VICE, MTV News, PAPER – oh my!
Stability is a quality of life that all people strive for, whether you work a 9 to 5 or are a self-made entrepreneur. However, it’s becoming more and more out of reach for those who work in the media.
Over the past few months, it’s no secret that there has been an influx of announcements regarding layoffs in the industry. The alarming rate happening right before our eyes is nearly similar to what we saw before during the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009. Then, there was another tragic peak in 2019, according to Bloomberg.
In today’s time, a breaking point that first caught the attention of many were the layoffs at NPR. The popular independent, nonprofit media organization announced in March that it cut roughly 10 percent of its workforce.
Other real tough blows have been Buzzfeed, Inc., which not only laid off 15 percent of its staff but also completely shut down its news division, and PAPER Magazine, which laid off its entire staff. Additionally, VICE filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after announcing layoffs.
What makes the matter even more of a tough pill to swallow is that it marks the end of an era for readers of the long-running, popular publications.
Cause for Layoffs
The question is: Do media companies no longer have the budget or are writers being undervalued?
While it may be a mix of both, based on what we’ve seen, the former has caused the most damage. Majority of media outlets and publications have shared that the reasoning behind making drastic cuts, in addition to inflation and the slowing economy, is due to changes in the advertising revenue model, which have led to a decrease in advertising revenue.
Another significant factor for the media standing on shaky ground is the declining economy as a whole, forcing companies to bring out their clippers.
News headlines have been hyper-focused on the numbers and percentages of people in media that have been laid off but it’s also just as critical to break down how specifically this affects the masterminds whose pens and creativity are behind the quality of storytelling as we know it.
“I’m currently navigating through this over-saturated job market due to a reduction in force at my previous employer and it’s been quite a journey,” Taylor Ash, former podcast content strategist at NPR, told Boardroom. “My LinkedIn feed is full of young, talented media professionals announcing they’re now ‘open to work’ due to layoffs and it’s so disheartening. We’re all navigating the same space hoping to not just land on our feet, but to capitalize off of an unfortunate economic situation.”
Freelance Ain’t Cutting It
As journalists continue to grieve their full-time jobs, a common instinct may be to advise them to pitch their story ideas to companies. Unfortunately, freelancing is not for the weak nor is it a stable alternative.
For Shanelle Genai, who’s been freelancing for six years, it wasn’t until 2022 that she felt she was able to keep her head “somewhat above water.” The entertainment writer’s hurdles along her freelancing path are connected to how Black writers and writers of color are often subjected to a lack of opportunities and low rates.
“I’ve been blessed enough to freelance for a couple outlets who provided consistent enough work to where I could expand my portfolio, but yet and still, the amount of good bylines you get doesn’t always do enough to convince a publication/outlet that your skills and talents are worth paying premium, staff dollars for,” Genai told Boardroom. “That fact can be very disheartening, especially when you’re intentional about honing in on your skills and can see the positive evolution of your writing day by day.”
However, it’s all a double edged sword because since there is such a low volume of full-time staff roles to apply to in comparison to contractor gigs and editors’ calls for pitches, especially in entertainment, it leaves no room for much options.
The harsh reality is that to sustain themselves, freelancers and contractors are completing the same level of work that would be expected from a full-time staff member yet without the official role, the pay, nor benefits. Many of them are hustling three times as hard to still not earn the most livable income.
Or, on the other end of the stick, oftentimes the salaries presented for full-time jobs are lowball offers when considering the cost of life continues to skyrocket. It’s a cheaper hiring process for companies while journalists are left to fend for themselves yet are still doing all the labor.
While Genai’s personal end goal is a full-time staff gig, she believes that seeing a change in the state of the freelancing space will have to come from those who are behind the commissions.
“The way for freelancers to be more financially stable is for the people who are in charge of commissioning them to pay them more money,” she said. “For whatever reason, some people still want to pay less and get more and that just needs to stop.”
Silencing Black and POC Voices
While Black and people of color journalists are already in the minority in terms of representation in the field, many have come forward about falling victim to losing their jobs. The increasing void is a reminder of just how crucial their voices are for mainstream media to truly move forward.
“Black culture directly correlates to ‘pop culture,’” Ash emphasized. “There’s no way to navigate around that, which is why it’s so imperative that Black journalists, media professionals, and creators have opportunities to report and tell authentic stories.”
The layoffs are yet another way of how the underrepresented group’s voices are silenced. An example of the erasure of their creative offerings can be seen in how the media business being in turmoil affected the podcast, “Louder Than a Riot.” Hosted by NPR Music’s Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, the episodes cover the marginalization that is seeped into hip-hop such as the misogyny against Black women.
The podcast’s reign was cut short as NPR canceled it two weeks into its second season and laid off its entire production staff and editor.
As a way to cut corners, companies are looking to replace such integral storytellers with artificial intelligence (AI). According to journalist Lee Fang, Buzzfeed told investors “that AI will generate content, headlines, ‘infinite quizzes’ and develop Black, Asian, Latino identity-based content to help corporate brands tap an ‘authentic voice’ to sell products.’”
While the boom of artificial intelligence has assisted society in certain areas, the creative space is where the line should be drawn.
“I want to make sure that we as industry leaders are responsible with artificial intelligence across the board and making sure that we value the human perspective,” veteran branding and marketing executive Ericka Pittman told Boardroom.
“When you think about being able to create an op-ed, the ability to do that, in my opinion, still needs to come from a human. I think that there’s a level of human input that needs to go into the perspectives that we share as a society. I think AI has its space in terms of being able to quickly capture data, but I think relying on it solely, particularly at this stage, can be a very dangerous space to exist in.”
A Comeback Story
So as we’ve been watching the media industry crumble before us in real time, what does a potential revival look like? As someone who has worked in the media space (Heart & Soul Magazine, VIBE, Condé Nast, REVOLT) while it was making its transition from print to digital, Pittman believes that there’s great optimism in that today’s generation is one of the most innovative in history. However, in the midst of that, there needs to be disruption in where the dollar signs are distributed.
“Forecasters are projecting media spends to be up by 5.8%,” Pittman shared. “Last year’s spends were about $318 billion in the U.S. So revenue is still being spent and invested in the marketplace. I think it’s just diversifying how it’s being spent is what’s changing. Traditional media outlets, they’re gonna remain flat, but you’re gonna see a lot of growth in the digital space.”
“Black media [specifically] has always suffered in the media space and the ad reference space,” she added. “Black media has always been subjected to subpar investments and it’s always been an ongoing fight to make sure that our outlets get their fair share of revenue allocation.”
The impact of investments is another potential booster to consider. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that LeBron James’ SpringHill Company reportedly is interested in buying Complex Networks for an offer of around $100 million. Just as big-names and VC firms pour into the tech world, a movement of them hopping on board to support media companies could be monumental. There is just as much value and cruciality in media as there is technology.
The huge transition from newspapers to magazines to blogs to digital media itself is a testament to the media industry’s resilience over the years. However, the sense of urgency from companies, potential investors and more is what will determine whether the recent streak of layoffs is yet another rough patch or the fatal fall of the media.
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