Empathy, Relief, Fear, Guilt

Note: I originally sent this to my newsletter February 2, 2019. I sent it again in May, 2020 following 36,000 news media employees, including me, losing their jobs amidst the pandemic. I sent it once again in May, 2023 with the following preamble:

Newsroom layoffs have been in the news again. Buzzfeed announced they will layoff 15% of their staff and shutter the entire Buzzfeed News division (though some news employees might be hired to work at HuffPo, which Buzzfeed acquired last year), while Insider laid off 10%. Both sets of cuts are alarming in different ways: Buzzfeed’s because both Buzzfeed and Huffpo have already drastic layoffs in recent years, and Insider because they did a lot of hiring in 2020, absorbing many writers and editors who were laid off during the pandemic. More traditional news outlets have also cut jobs in recent months, including CNN, Gannett, ABC News, The Washington Post, and NPR. Vice is reportedly heading for bankruptcy and looking for a buyer and IAC is reportedly looking to sell The Daily Beast.

I thought it was time to post it publicly.

Yesterday the *Hollywood Reporter* reported that Vice will layoff 250 people, about 10 percent of its workforce. Then McClatchy announced that it will offer buyouts to 10 percent of its staff, around 250 people. That follows last week’s brutal layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett, WIRED laying off five people last month (I still have my job), and the decimation of Oakland alt-weekly East Bay Express. The media layoffs from the past two weeks alone reportedly total around 2,100. But it’s not the numbers that make this feel so apocalyptic.

BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Vice all did big layoffs in 2017, as did The New York Times and Conde Nast. Vocativ and Mic laid off most or all of their writers that year as well. Last year The Outline laid off its staff writers, *The Awl* shut down, Vox laid off 5 percent of its staff, Fusion Media dumped a bunch of people, and Conde did another round of layoffs. Numerous local papers have either shuttered or cut their newsrooms to the bone over the past few years.

Each announcement sends me on an emotional journey:

  1. Empathy: “OMG, those poor laid-off reporters.”
  2. Relief: “OMG, I’m glad I still have my job.”
  3. Fear: “OMG, I hope I’m not next.”
  4. Guilt: “OMG, why do I deserve to have a job when all these better writers and journalists are unemployed”?

Each announcement feels worse than the last because the cuts are mounting, and it’s clear that there just aren’t enough jobs to absorb the losses. I’m even starting to worry that the PR and marketing industry, long the last refuge for out of work journos, won’t be able to absorb the losses.

For years techno-optimists have said that journalism just needs to find the right business model for the digital era. But 27 years after the invention of the web, and millions of VC dollars later, we still don’t have one. “Native advertising” didn’t work. Neither did the “pivot to video.” Subscriptions might work for a few publications, like *The New York Times* (my back of the envelope calculations suggest it could completely replace its advertising revenue with digital subscriptions). But I just don’t see subscriptions working for everything. In the print era, subscriptions didn’t even always cover the cost of printing and delivering a publication. The vast majority of the revenue came from ads. But companies just don’t want to pay the same rates for digital ads that they paid for print ads. And of course, Facebook and Google are taking the lion’s share of digital ads anyway. Subscriptions just can’t support the sort of diverse media sphere we have today.

I think it’s time to admit that there is no business model for online journalism. “Innovation,” the tech huckster’s cure-all, isn’t going to change the economics of digital advertising. The only way forward is non-profit. In the future, perhaps we’ll see for-profit journalism the way we see for-profit education today.