BuzzFeed originally only intended to compensate laid-off staffers for unused paid time off if they lived in a jurisdiction in which it was a legal requirement. After furious backlash from employees, however, CEO Jonah Peretti has reversed the decision.
On a scale of one to 10, how bad of a week is BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti having? Probably not quite as bad as that of his staff, but certainly not a good one.
The past few days have been coloured by public opprobrium surrounding layoffs, with staff numbers at the media company reduced globally by 15pc, or roughly 220 employees.
BuzzFeed is said to have hit close to $300m in revenue in 2018, more so than in 2017. Yet Peretti cautioned workers before the layoffs began that “revenue growth by itself isn’t enough to be successful in the long run”. The company has courted investors and received about $500m in funding since it was founded 11 years ago.
Some commentators in media have interpreted this – coupled with layoffs announced at Verizon Media and Gannett – as the canary in the coal mine signalling that digital journalism and its revenue models are in huge trouble.
Yet the most recent news about BuzzFeed has centred around Peretti’s decision to reverse a controversial bid to not compensate employees for unused paid time off (PTO) unless they reside in states that legally required employers to do so.
The initial decision was met with anger and inspired a petition demanding that the ex-staffers be recompensed. The petition was circulated widely around social media and garnered 585 signatures before being closed. BuzzFeed staffers came together in a group they dubbed the BuzzFeed News Staff Council to negotiate with company higher-ups.
The @BuzzFeedNews Staff Council met with @peretti this afternoon and it was nerve-wracking. BUT! The company committed to 👏 paying 👏 out 👏 earned 👏 paid 👏 time 👏 off!!!!! 👏 https://t.co/fFmPSvEhp3 pic.twitter.com/ABAxMa0yIS
— Davey Alba (@daveyalba) January 29, 2019
In an email sent yesterday (28 January) to staff, Peretti expressed remorse for “the stress and pain this process has caused”. He explained: “After meeting with the BF News Staff Council today, we have decided to pay out earned and unused PTO and comp days as part of the severance package for US employees impacted by these layoffs.”
Many laid-off journalists and editors took to Twitter to express their grief at the reorganisation, lamenting that long-held and much-beloved positions at the firm had been eliminated. BuzzFeed director of quizzes, Matthew Perpetua, wrote about his position ending on his website Fluxblog.
In it, he states that though quizzes are and continue to be a large source of revenue for the company, a “large portion of of that traffic comes from a constant flow of amateur quizzes made by community users”. He added: “It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers.”
Community quizzes are, to quote the website, “not vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed’s editorial staff”.
Another ex-BuzzFeed staffer, Jason Sweeten, logged on as a community member and created a quiz with a twist. Sweeten’s quiz, entitled ‘Do You Still Have a Job at BuzzFeed?’, uses the famous format to make various acerbic allegations about conditions at the company.
One such allegation reads that at one point, staff received a drawing of a cat as a holiday bonus, which was presented to them “as an investment”. Other ex-staffers streamed into the comments to support the claims, with New York-based Jen Lewis even posting photos of a framed pencil sketch of a fluffy kitten.
The company has also been publicly criticised by staff for posting job specs seeking applicants for year-long editorial fellowship programmes in departments where full-time workers are being let go. One such employee, Krystie Lee Yandoli, alleges that the fellowship programmes in the past “were three to four months and paid hourly wages with no benefits”.
In an attempt to quell employee anxiety as news of layoffs streamed in (the process was staggered over a number of days), Peretti made a dedicated Slack channel in which people could air their grievances, which they did.
At the time, Peretti said that this experience is “heartbreaking for everyone involved”. He wrote: “I know this is resulting in additional anxiety and stress, we are trying to mitigate as much as possible. It really sucks and I’m sorry.”
The revenue problem
Those commenting on the restructuring have pointed the finger at increasing pressure from venture capitalists and changes in both advertising and consumer behaviour as major contributing factors to the present turbulence in the world of media. In the case of BuzzFeed specifically, there has also been speculation that it is gearing up for a potential sale or merger.
Google and Facebook have upended the ad business and forced media organisations to come up with new streams of revenue. Not to mention that changes to the search algorithms used by both companies have proved disastrous for outlets that built their strategy around them.