BuzzFeed Doesn’t Deserve Its Newsroom

BuzzFeed Doesn’t Deserve Its Newsroom

BuzzFeed Doesn’t Deserve Its Newsroom

Much of the News staff has been written off as dead weight on the payroll. What, after all, is a Pulitzer worth on a balance sheet?

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Was it all a dream? In the harsh light of 2022, the early years of my time working at BuzzFeed—the boozy launch parties of each new vertical, the iPads distributed as holiday swag, the taco Tuesdays, the soft-serve ice cream machine, the celebrity cat visits—begin to take on a hallucinatory quality. When I started as a 24-year-old associate editor for BuzzFeed’s new food section in the fall of 2012, having been poached from an assistant job at Bon Appétit, the newsroom was a curious experiment in venture capital-backed digital media, still just beginning to expand and generally mentioned for its smart politics and tech coverage in the same breath as a limp zinger about cats and “listicles.” (They were just lists, OK?)

It was fun as hell. New hires were starting every week, and we’d go out for drinks what felt like every night. I wrote silly posts (along with a few actual stories) and listened in on serious journalists’ phone calls. There was seltzer on tap, an endless enthusiasm for trying new things, and a sense of delight that we were—as many disgruntled commenters noted over the years—getting paid to do this. For a few years, there was a weightless feeling to all of it, as if we could do or be anything, as if we had figured out how to speak a language that no one else in the media business understood.

But last week, CEO Jonah Peretti announced his intention to make another round of deep cuts to a newsroom that has already been whittled down by almost two-thirds. Newly minted shareholders with no interest in anything that doesn’t directly increase profit margins had reportedly pressured him to scrap all of BuzzFeed News. Three top editors resigned, including editor in chief Mark Schoofs, and the company has offered buyouts to staff on half of the newsroom’s remaining desks (investigations, politics, science, and inequality), declaring a “strategic shift” toward content that requires fewer resources to produce and generates more traffic.

Right now, it’s hard to believe so much of my eight years working at BuzzFeed ever felt the way it did—like year-round summer camp, like an elevator that only went up. Listening to a recording of Peretti curtly telling my former coworkers on a Zoom call that he’s “no longer going to subsidize [News] with revenue from other divisions” (after which he silently left the meeting before anyone could ask questions), I can barely remember a time when funding for journalism wasn’t at the mercy of monolithic tech platforms and Wall Street assholes. It’s almost impossible to imagine Silicon Valley investors floating hundreds of millions of dollars to get a bunch of brilliant and very friendly web developers, editors, and writers together in an industrial-chic office in the Flatiron district, just to see what would happen.

When I talked last week with a handful of my former colleagues who still work at BuzzFeed News, the news was still sinking in. “It’s one of those things where the writing was on the wall, but none of us really wanted to believe it,” said Brianna Sacks, a senior reporter who’s worked on the breaking news and investigations desks. “After having been at BuzzFeed for six years, I don’t think I should be as stunned as I am. But it’s still just really hard to process.”

Not everyone was surprised, though, especially after years of intermittent restructuring and layoffs—and the company’s recent (and messy) IPO. “I’ve always kind of been waiting for the other shoe to fall,” said Paul McLeod, a politics reporter who transferred to Washington, D.C., after BuzzFeed shuttered the Canadian politics team in 2016. “I’ve loved working at BuzzFeed, but was always personally dreading the company going public, because news is a tough sell,” he told me. “It’s all sadly very predictable.”

Less predictable is what the future holds for BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know what this company is going to look like in three months,” McLeod said. “I don’t know, if I am here, who of the coworkers I love will still be here. Everything is up in the air.”

That’s true in part because the company can’t legally implement the voluntary buyouts they’ve proposed (or any other reductions, including layoffs) for unionized newsroom staff without first reaching an agreement on the terms with the BuzzFeed News Union. And after two years of frustrating, still-ongoing negotiations over a first contract (most of which I was front and center for, first as the unit chair and then as a NewsGuild representative), the bargaining committee isn’t inclined to let management slash and burn freely.

“This news from management is a proposal, not a mandate,” the union clarified in a statement last week. “And like every union proposal, anything we accept will be a part of a strong union contract that reflects the worth of our amazing colleagues.” Unit chair and politics reporter Addy Baird, who’s leading the union in bargaining, put it to me more bluntly: “They’re framing this as benevolent that they’re not laying everyone off, when in fact they’re literally just not breaking the law.”

Peretti and what’s left of newsroom management (essentially just the interim editor in chief, Samantha Henig) have sent a clear, insulting message to the reporters they want to buy out: After years of breaking news that changed laws and lives, they’ve been written off as dead weight on the payroll. After all, what’s a Pulitzer worth on a balance sheet?

Based on the conversations I had with current employees, what management hasn’t managed to convey is a compelling vision of what will be left for those not on the chopping block. Katie Notopoulos, a senior reporter on the tech desk who was hired in March 2012 and is now the longest-serving employee on the News team, said that the predominant feeling among employees who haven’t been singled out for buyouts is one of confusion.

“I guess it’s nice we’re probably not going to get laid off this month,” she said. “But what does this mean for two months from now? Or two quarters from now? What happens at the next earnings call?”

Plenty of BuzzFeed News employees pushed back against Twitter’s collective impulse to begin eulogizing the entire newsroom, which isn’t going anywhere yet. And if a lot are confronting the possibility of leaving, just as many are looking for reasons to stay.

“If they want to prove to me that I should stay, they need to give me something to have faith in,” said Julia Reinstein, a senior breaking news reporter who’s also on the union bargaining committee. “And that means getting this contract fucking done, and fair pay for everyone, and wage increases every year at a fair rate. I want this contract done. And that would give me a lot of faith that this newsroom wants me and my colleagues to stay around.”

But seeing this all play out, I couldn’t shake a feeling of loss that I’ve experienced many versions of, large and small, as I’ve watched BuzzFeed and its newsroom grow, shapeshift, and then shrink. And I wasn’t alone in that.

“This is the third time that I’ve been through this, and there’s only so much I think you can take. The soul of the place feels gone,” said one long-time reporter who preferred not to be named, given the delicate situation in the newsroom at the moment. “I feel this really overwhelming sense of grief, like I’m mourning something. It feels like the end of something really special.”

When I started working at BuzzFeed, I felt immediately that it was something special. It was a rare media workplace where, as Sacks described it to me, “It’s collaborative, there’s really no ego, there’s no stepping on toes, there’s no ‘this is my beat.’ There’s no competition; people are funny and kind and really smart but not obnoxiously so.” It was also a place where periodic restructuring and editorial priority shifts were business as usual; that was both unsettling and, especially as a twentysomething who’d had a grand total of one other real job in my life, part of what made it an exciting place to work. In between all the spaghetti flying at the walls, there was space to reinvent yourself.

And I did. I was a food stunt coordinator, an egg industry muckraker, a personal essay doula, a features desk apprentice, and finally—after the lifestyle team was (unjustly!) dismantled and the newsroom spun off as a separate division—a culture editor with the freedom to publish a range of essays and features. It was a dream job that I’m not sure I could have maneuvered myself into at a more traditional (and stable) media outlet. I was given the chance to try what I was interested in and to figure out what I was capable of.

“At its best, BuzzFeed has been the type of place—and [this is] part of why I spent so much of my career here—where they let people be the writers that they wanted to be,” said Rosie Gray, a politics reporter who was one of the first hires former editor in chief Ben Smith made when he was building out the newsroom. “I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything,” she said. “I just wish that it could have adapted. I wish that the organization could have been given the means and the smart leadership, business-wise, in order to flourish long-term.”

Over the years I spent at BuzzFeed, as creative experiments ran out of runway and various verticals—and entire international bureaus—were cut loose or downsized, the casualties were mounting. I don’t think I realized that the golden years of free-flowing venture capital were truly over until the podcast team was unceremoniously dumped in the fall of 2018. They were blamed for not bringing in as many listeners as competing shows like The Daily (made with a staff 10 times as large and funded by The New York Times’ nearly bottomless pool of cash) and for failing to bring in revenue, despite the fact that, as far as anyone could tell, BuzzFeed’s sales division had barely tried to sell ads against any of the shows.

That rationale may sound familiar to a lot of BuzzFeed News employees after last week. For nearly the entire time I worked there, there was never a sales team dedicated to pitching News content to advertising clients; there was no consistent infrastructure in place to help News bring in revenue through subscriptions, or otherwise—a goal that was, by its nature, completely outside the control and purview of the journalists working there. As one current employee wrote in the #AJA (“Ask Jonah Anything”) channel on the company’s Slack channel last week, “The newsroom is being punished with cuts after being denied for years the resources and long-term planning needed to maybe, possibly make the money that would have avoided this.”

Although no one in management would admit it at the time, the end of the pod squad was the shock before the full earthquake. And the cuts, once they started, never stopped. A brutal round of layoffs at the beginning of 2019 left holes across the company, including a lot of the people who had shaped the fundamental spirit of BuzzFeed’s original editorial team. Those layoffs also killed off the newsroom’s entertainment, health, and national news desks, and a huge chunk of the global, 24-hour breaking-news operation that editors had spent the past five years painstakingly building to compete with the CNNs of the world.

That process in 2019 was a series of one infuriating fuckup after another by HR and management—no warning, no clear information available to the people losing their jobs, no discernible logic in the decisions made—and, for a lot of employees, marked a permanent shift in the way we related to the company. It was all so excruciatingly personal, both for the people who were laid off and for everyone left processing professional survivor’s guilt after watching so many coworkers (and beloved friends) lose their jobs.

After that, working at BuzzFeed News always felt a little like living on the slopes of an active volcano. That rumbling under the floor? That fine layer of ash on your desk every morning? Nothing to worry about, we were assured. But, of course, it was.

All of this was the backdrop for newsroom employees beginning to organize toward unionizing with the NewsGuild, which was a process that had slowly gathered steam for years and happened to reach critical momentum right around the time of the 2019 bloodbath. I hadn’t been actively involved in the underground organizing because I was arguably a manager, but I was determined to elbow my way in, in large part because I so badly needed a productive outlet for my rage at the people in charge of the company.

I joined the organizing committee when the union went public, got my boss to adjust my job so I no longer had direct reports, and eventually, after a six-month battle to get the company to agree to voluntary recognition, was elected unit chair. I still cared about the editing I was doing, and loved my teammates on the culture desk, but it was my work with the union—and the solidarity and trust we built with each other—that kept me at BuzzFeed for the next year and a half. That work was an incredible education, and a lifeline.

It was also the reason I had to leave. Negotiating with BuzzFeed management’s bargaining committee was like screaming into the void, and the “union avoidance” lawyer they hired from the firm Proskauer Rose proved as rude as he was expensive. They refused to meet or stalled for months on every one of our proposals; they acted like petulant babies when the union insisted on negotiating over pandemic-induced salary cuts in spring 2020, followed by proposed layoffs in the summer (which the union mostly prevented, in a deal that also gave me the opportunity to take a buyout). At a certain point, I was willing to keep working with them—which I did, as a NewsGuild employee—but I couldn’t work for them anymore.

The company’s management has always seemed outraged and mystified by the very existence of the News union, unable to accept that some of their employees are no longer cooperative board game pieces they can shuffle around at will. And as far as I’m aware, they’ve been equally disdainful toward the union at HuffPost, which BuzzFeed acquired in November 2020 before promptly laying off a third of its staff. But whether they understand this new reality or not, they’re going to have to negotiate this time.

“Yes, people are scared and sad, but they’re also revved up, and they’re ready to fight this any way we can,” Reinstein told me. “And fortunately we have a legal right to do that at the bargaining table.”

I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible to reconcile a for-profit, investment-backed media business model with the goal of producing great journalism—the goal that Peretti claimed to be committed to for years until his market capitalization was suddenly at risk. Other media startups like Vox and Vice have been through their own rounds of layoffs. But neither has taken the route of an IPO, so far, and both look more stable at the moment. Peretti’s decision to go public, by any means necessary, seems to have fundamentally changed the power dynamic of his company in ways that I’m not sure even he was fully prepared for.

“This is happening during our first quarterly report as a public company,” Notopoulos pointed out. “That seems pretty fast to react to some missed revenue targets. So the pressures of being a public company are very different than when we were a private company. This is our first taste of what it’s like to be a public company, and it doesn’t bode well.”

Of course, finding a sustainable and ethical way to support journalism is an existential problem for the entire industry and country, where predatory hedge funds have bought up many of our already hollowed-out newspapers. The only publications that seem financially comfortable are The New York Times and a handful of outlets that exist at the whims of billionaire owners willing to foot the bills—at least until they get bored.

“It feels to me like there are no good options in terms of funding journalism,” Gray said. “Because on some level, capitalism and journalism are just always going to have competing interests, always going to be at loggerheads. The need to make money, as a for-profit company, and to please investors and so on and so forth—it just comes directly into conflict with what journalists do.”

One of the grimmest jokes in all of this is that a sizable chunk of BuzzFeed’s shareholders are its own past and present employees, who bought our stock options thinking (mostly in error, as it turned out) that the IPO might offer a return on all the years of work and care we’d put into the company. I finally managed to sell my shares after more than a month of chewing through red tape, once they were worth about a quarter of what they had been the day the company debuted on NASDAQ. (Those delays are now the grounds for a group arbitration complaint.) If I’d waited until Peretti announced that he no longer considered much of my former newsroom’s journalism worthwhile, I would have made more.

How can you please investors who don’t see any real value in exposing corruption and injustice and abuse, or helping readers navigate a deadly pandemic, or making people care that the planet is in crisis? How could we ever have thought that our CEO was special, that he would figure out a way to do the harder and better thing, when the alternative was cutting his losses? Over and over, our millionaire bosses make solemn faces while they bring our lives crashing down; these power-mad children, these large adult sons. They look sheepishly around the room for someone else to blame. (Usually Facebook.) They don’t deserve us, I’ve thought, so many times. They don’t deserve any of us.

So where do we go from here? BuzzFeed News is not dead yet, and I hope all the wonderful, smart, dedicated people still working there get a kick-ass collective bargaining agreement and all the support they need to keep doing meaningful work. But, in a sense that goes far beyond one website, something has shifted across the industry. And that weightless feeling—what we felt in that moment when we were all so young, before the laws of gravity kicked in—I don’t think we’ll ever get to feel that way again.

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