By Phil Zminda
In October 2014, tech and media journalist Simon Owens wrote that the immense layoffs hitting media companies like CNN, The New York Times, and Yahoo were indicative of a positive shift in the industry. “Many of the most recent layoffs can be seen through the lens of an industry in transition,” he wrote. Given the strengthening economy at the time, Owens opined that the companies needed to invest in new business models and revenue generators to stay afloat. “And this influx of capital due to a rising economy,” he wrote, “may indeed be their last shot at doing so.”
The first few weeks of 2019 hint that these companies’ shots have only blown up in their faces. According to The Cut, as many as 2,100 writers, editors, producers, and other media professionals have been laid off in the latter half of January alone — and unlike the local newspapers whose deaths rarely make headlines, the companies doing most of the damage are new media juggernauts like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Vice, and Mic.
These companies, from the outside, seemed to represent the stable future of the media world; places where both mindless content and rigorous, never-before-seen journalism could thrive (absolutely free to readers, no less). For the college students and fresh graduates who came to journalism in the wake of this nouveau riche media cohort, it seemed like a stable career in the technicolor dream world of digital media could actually, maybe, somehow exist. But with even these success stories falling prey to the outsized influence of social media, pursuing a traditional media career feels more dangerous, difficult, and unclear than ever before.
Caty Enders, a journalism appointment at Northeastern and contributing editor at The Guardian who has been in the industry for just over a decade, understands why these layoffs are so alarming to students. “It’s unsettling because the outlets involved in the layoffs in recent weeks are considered hot properties,” she said over the phone. “It’s an indication that the outlets that were alternative and innovative and new when I was coming out of school are hitting the mainstream, and hitting those layoffs the same way those mainstream media companies are.”
Like most layoffs, these have little to do with the quality of these employees’ work and rather aim at creating a more stable financial position for the company, which is becoming exceedingly difficult. Nearly 60 percent of digital advertising revenue — historically the primary revenue stream of media companies — belonged to Facebook and Google alone in 2018. And when nearly two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media and minute changes in news feed algorithms have outsized impacts on article readership, the media industry has found itself in an even more precarious position than during the Great Recession.
What’s so disconcerting about these layoffs, says Enders, is that people saw these younger outlets as ways to stabilize the industry and avoid having to go through these constant layoff cycles.
For what it’s worth, though, the media industry has never been an easy one to enter. When discussing the future of the journalism industry in 2014 with BU Today, renowned New York Times columnist David Carr was quick to quip “Journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand.”
But, thankfully, he followed it with something a bit more reassuring:
Enders shares this same sense of optimism. Even though those companies may be seen as the new standard in the digital media, “it’s important to remember that those places didn’t exist too long ago,” she says. “And it’s reassuring to think about the publications that [people] want to exist, that they want to work for.”
This optimism isn’t in defiance of the facts: layoffs are horrible, it’s terrible to see talented people lose their jobs, and the media industry is (and likely will forever be) difficult to get into and succeed in. But perhaps these obstacles should not be seen as impenetrable walls, but hurdles necessary to sustain a pillar of our democracy that is quite literally under attack. For better or worse, it’s up to us — students, fresh graduates, young people — to defend it. Let’s not cower away from that responsibility, but rather take it, celebrate it, and get to work.