BuzzFeed Journalists Unionize Following Layoffs As Doubts Grow Over CEO Jonah Peretti

US-based BuzzFeed journalists have voted to unionize, seeking better benefits and fair pay in the wake of massive layoffs last month, according to Bloomberg

An “overwhelming majority” of the employees were in favor of joining NewsGuild, a labor union that’s part of the Communications Workers of America, according to the report, citing an anonymous source. 

BuzzFeed slashed 15% of its headcount last month, eliminating key components of its newsroom including the national desk and the health desk. Shortly after the layoffs, employees took to social media as shock turned to anger – with fired workers demanding that the company pay them for vested vacation and sick time. BuzzFeed management eventually relented. 

“We want to remain spry and competitive, but we reject the argument that we must choose between freelancing in a hellscape gig economy for vampirical platforms or submitting to the whims of a corporation that botches basic HR tasks,” said the BuzzFeed News Union in a statement. 

“We look forward to meeting with the organizers to discuss a way toward voluntarily recognizing their union,” BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith told Bloomberg via email. 

The layoffs came as a surprise to many, particularly after BuzzFeed raised a staggering $500 million over the last several years (including $400 million from Comcast’s NBCUniversal), calling into question the leadership of CEO Jonah Peretti. 

“I strongly suggest you receive some outside training on how to conduct this,” one staffer admonished Peretti on Slack.

It was the first major reckoning for a division that has produced big scoops like the infamous Christopher Steele dossier and is considered critical to the company’s journalism brand. In 2017, when 6% of Buzzfeed’s staff was cut after the company missed its revenue mark by 15-20%, the news division was largely unaffected. –Business Insider

The absolute state of BuzzFeed

Business Insider discussed the current state of BuzzFeed, and found that many have begun to question Peretti’s leadership. “not just about how last week’s cuts were carried out, but also about decisions he has made that led the company to this point.”

Employees expressed concern over how aggressive Perretti has been in his pursuit of growth, his “unwavering faith in Facebook,” and his “drive for the startup’s continued independence.” 

Peretti, an MIT Media Lab graduate “who once made a Nike email thread about “sweatshop” shoes go viral,” helped found The Huffington Post – which quickly grew after Peretti mastered aggregation and Google search algorithms. 

He realized that news would set BuzzFeed apart and earn it a place in the pantheon of great media companies like Condé Nast, The New York Times, and the erstwhile Time Inc., with their vaunted news divisions.

Peretti also knew that to become a respected news site, BuzzFeed couldn’t do it on the cheap, according to people familiar with his thinking. BuzzFeed News would be an expensive but important endeavor, one that could help Peretti create a more prestigious brand by elevating his company’s overall journalism. Led by Ben Smith, a former Politico journalist, Buzzfeed News was eventually separated out from the rest of the newsroom and turned into its own division. –Business Insider

Unfortunately for BuzzFeed, similar explosive growth left a giant vacuum in 2018 when Facebook began cutting back in traffic it was sending publishers. Shortly thereafter, BuzzFeed closed it’s France operation – laying off 14 in what was the canary in the coalmine. 

Former BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg – who joined the company in 2010 as its 15th employee, only to leave in 2014 – says that Peretti made a giant mistake by not selling to Disney (“The deal reportedly fell apart over BuzzFeed’s $1 billion ask, though sources close to the company say it was closer to $500 million,” according to Business Insider).

They should have sold to Disney — when they could have,” bemoaned a former sales exec. 

And now, BuzzFeed gets to deal with their employees’ new union.