Mass layoff of journalists will hurt quality of news in future

In January, BuzzFeed News announced it would lay off 15 percent of its journalists, essentially killing off the national news desk and removing all but one from the LGBT desk. The layoffs included the editor of the bombshell R. Kelly stories, Marisa Carroll.

The center of many consequential stories in the past two years, Buzzfeed News was first to publish the Steele dossier in 2017, alleging President Donald Trump’s financial ties to Russia. BuzzFeed published the original story of sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey in 2017. In January, BuzzFeed reported that Trump had instructed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s ties to Russia, though Special Counsel Robert Mueller disputed that story.

BuzzFeed’s layoffs are part of a broader “media landslide” as more than 2,200 people were laid off in the first month and a half of 2019 alone. Vice Media cut 250 jobs; Verizon laid off more than 800 people from Yahoo, AOL and the Huffington Post; Gannett, which owns over 100 newspapers around the U.S., announced it would cut 400 jobs in January.

Budgeting and revenue are the common themes among the layoffs. BuzzFeed did not meet its revenue goal of $350 million in 2018. Vice Media attributed falling revenue to “audience attrition” of the past three years.

But it goes further back than that. Newsroom employment has dropped more than 20,000 since 2004. Newspaper circulation is at its lowest point since 1940. Most papers have seen a decrease in digital circulation in the past five years. Although newspaper websites have seen more visitors in that time, visitors only stay for an average of two and a half minutes, according to Pew Research Center.

BuzzFeed and Vice, the supposed digital print-based media darlings that legacy media companies such as The New York Times and The Washington Post were trying to emulate as they moved increasingly online, cannot maintain necessary readership to avoid layoffs, despite doing some phenomenal reporting over the past two years.

One of the most telling trends in media is the revenue newspapers get from circulation versus advertising. Newspapers rely more and more on advertising revenue to make up for lost readership.

So, it is not surprising to see many struggling media companies resort to clickbait and personality quizzes to maintain healthy profit margins because each click generates advertising revenue.

The media is sometimes referred to as the “fourth estate” because it provides another check on power independent from governments. Media plays an essential role in curbing local and national corruption. In the current political climate, an independent, well-funded press is absolutely essential to maintaining a fully functioning democracy.

But the media cannot provide the necessary checks on power if we are not paying attention. Reuters found that among people ages 18-30, almost half are inattentive to the news, compared to about a quarter for those above 30.

Newspapers also need to meet consumers halfway. The information glut that is today’s mainstream media makes it difficult for the casual reader to discern important stories from trivial ones. Other news sources such as Talking Points Memo and ProPublica have been producing hard-hitting, consequential investigative pieces for years.

The New York Times still gets most of their revenue through subscriptions and The Washington Post broke 1 million digital subscribers in 2017, but smaller companies with less name recognition must rely on advertisers to be profitable and avoid buy-outs.

Increasing clickbait articles is clearly the solution to falling profits. The most read articles from The New York Times, NBC News and The Washington Post were all articles of consequence. Two of the top 10 most read BuzzFeed News articles were about the Trump-Russia connection. While the British Royal Wedding and Mega Million Jackpot were among Google’s top 10 news stories of 2018, midterms, Brett Kavanaugh and the government shutdown all made the list.

Better, more in-depth content produces readers. Publications cannot produce those articles if they keep laying off good journalists.