For anyone who thought the media business would start to level off this year, think again.
Just a few weeks into 2019 — a time when companies are typically either finalizing the full fiscal year or starting off with a fresh first quarter budget – major shifts in strategy and further cuts to editorial staff are rolling in at a number of publishers and outlets.
In the last week alone, BuzzFeed told staffers in a memo that it was reducing head count by (another) 15 percent, equal to roughly 200 people; Verizon Media, formerly known as Oath, started to cut (another) 7 percent, equal to about 800 people; Condé Nast kept snipping away at editorial staff at a handful of its remaining print magazines, losing a relatively small number after years of larger cuts, and a number of reporters with various newspapers owned by Gannett have been tweeting about being laid off and open positions being eliminated, with more expected as the company has said it’s considering being acquired by Digital First Media, a hedge fund with a reputation for acquiring and gutting media assets. Oh, and Adam Moss, longtime editor in chief of New York Magazine declared his exit, reigniting rumors of what’s to come at that magazine (A sale? A new investor who will want to reduce expenses?)
Staffers at HuffPost, part of Verizon Media along with brands like TechCrunch and Yahoo, have been particularly vocal on Twitter about being laid off this week and colleagues made sure to tweet their praises as they enter the job market or freelance fray. It seems units covering podcasting and some more expansive coverage areas like poverty and public health were hit hard, and the entire opinion section was eliminated. But cuts were made across the newsroom at all levels, even to culture and politics teams.
Zach Carter, a senior reporter who seems to have not been cut, simply tweeted: “What is happening to American Journalism isn’t a mystery. Google and Facebook are eating this industry alive and taking down American democracy with it.”
Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at left-leaning nonprofit Media Matters, noted that these deep cuts to media are actually happening “while the economy is still broadly going well.”
“The next recession, and it will come, is going to be disastrous for the news industry,” he added.
The Pew Research Center last year found that newsroom staffs overall, including digital operations, have already shrunk by a quarter since 2008, but with cuts coming so regularly, it’s not difficult to imagine that number increasing.
Just before this week’s cuts, Vice Media also revealed a hiring freeze with an aim of reducing its projected head count growth by 15 percent; Refinery29 cut 10 percent of its staff; The New York Times made some cuts to marketing staff as it focuses on digital subscriptions; digital upstart Mic suddenly closed and was quickly snapped up by Bustle Digital Group; The Outline, another new digital brand, is operating with a skeleton staff; and Lena Dunham’s Hearst-backed Lenny Letter closed. This is all since November. Go a few months farther back, and there were hundreds more cuts at Hearst Magazines after its acquisition of Rodale, massive layoffs at The New York Daily News and Time Inc. actually disappeared.
In roughly the same time span, staffs at New York Magazine, Refinery29, Slate, and a much expanded group at Vice unionized or won collective bargaining agreements. These follow successful 2018 union efforts by the likes of The New Yorker, the first Condé brand to ever unionize, Fast Company and Vox Media. HuffPost unionized toward the end of 2017, with one reporter tweeting Thursday: “Thank god we unionized and people are getting guaranteed severance.” It seems that’s one of the motivations behind the union drives — staffers gaining some kind of financial safety net when the apparently inevitable cuts come through, at some outlets now for a second or third time (see Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, HuffPost).
All of this comes amid digital media’s first run-in with the end of a bull market that’s lasted about a decade and forgiven a lot of outlets for not being profitable, even while they continued to scale. This happens to coincide with Facebook, Google and slowly but surely Amazon taking over digital advertising. EMarketer listed the companies, in that order, as the top digital ad platforms, now accounting for over 60 percent of total spend in the U.S. with further expansion projected.
While media brands are working to figure out how to add revenue in the face of even less advertising money coming their way — the last two years bets were placed on video and podcasts, the next two are shaping up to be all about subscription models and paid events — it looks like the story of unbridled growth for digital media may be officially over.
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