Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen waves of layoffs of journalists at BuzzFeed, Vice, Gannett and other media companies. On Feb. 10, Business Insider reported that 2,200 journalists have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2019, adding to the estimated 5,000 media layoffs since 2014. Instead of hiring full time employees, many of whom are only guaranteed salaries of $8 an hour, these companies are increasingly relying on the work of freelancers, who conveniently do not get job security, health insurance or other benefits.
Yet some former employees for these media outlets have reported occurrences even more disquieting than freelance work. Former Buzzfeed employee, Matthew Perpetua, revealed in a blog post on Jan. 28 that one of BuzzFeed’s top content creators for 2018 was a teenager from Michigan who was writing quizzes for free.
Along with several other journalists, HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter places the blame for the layoffs squarely on Facebook and Google, who dominate digital ad development.
“This isn’t happening because of market inefficiencies or consumer preferences or social value,” Carter wrote in a tweet. “It’s happening because two very large companies have taken the advertising revenue that journalism outlets rely on and replaced it with nothing.”
We at The Wellesley News are concerned about these moves in the media, not just for our own career prospects, but also for what these increasingly bad work conditions mean for the future of the “free press.” How can those of us who consume news expect journalists to hold powerful individuals and institutions accountable when they are stuck cobbling together freelance jobs in the hopes of making rent? How can writers pursue long term stories that require months of investigation without institutional support?
In an age where seasoned journalists are competing with propagandists who operate on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, the integrity of the journalism field is worth upholding now more than ever. Issues ranging from President Trump’s involvement with Vladimir Putin to Black Lives Matter protests have led to the administration accusing journalists of being the “enemy of the American people,” and have threatened not only their jobs, but their lives.
Journalists will have a much harder time coping with attacks from a hostile administration if their field is also being taken apart by bad management from the inside.
We are also concerned about the kinds of journalism jobs that are being eliminated. In laying off 15 percent of their staff, BuzzFeed News eliminated teams that covered national news and national security. This should worry anyone who is concerned with unconstitutional moves by the Trump administration, and future administrations. In a democracy, journalists are the people who specialize in following powerful actors and catching them when they make mistakes. The rest of us rely on journalists to tell us about policy, world events and other issues we should know about, which will then help us vote for our interests. The more we cut coverage of these especially critical areas, the less vigilant we are as a society to wrongdoing and exploitation.
BuzzFeed also cut a number of reporters from their LGBT desk, or team of reporters. When news outlets downsize, we should pay attention to what areas in particular are cut. Under an administration that is often openly hostile to LGBT people, it’s worrisome to see outlets decreasing their coverage and firing workers. How can the rest of us follow and be aware of injustices and discrimination when the people we look to for information can’t provide it?
We at The Wellesley News believe that a key way to fight these trends is for people to support their local newsrooms by fighting attempts to prioritize freelance writing. Support writer’s efforts to unionize. Subscribe to local news, and make it clear that your subscription relies on the work of a supported newsroom with benefits.