An insider at a prominent media company reports on their five years at the content coalface, and how the industry is being transformed by coronavirus.
I don’t even know how many rounds of lay-offs I’ve survived in digital media. Three? Four? And those are just the ones I know about – how many other times has my neck been on the line? Probably more.
I take no pride in having navigated the digital media bloodbath. To take pride would be to imply that I had some sort of agency in my continued survival, as if through a combination of diligence, hard work, and the appropriate amount of brown-nosing to senior management, I used my wits to survive. But this wouldn’t be true.
The reason I’ve survived is luck. A highly paid management consultant (probably the same age as me), never got around to crossing out my name on an Excel spreadsheet during an annual round of job cuts. That’s not because I’m good. It’s just because it wasn’t expedient for them to lay me off at the time.
When I started there, my publication was a darling of new media. In the open-plan office, beer was plentiful. Most people did not start work before 10.30AM. Everyone had shagged; everyone did drugs with each other. You could progress from intern to managing editor in a few years, if you slept with the right person, and liked cocaine.
Arriving for my first day at work, I was met by a receptionist in a Calvin Klein bra and jeans. I acted nonplussed, but found it weird. Where is her top? I thought. Executives slopped around in £650 Balenciaga hoodies and griped about being jet-lagged from all their transatlantic flights. The grunts – myself included – wrote content for the site for £22,000 a year.
Even when I arrived, there was a sense that the glory days were over. Staff complained loudly that there was no free swag bag at the Christmas party. (A few years back, everyone had been gifted wraps of coke.) Our company had recently secured mega-bucks investment from corporate investors, and over the coming years the pressure to make good on that investment became increasingly strained.
Redundancies crashed over the editorial team in waves. First our news division was laid off. Then the parts of the site that were trafficking badly were excised, then a wider round of lay-offs that seemed to cherry-pick people at random. One time, they forgot to lay off a colleague for the simple reason that they forgot he existed. Someone eventually remembered him, and got in touch to let him know his services would no longer be required – after he’d enjoyed the sweet relief of thinking he’d escaped.
So many talented people were laid off, and so many mediocre employees survived. There was no way the lay-offs could be performance-related. Executives crashed through strategies. We were pivoting to video, pivoting away from video, pivoting to a digital-first strategy, pivoting to a multi-platform strategy, consolidating our brands under one brand, unconsolidating them again.
I came to understand the vagaries of my employer in the same way that a child learns to study the rhythms and temper of an abusive parent. Typically, there would be an eight to twelve-month period of calm, before the sudden, stuttering shock of a round of Friday afternoon lay-offs. Colleagues were mourned on Twitter. We would mutter about unionising.
In digital newsrooms here in the UK and across the pond, similar behaviours were set into motion. One by one, newsrooms organised – or attempted to organise – in the hope that it would afford some degree of protection. When they did, management would deploy tactics to dissuade staffers from unionising. Pizzas and beer would appear in the office. We’d unexpectedly get Friday afternoons off. Executives in baseball caps and trainers would explain that unions were divisive, unnecessary, that they were listening to our concerns, that they cared. (If you recognise this from the HBO series Succession, it’s because the scriptwriters did their research.)
Jonah Peretti, the CEO of BuzzFeed, famously pressured his staff not to unionise, telling them that he ‘wasn’t personally against anti-union, but didn’t think unionisation was right for BuzzFeed.’ That year, as a reward for not unionising, BuzzFeed staff received $250 bonuses, alongside a yellow BuzzFeed-branded beanie hat. Three years later, Peretti closed down BuzzFeed UK’s scrappy, award-winning investigative newsroom.
For those that survived a round of Friday afternoon lay-offs, there would be a shell-shocked angry Monday morning showdown with our bosses, where they’d promise us that there would be no more redundancies, while admitting that they hadn’t known this round of redundancies was coming down the pipe – the decision came from way above their heads. Only the more credulous or more drug-addled of my colleagues believed their reassurances. Then, a year later, the cycle would start up again.
Living like this became increasingly hard to take. Sometimes, I’d see management consultants working in the office, and duck into the meeting rooms when they were on lunch breaks, to see if I could glean anything. (You could always tell who they were, because they were so badly dressed.) Once, I lurked outside a meeting room and watched a slide deck being presented on future lay-offs. A man in brogues turned, scowled, and pulled down the blind. I cried from stress that night. A few weeks later, posters appeared in the office advertising a new mental health scheme. Take a walk if you’re feeling stressed, one read. Try and enjoy some time in nature, read another.
My publication was not the only one struggling. One by one, the new media darlings of the early 2010s foundered. Vox, Buzzfeed, VICE, The Debrief, The Awl, The Hairpin, Deadspin. Lay-offs, then talk of turnaround strategies, before mass redundancies and in some cases: closures. Often, these firms had accepted investment from private equity firms, who loaded the publication up with excessive debt, stripped down assets and fired staff. Eventually, they shuttered the publication entirely, or kept a skeleton operation going, often rehiring interns in the place of experienced editors.
The problem was partly management, but mostly Google and Facebook. Management were universally incompetent, throwing strategies at the wall and hoping some of them would stick. My boss, an over-promoted sales executive, once confided in a team meeting that he’d had a rough week – laying so many people off had really taken it out of him. None of us moved or blinked.
But even the best managers would have been powerless to face down the Facebook and Google duopoly. It was like a suicide attempt, where the person realises too late that they don’t actually want to die and scrambles for a foothold – their toe hooked on an overturned chair – before succumbing to a slow, asphyxiating death. In 2017, Facebook quietly announced that it would be overhauling the news feed, prioritising content from family and friends, and de-prioritising content shared by media publishers. It was ruinous for online businesses that relied on Facebook for 70% or more of their traffic.
Everything really bad that happened in digital media happened after that. A foothold on the upturned chair: Facebook announced that it would be prioritising video. Desperate executives laid off writers en masse and hired video teams, before realising that was a crock of shit – Facebook had been falsely inflating the amount of views on their videos – and laid the video people off too. A slow, drawn-out, choking death, as Facebook and Google devoured all the eyeballs in the world like an insatiable giant, and then came back for the crumbs. Finally, coronavirus arrived, and kicked the chair out of reach. None of the publications could cope with yet another setback. The death throes set in. Convulsions. Mass lay-offs.
But so many people are reading the news! my friends proclaim, when I explain that digital media is going under. We’re all just at home, reading things online! But no one is paying for this content. It’s funded by advertisers. And not only do advertisers have less money now than before, but they don’t want their brands to appear alongside coronavirus stories – reading about a deadly outbreak of coronavirus in a care home is not likely to dispose you favourably towards a sofa from Made.com, or the new Honda Civic. By blacklisting words to do with coronavirus, in a period where all anyone wanted to do was read about coronavirus, advertisers effectively shut off revenue to digital-first publishers. The money has dried up.
As I write this piece, I have a tab open on Twitter, where I can see journalists being laid off in real time. ‘Gutted to see so many dear friends losing their jobs today,’ one reads. A steady snuffing out of lights, all the blue-ticks going quietly into the night. Many of the people being laid off are my friends and former colleagues. I DM them on Twitter, commiserating, offering them moral support. I can’t offer them work, as much as I would like to. There’s barely enough of that to go around.
I am resigned to the fact that digital media will certainly die, and very few publications will survive. I am resigned to the fact that I will probably no longer be able to do the job I love at some point, and that every year I survive in the Battle Royale era of modern journalism is a bonus. That at some point, I will have to figure out an alternative career, one that pays the bills, even if it means giving up the only thing I’ve ever been really good at in my life.
Digital media will go first, but most journalists are on borrowed time. Only the most wily, ingenious, or ingratiating among us will survive.