Buzzfeed & HuffPost Layoffs: Should We Prepare to Mourn the Death of Digital Media?


Buzzfeed & HuffPost Layoffs: Should We Prepare to Mourn the Death of Digital Media?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This saying, often misattributed to Confucius by people telling you to “just follow your dreams”, has acquired ominous significance for those who earn their daily bread and butter by writing online – especially in the wake of global layoffs at giants like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post.

Not having work is precisely the predicament facing approximately 250 employees of Buzzfeed globally, as well as about 800 employees of Verizon, which controls HuffPost, Yahoo, and AOL. The layoffs, which made international news, contain the portentous implication that digital publishing is not in the rude health most laypeople thought it enjoyed. What was most shocking to outsiders was how even Buzzfeed and HuffPost – both established leaders in the digital publishing field – were not immune to the vagaries of publishing today. These were websites that had supposedly cracked the code of how to succeed in publishing after the fall of print, but they came across as being as hapless as Rohit Sharma’s batting on an England tour.

Over 1,000 jobs were lost over the past week, but the signs of an impending collapse were visible even earlier for anyone willing to see them. According to a report in The Ringer, multiple publications underwent staff cuts last year, including Vox, Vanity Fair, Vice, GQ, Vogue, and CNN, among others. Far from being the robust, healthier alternative to print news, online publications have also been dying a death of a thousand cuts, albeit in a less noticeable manner.

If one were to point an accusatory finger at those responsible for the bleak landscape of digital publishing at the present, that finger would be extended in the direction “The Duopoly”, as the tandem of Facebook and Google have come to be known. The two Silicon Valley giants have tightened their stranglehold over online advertising revenue. Already, according to a 2017 report by the media investment group GroupM, the two websites account for an eye-watering 84 per cent of digital ad spends, and the situation is not getting any better.

This inequitable sharing of revenue has caused the bottom to fall out of the ad-based model that so many online publications have been built on. As market leaders, Buzzfeed and HuffPost were supposed to be blazing a trail to success in online publishing that others could follow. The fact that they too felt the pinch as publishing and journalism continue their downward spiral shows that the right formula for making money in a digital newsroom still hasn’t been found.

So, what options are left for digital news companies looking to survive? Even though the mass layoffs might make for an apocalyptic atmosphere, all is not yet lost. There are many roads to success, it’s just a matter of finding them first.

One of the easiest alternatives to the ad-based model is wealthy investors. As The Ringer article states, “At this time, the best hope new media companies have, just like legacy outlets, is benevolent billionaire backers not fixated on maximum growth.” While tethering the news to the interests of the uber-rich might not be ideal for the health of journalism, it does offer outlets a reprieve from having to relentlessly show quantifiable growth in their numbers to less-forgiving investors or shareholders.

The final option is capitulation – shuttering shop and admitting defeat. But the modern world will always need well-reported news on which it can rely.

Another option, which has already begun being implemented by a few publishers, is a switch from an ad-based model to a subscriber-based one. The New Yorker operates on a subscription model, which brought in 118 million USD last year, as reported in The Guardian. The same report also mentions that legacy titles like Vanity Fair and Wired, which switched to the paywall system, enjoyed improved audience engagement after it was brought into effect. Closer home, outlets like Scroll and The Caravan also operate on a similar model.

The third alternative sees online publishers coming together in a series of mergers and acquisitions, joining forces like a team of journalistic Avengers, to take on the Thanos-like titans that Google and Facebook. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jonah Peretti, co-founder of both HuffPost and Buzzfeed, as well as Buzzfeed’s CEO, has publicly floated the idea of a merger with Vox or Vice, two of his website’s biggest competitors. With The Duopoly’s foot on their throat, digital publishers have seen the truth in the aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The final option is capitulation – shuttering shop and admitting defeat. But the modern world will always need well-reported news on which it can rely. When the layoffs reached India, and one of the country’s first Buzzfeed employees Imaan Sheikh was let go, she posted about her experience on Twitter, only to have Faye D’Souza, the editor of Mirror Now, ask to get in touch with her. The entire exchange can be viewed as a microcosm of the health of digital journalism – what seems like an ending is merely a segue to a new beginning.

Digital journalism might have been hit hard by the latest round of firings, but it’s not dead yet.