make clear yet again that the current model isn’t working or enabling a healthy, independent, and pluralist media to thrive. Journalists and media professionals will continue to suffer amid further cuts, but so will the audiences that depend on their reports, opinion writing, and broadcasts. Every round of media layoffs inevitably prompts pleas across the industry for those terminated to be rehired — and, with any luck, at least some cut loose at the Huffington Post this week will soon find their feet elsewhere. What they ultimately need, however, is an industry actually capable of supporting their work; one guided by something other than the profits of a tiny few.