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Opinion ‘Give us someone who actually cares’: HuffPost caught in corporate downsizing hell

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“Totally reasonable,” said HuffPost’s Jason Cherkis about the mechanics of his layoff on Thursday from digital news site HuffPost. He received an email notifying him that he needed to have an “important conversation.” He got the news via a video conference. A tweet:

For all those who’d typecast HuffPost as a place of fast-paced and aggregational slop, Cherkis’s work was a shaker of shoulders. He did enormous, original stories that had impact — not to mention tens of thousands of words. His eight-chapter opus — “Dying To Be Free: There’s A Treatment For Heroin Addiction That Actually Works. Why Aren’t We Using It?” — pushed the federal government to change policies for drug courts around the country. Kentucky took action as well. The story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A recent piece of immersion by Cherkis focused on a simple, and tested, approach to save people from suicide. Read the first two paragraphs and see if you can stop.

As a matter of disclosure, Cherkis worked alongside the Erik Wemple Blog when we were both at the Washington City Paper years ago. He’s the sort of fellow who’ll hang out on a cold sidewalk all night long waiting for a person of great journalistic interest to show up. People who insist they’ll never talk to a reporter will sit for hours of interviews with Jason Cherkis. “We’re not going to turn around six months from now and hire another Cherkis,” says Jeff Young, a HuffPost health-policy reporter and a member of the site’s union committee (though he is not speaking officially for the committee).

There’s nothing particularly new about this situation: Layoffs in the news industry have been upending careers at an alarming rate over the past 15 years or so. They sweep away giants such as Cherkis, solid reporters who’ve been cranking out copy for decades as well as young professionals who learn from them.

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The HuffPost layoffs are claiming about 20 jobs across the site’s opinions pod, its health unit (not health policy), poverty coverage and elsewhere. Bad news piles on top of bad news: BuzzFeed just announced plans for a 15 percent reduction across all departments, including editorial; Gannett is reducing staff at various publications in its broad news network, which would leave even less flab for the newsroom-slashing hedge fund — Alden Global Capital — that is looking to buy the media colossus; and many other outlets have either frozen hiring or reduced staffing over the past year.

The HuffPost problems are driven by a broken business model: The Internet took away the site’s thriving classified business and print advertising — Oh, sorry. That’s the boilerplate for the miseries of print newspapers. HuffPost’s problems are driven by gigantism. Facebook and Google dominate advertising dollars on the Internet, leaving sites such as HuffPost, BuzzFeed and its brethren scrounging to split up tiny shares of this market. Subscriptions are a tough sell on a platform where people — especially readers of HuffPost, which embodied the glories of free-flowing, free-clicking news — haven’t been trained to pull out their credit cards for updates on the government shutdown.

And so HuffPost has developed a side expertise in layoffs. Here’s a June 2017 round that claimed “dozens,” including a Pulitzer Prize winner; here’s a quiet round that claimed a bunch of video staffers; here’s more. Consequences are everywhere: Laid off employees have the stigma of having been laid off, despite in many cases having produced outstanding work. They now apply for jobs at other places that, in some likelihood, have recently shaved staff or are contemplating such a move in the future.

Content will suffer, too: As Young tells the Erik Wemple Blog, HuffPost’s lead reporter on the opioid epidemic — Erin Schumaker — fell victim to this round of layoffs. Will the publication abandon this story, will it be split among existing reporters, or what?

Those who stay behind aren’t spared, either. A place such as HuffPost by this point has adopted staff reduction as part of its corporate ethic. Everything that happens, happens in the dark specter of an imminent and inevitable corporate decision approved by someone whose job depends not at all on contributions to American journalism. Such a newsroom can never reach 100 percent capacity.

“There’s a lot of survivor guilt here and that was preceded by a major impostor syndrome outbreak,” Young said. “You never know when your number’s going to come up. I’m 19 years in, and I always figure there’s a good chance it’ll be me. I went to sleep last night convinced I was out of a job today and made peace with it.” He survived this round, along with fellow colleague Jonathan Cohn, a senior national correspondent who also writes a great deal on health-care policy. “Why Laura Bassett and not me, just to pick one name?” Young said. It unsettles Young that both he and Cohn are on similar beats. “I have expected a bean counter at the company to look at that and say, 'Why do we have two of those?"

Lydia Polgreen, the site’s top editor, sent the Erik Wemple Blog this statement: “It’s a tough day for HuffPost, and we’re losing some talented and beloved colleagues. We are deeply committed to quality journalism that reflects what matters most to our diverse audiences across the globe. HuffPost is aligning its talents and investments to areas that have high audience engagement, differentiation and are poised for growth at a time when our mission means more than ever.”

The site has recently done distinguished work, including Cherkis’s suicide piece, some frank and far-reaching coverage of Iowa Rep. Steve King, not to mention that Ashley Feinberg interview with Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, which read like Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (i.e., startling and glorious). According to its staff chart, HuffPost started the day with an editorial head count of about 220, not including product and tech employees. Young said that the site’s union, organized under the Writers Guild of America, East, has been a source of comfort in this week’s turmoil. “I feel ... even worse for people in other shops going through what we’re going through and don’t have that support system here," he said.

Here’s some insufferable but indispensable corporate context for what happened Thursday at the HuffPost. In 2011, AOL, under the direction of Tim Armstrong, bought HuffPost — then known as the Huffington Post — for the insane price of $315 million. In 2015, Verizon bought AOL for $4.4 billion, a transaction that included, of course, the Huffington Post, as well as other media properties. In 2017, Verizon bought Yahoo and packaged its resulting media properties under a division ridiculously named Oath under the leadership of Armstrong, who left the organization last year. Verizon, too, switched CEOs last year.

Meaning: The key people who orchestrated the acquisition of HuffPost to begin with are gone from the company that decides how many resources it gets. As one HuffPost staffer told the Erik Wemple Blog: “Give us someone who actually cares.”