Last week, BuzzFeed shuttered most of its podcasts, which included See Something Say Something, The News, and Reporting to You. In a memo to staff written after the company learned of a forthcoming Wall Street Journal article about the decision, BuzzFeed’s VP of news, Shani O. Hilton, said that podcasts would “move to a production model that is more like our TV projects,” bringing individual teams on “as needed.”
Though the layoffs affected only a handful of people, BuzzFeed’s podcasting staff was a particularly diverse one: See Something Say Something covered the experiences of Muslims in America; the award-winning Another Round, hosted by two women of color, covered race and gender aggressively and has been describes as an “unapologetically black space.” Tracy Clayton, the beloved host of the latter show, reported receiving the news in a particularly inelegant way:
On September 20, Hilton and BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith held an all-hands in the company’s New York office to discuss the layoffs, an audio recording of which was obtained by Splinter. The changes hit staff so hard some reported seeing employees crying in the newsroom. “We didn’t communicate this in the way we would have liked to,” said Smith. Some learned of the decision from a reporter’s texts. Steven Perlberg, a media reporter for BuzzFeed News, tweeted parts of the meeting:
Smith acknowledged that “the podcast team had transformed the landscape” since some programs launched around 2014, when he noted most podcasts were two white guys in conversation. But looking at the number of downloads the episodes were getting, he said, the company decided to change how it structured its production, focusing on a contract model rather than relying on in-house staff. He pointed to Am2DM, BuzzFeed’s “morning show,” which is funded through a partnership with Twitter and hosted on the social media platform, as an example of a partnership that can “take the pressure off” of production costs.
He also cited the “day-to-day trade-offs about whether resources go to reporting or they go to production”: “The core DNA of this place is reporting,” he said, “which left these [audio] production teams feeling, rightly, like they are under-resourced.”
Late last year, after missing revenue targets and abandoning a long-rumored IPO, BuzzFeed laid off around 100 of its 1,600 staff, most of them in advertising and sales. This spring, the company let go of an additional 20 and hired 45 more as part of an ongoing restructuring effort; recently the company has asked readers to donate. A September 24 story in The Information described CEO and theory enthusiast Jonah Peretti’s evolution from a cerebral champion of the viral internet to a proper man of business:
And with the clearer vision for the company has come a tighter management approach. Gone are the days when BuzzFeed executives ran their businesses without a sense of whether they were losing or making money. Weekly forecasting sessions have become routine in all of its areas of business.
Nowadays, Mr. Peretti spends more time focusing on data around the efficiency of his employees. The company has implemented processes to better track how much time people are spending on certain projects and how much it costs to produce certain types of content. Then they can compare that to how much audience and revenue those projects are generating, Mr. Peretti said.
During the all-hands with Smith and Hilton, the executives said that the company was “doing well” and the decision to cut these positions “wasn’t fundamentally a decision about revenue.”
In the past, BuzzFeed has been accused of extolling progressive ideas while undervaluing the employees whose demographics feature in its much-publicized yearly diversity reports. In a minor scandal in 2016, the company abruptly fired two popular video producers whose work targeted its Latinx and LGBTQ audiences after they breached a non-compete clause. (According to its own numbers, as of March 62.3 % of BuzzFeed’s staff was white, and 54% was male.)
During the all-hands, Smith noted the company’s “commitment to diversity” repeatedly and said that, by the numbers, BuzzFeed was “level on diversity to where we were last year.” But when it was time to take questions, a number of employees alluded to the fact that the podcast team’s work had been produced specifically by and for marginalized groups. “Can you speak to what it means in 2018 we let go of a Muslim-American podcast? Because that seems at the very least short-sighted,” asked one employee.
“The trust and credibility we’ve built with our audiences of color, thanks to our audio team, that can’t be measured in downloads,” said another. “It seems like most teams at BuzzFeed that have been reorganized at BuzzFeed have also been the most diverse,” said a third. In recent years the company has restructured parts of its video and entertainment departments, as well as its health vertical. “It’s caused many POCs to lost trust. How do you deal with that?”
“It’s not intentional, obviously,” said Hilton, “but that’s a good question.”
“I think we’re where we were last year,” added Smith, “but let me look at the numbers and circle back.”
Some members of the podcast team, also in attendance, suggested they had been set up to fail, citing a lack of support and impossible metrics. At points during the meeting, Smith acknowledged the lack of available resources had been a problem from the beginning and was a major factor in the decision to cut the teams. He also reiterated that reporting was BuzzFeed’s primary goal, regardless of format. An employee disputed the definition of reporting being used, and questioned why the programs hadn’t been doing more “news”: “Was what Another Round was doing not reporting to you?”
Smith also clarified that the company had signed the full rights to Another Round over to its hosts last year, and that Clayton had not been included in the memo as she had been on leave. She was, however, listening in and asking questions at the meeting.
You can listen to the whole all-hands below. If you have something to say about diversity or anything else at BuzzFeed, please do get in touch.