HuffPost Staffers Grill Jonah Peretti Over Layoffs, Diversity
5:22 PM EDT on March 15, 2021
After laying off 47 U.S. HuffPost staffers last week, BuzzFeed founder and media mogul Jonah Peretti held a company-wide meeting today in which he sought to reassure staffers that the deep cuts were necessary to get the company to profitability. During the call, Peretti delivered a monologue about "diversifying revenue" and "better monetizing traffic" and "managing costs to improve our EBITDA" in order to get HuffPost to break even in 2021 and to profitability in 2022.
"We're not doing this because we think cutting and cost reduction is a good way to drive growth or a good way to improve long-term prospects of the business," Peretti said. "We're doing this as a reset to get the company on a firm foundation so that we can operate differently in the future and not do more cuts." Peretti also called the layoffs an "awful experience." (As the meeting wore on he variously described them as "shocking," "horrific," "abrupt," "unsettling," "the worst thing," and "painful," but stopped short of apologizing for how they were handled, saying the idea was to minimize the time "people were kept in the dark about their futures.")
Though Peretti repeatedly emphasized the need to get HuffPost on solid "financial footing" in order to grow in the future, he did not address the report that he is trying to take BuzzFeed and HuffPost public through a SPAC. In fact, ahead of the meeting, Peretti told staffers he wouldn't comment on the plans to go public, though he did speak to staffers' concerns that going public would result in more pressure for profits to pass onto shareholders, resulting in even more cuts. In a Slack message from last week viewed by Defector, Peretti wrote, "As a point of comparison, The New York Times is a public company. They made painful cuts when they were financially unstable. Now they are profitable and they are hiring more journalists and increasing their share price at the same time." Peretti said he is targeting $26 million in U.S. revenue from HuffPost for 2021.
Other execs who spoke on the call included BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen, who spoke about tech developments coming to HuffPost; BuzzFeed News EIC Mark Schoofs, who delivered a hearty pep talk about the company's commitment to courageous, powerful, and ambitious journalism; and HuffPost enterprise director Richard Kim, who shared his excitement for the future of HuffPost. Schoofs said HuffPost is in the final stages of hiring a new EIC.
Staffers grilled Peretti on the layoffs, "in-the-gutter" morale, and how they are supposed to continue producing the same work with nearly a quarter of the newsroom gone. But a main focus of the call was about diversity. According to two staffers, 12 percent (4 of 33) of the HuffPost union members laid off last week were black, though black journalists made up only 6.8 percent of the union. Considering the HuffPost union's efforts to build a more diverse newsroom have been ongoing for years—last fall CNN reported on the issue, and staffers' fears about whether Peretti would do anything about it—Peretti seemed caught off guard when asked about it.
In his opening remarks, Peretti said the company had "conducted an analysis" to ensure that the layoffs would have "no outsized impact on any group within the HuffPost organization," and then shifted the focus to HuffPost staffers who did not self-report their race. "One of the things I discovered is that only 70 percent of HuffPosters opted to identify their race, and almost 30 percent declined, which means our team was working with kind of incomplete data about the diversity makeup of HuffPost," Peretti said, promising a fuller report on HuffPost's diversity later in the year.
"I'm glad you're talking about diverse talents and fixing the underlying problems at this company," said one staffer. "Because when you disproportionately lay off black staff, a week after meeting with us in which your staff said that they were committed to increased diversity at this newsroom, it both ruins the trust that you say we're supposed to be putting in you, and it's really hard to understand how you're fixing the underlying problem of diversity at HuffPost. Can you speak to that a little?"
Peretti answered that he "wanted to go deeper" and get more information to share with staff, and pointed to challenges posed by small numbers in statistical analysis. "The other thing I would say," Peretti said, "is that the decision to not do certain functions at the company can also have an impact if the teams in those groups are more diverse. And so that may also be some of the disconnect for like what I'm saying and what the team is experiencing in terms of impact." (A HuffPost staffer speaking anonymously in order to avoid potential retribution told Defector that they had "no idea what that means.")
Later in the call, a staffer asked Peretti what he was "going to do about diversity and inclusion right now."
"I can share what we have done at BuzzFeed," Peretti said. "We made painful cuts, we diversified our revenue. We have got to the point of being profitable as a company, and during that process, we also have really increased the diversity of BuzzFeed, and we have found ways to continue to hire while still becoming profitable. [...] And so my hope is that we can, I should say, all of these things have to happen at once to be able to make progress. There's no way to significantly change the diversity of HuffPost if the company has perpetual hiring freeze. So as a baseline, because HuffPost is a business, we need to make sure that there is a foundation as a business that allows for future growth and that provides the resources to transform the business."
Staffers did manage to extract one promise on the topic when yet another employee asked Peretti if he would "commit to hiring more black and brown people" even before the company reached profitability. Peretti said, "Yes we can commit to that."
Another HuffPost staffer, also speaking anonymously in order to avoid any potential blowback, told Defector that the call did little to soothe staffers.
"The messaging after layoffs has been so disappointing and embarrassing," this person said. "They haven't answered any questions about our horrible diversity issues that we've had at HuffPost for years. They haven't answered any questions about what our newsroom is going to look like now that we've lost 47 of our colleagues in the U.S. alone."