The layoffs came swiftly last week. At Vice Media, 155 people lost their jobs. Quartz laid off 80. Condé Nast, publisher of glossy magazines like Vogue, cut 100 people. And as BuzzFeed furloughed staffers at its overseas divisions, its U.S.-based staffers braced for similar cuts.
For those who had been watching local newspapers struggle in the era of digitization, these announcements were sobering: Even the media business’s most savvy, innovative and glamorous players are hurting.
“The pain is across the board,” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “This isn’t just a question of nimble, digital companies able to survive and lumbering, legacy ones perishing. The marketplace is too brutal the way it’s configured right now.”
The pandemic has created a strange dynamic for the media industry. People are consuming news like never before, but spikes in readership are coming alongside huge drops in the advertising revenue. A New York Times count estimated 36,000 media workers have experienced furloughs, paycuts or layoffs.
And yet these cuts are really “an acceleration of a trend that’s been going on a decade,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “Even though theoretically we understood it’s happening … we’re actually starting to feel it.”
Publications like BuzzFeed and Vice, in particular, were heralded in recent years for attracting younger readers and devising new ways to capture corporate ad dollars that made them the envy of print outlets struggling to transition to digital.
But while last week’s cuts may feel like a dramatic turnaround, many of the era’s digital innovators had already gone through rounds of layoffs and bouts of restructuring that preceded the pandemic. Several journalists who lost jobs last week had survived previous rounds of layoffs. (They did not want to be named, citing non-disparage agreements and severance benefits at stake).
“When I got to Vice, I figured I will lose this job one day to a layoff, but maybe I’ll be able to make it here a bit longer than before” said one staffer who had gone through a digital media job loss before. “I think a lot of reporters have that mindset. Most of my reporter friends have been laid off once, if not twice or three times before.”
Executives at several media companies have also taken pay cuts in recent months. Slate, the pioneer in digital magazines, reduced employee pay last month. Vox Media began furloughs this month.
Even companies once thought to be steady alternatives to the volatility of small start-ups and venture capitalist whims no longer offer safe harbors. One newly laid-off Condé Nast employee had taken the job over other offers “because I thought it’d be the most stable, and I was really looking forward to being somewhere where I could grow as a person in media.”
“You’d think Condé Nast is such a big company that, let’s say something terrible happens, the things they can cut from are the crazy cafeteria in the World Trade Center or Anna Wintour’s second house budget or the weird holiday party,” the former employee added. “I never would think that the cuts would come from people doing reporting, (who are) not paid a lot.”
Condé Nast had earlier instituted paycuts of up to 20 percent for the highest earners, including Wintour, with CEO Roger Lynch taking a 50 percent cut – measures he said in a staff memo last week were his attempt to forestall job cuts “as a last option.”
BuzzFeed said its cuts were for “economic and strategic reasons” and that it will keep a focus on coverage in the U.S., where it is negotiating with journalists over layoff alternatives, such as “work sharing” arrangements that would let them cut back hours and collect some unemployment. “The company is still investing heavily in news,” a company spokesperson said.
A union representing Vice journalists expressed frustration that their management wouldn’t consider workshare. In a memo to employees last week, Vice CEO Nancy Dubuc said the cuts came to digital divisions that accounted for 50 percent of costs but brought in only 21 percent of revenue – an imbalance with repercussions “for the long-term health of our company.”
Quartz CEO Zach Seward told employees the company has prioritized paid subscriptions but still makes most of its money from advertising, which “has been hit very hard by the effects of coronavirus,” and could suffer for years to come: “Prior assumptions about our business no longer apply.” The company cut 80 employees worldwide, nearly half of its staff – “some of the most talented and kindest people in the business,” the union representing its U.S.-based reporters said in a statement.
While many digital news outlets faced drops in ad revenue, Kahn argued that it’s not solely because of the shrinkage of ad budgets but because “so much of it is captured by two players: Facebook and Google.” Bell hoped the layoffs would serve “as a wakeup call: If you want news media, we have to do better in terms of policies that support it.”
Social distancing has added complications to the process of mass layoffs. No goodbye happy hours, no hugs. Quartz employees were warned that they would know if their job was on the chopping block if they received a calendar invitation that morning for a talk with their managers.
The job market is now flooded with a crop of experienced journalists picking over fewer possible jobs while also confronting a world-shaking pandemic. Many had to stop reporting on stories and spent subsequent days fielding calls from sources to say the stories won’t go published.
“This is the biggest story I’m going to live through but I can’t do my job, and it’s all I want to do,” said another laid-off Vice employee. “I have to sit on my hands.”