The Industry

LOLsob

BuzzFeed’s layoffs were painful for its staffers—and fatal to its self-mythology.

A broken BuzzFeed LOL.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by photopsist/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

There’s a phenomenon familiar to news junkies on Twitter that I’ll call the BuzzFeed Effect. Whenever BuzzFeed publishes a story it’s proud of, its writers and editors tweet and retweet the link so enthusiastically that within minutes it becomes inescapable, suffusing the timelines of seemingly the entire media industry.

That’s partly a function of BuzzFeeders’ social-media savvy: An interest in and command of internet culture is part of the job description. But it also speaks to another trait that’s harder to define. Counter to the hard-boiled-reporter stereotype, BuzzFeeders seem to delight in sharing one another’s work and in being part of something bigger than their own journalistic project, even if that something is as frivolous as an optical illusion or an exploding watermelon. They rallied around the phrase “no haters” and put it in their job listings. “Cultishness” would be too strong a word; let’s call it zeal.

Then came last week. That’s when BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti announced in an email to staff that the company would be cutting 15 percent of its workforce, confirming a Wall Street Journal report, and that those laid off would be notified in the ensuing days. The axes began to fall Friday, as BuzzFeed News eliminated its entire national desk and national security team, along with reporters covering entertainment, health, and LGBT issues. The layoffs continued Monday, claiming nearly half of BuzzFeed UK’s editorial team, including those covering news, celebrities, and pop culture. More are expected Tuesday.

As the pink slips piled up, the media world bore witness to a grim inversion of the BuzzFeed Effect. For each laid-off staffer who tweeted the bad news, there were a dozen former colleagues ready to retweet her, adding their laments and imploring an imagined audience of hiring editors to snap her up posthaste. Each cut was a fresh outrage: Not Big John! Not Anna Borges! And can you believe they let go of Cates Holderness, the staffer who found The Dress?

These weren’t just bylines, they were internet personalities. And so on media Twitter the job losses sparked an outpouring of grief, sympathy, and handwringing disproportionate to their sheer number. The apparent digital media apocalypse became not just an industry-interest story, but national headline news, prompting responses from the likes of President Trump (gleeful) and New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (indignant).

BuzzFeed is hardly the only media company shedding jobs. Huffington Post laid off about 20 last week, part of a broader cost-cutting by Verizon’s troubled media division, which also includes AOL and Yahoo. Condé Nast has been quietly cutting back at several of its publications, including Glamour, Wired, and GQ. The Dallas Morning News cut 43 earlier this month. And the newspaper chain Gannett cut an unknown number of positions last week in newsrooms across the country.

If the journalists laid off by Gannett papers such as the Indianapolis Star, Arizona Republic, and Tennessean lack the national name recognition of their BuzzFeed counterparts, their losses will be felt no less deeply by the cities they covered. If anything, the story underlying the Gannett and Morning News cuts is a sadder one: The U.S. newspaper industry, once the backbone of the country’s free press, is slowly dying.

BuzzFeed, for all the hyperventilating about the bursting of the online media bubble, is still growing, with revenue up from $260 million to $300 million in 2018. It just isn’t growing as fast as its venture-capital investors hoped. And while the cuts there were deep and painful, they left intact much of the newsroom’s core, including its investigations, politics, and technology teams. In fact, BuzzFeed News appears to be still hiring an investigations editor.

It’s possible this is the beginning of the end, as some pundits have been quick to assume. But it might turn out to be just a course correction on the road to long-term prosperity for a company that still ranks as a wild success story by any metric. Rare is the media company that has never endured layoffs.

What the cuts may have dented more than BuzzFeed’s newsroom capacity is the mythos that captured its audience as much as its workforce.

To those employed there, BuzzFeed wasn’t just another publication. It was a beacon of 21st-century journalism and entertainment, a model for how original reporting and commentary could thrive alongside animal listicles, personality quizzes, and memes in the social media era.

Five years ago, when the New York Times was laying people off, metro newspapers were withering, and print magazines were folding, media thinkers held up BuzzFeed as a reminder that it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the media business. When the rest of the media wrung its hands over Facebook’s encroachment on their industry, BuzzFeed capitalized on it. More recently, when fellow digital natives Mashable, Mic, and Vocativ flubbed the pivot to video and fell on their faces, BuzzFeed seemed to land on its feet. Meanwhile, from the outside, BuzzFeed’s workplace appeared to be just as cool and peppy as its product. Who can forget the wretched soul who wrote to the Awl’s advice columnist, “I Hate Myself Because I Don’t Work for BuzzFeed”?

No one was feeling that way last Friday, when the company’s internal Slack roiled with anger at Peretti. In true BuzzFeed fashion, it manifested in an almost farcical fight over whether the company should allow employees to bring their dogs to work Monday, with some BuzzFeeders sniping that they’d rather see it pay laid-off staffers the vacation time they’d earned. By Saturday, the survivors and the ousted alike had turned the demand for paid time off payouts into an open letter on Medium with hundreds of signatories. On Monday morning, the hosts of BuzzFeed’s talk show AM to DM took up the cause on their broadcast, drawing a response from Peretti on Twitter—which promptly got ratioed. By Monday’s end, Peretti had agreed to the payouts.

Suddenly, a company that once seemed to soar above the malaise that ailed the rest of the media was in the thick of it. Peretti had said over the years that BuzzFeed staff didn’t need a union, arguing that the company’s leaders—he, editor in chief Ben Smith, VP of News Shani Hilton—could advocate for their employees more effectively without an “adversarial” third party involved. The staff, by and large, seemed to buy in to that: They remain without a union despite a wave of unionization in the industry that has seen workers organize at Vice, Vox, Slate, HuffPost, and the Onion, among others. Now, Peretti has unleashed the very thing he’d tried to ward off: his employees making collective demands of management.

There were already signs that BuzzFeed exceptionalism was waning. In November, Peretti floated the once-unthinkable idea of merging with rivals such as Vox and Refinery29 to negotiate better terms with big internet platforms. Besides being a wild and creative idea, it was a tacit acknowledgement that BuzzFeed no longer believes itself to be uniquely capable of flourishing in a platform-dominated world.

Even BuzzFeed’s famously frivolous quizzes have become fraught. As word spread that the site had laid off its director of quizzes in favor of quizzes created by readers for free, at least one such reader fretted on Twitter that she bore responsibility for his unemployment. (The ex-quiz director was quick to reassure her in the replies.) Another former BuzzFeed staffer created a quiz titled, “Do You Still Have a Job at BuzzFeed?” The answers to the last question included, “Unionize your media company.”

This is not the end of BuzzFeed. It’s the end of BuzzFeed’s innocence, and of its long winning streak. And it’s a turning point for staff who may now think twice before tying their online identities so tightly to that of their employer.

The rest of the media has been under siege from Silicon Valley for years. BuzzFeed: Welcome to the bunker.