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Vice Media and BuzzFeed become the latest news organizations to announce layoffs

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Grim news in the news business this week. Vice Media once seemed like a leader in online news. Now it's laying off hundreds of staffers and closing its site, vice.com. BuzzFeed, another digital media upstart, is struggling, and one of our own NPR member stations is giving up on its digital news site. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Let's go one by one. Begin with Vice. What's happening there?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's remember what Vice was. Vice was - you know, started out as a kind of swashbuckling magazine in Canada that emerged as one of these roaring lions of digital media and saying it was going to upend the way in which media worked and, you know, through, at times progressive - excuse me, transgressive approaches to thinking about sexuality and substance abuse and rock and roll and projecting a sort of rebel fun. What's happening here now is the unraveling of all this. You know, Vice went through bankruptcy not so very long ago. They - you know, their chief executive, Bruce Dixon, announced the layoffs of hundreds of their journalists and employees. They shut down vice.com, and they've described what they are going to as a studio model, the idea being that Vice could produce content that would live on through other outlets, you know, the latest in a series of brutal choices. Vice, of course, had produced a very well-regarded TV show for HBO. But, you know, it's hard to really understand how it sustains itself as a significant force in journalism.

SIMON: And BuzzFeed?

FOLKENFLIK: BuzzFeed - you know, that whole digital empire's similarly in decay. BuzzFeed was going to teach the world of media how it should be done, presenting itself both as a news outlet and as a social media platform. It had shut down its news site, its Pulitzer Prize-winning news site, last spring. This week, it sold off Complex Networks for a third of a price it bought it for just three short years ago. It's laying off another 16% of its staff. I think there are going to be more details unfolding next week. It had gone and been listed on the stock exchange, I believe, in late 2021. More recently, the stock exchange came back and said, hey, we need you to delist. You're not worth enough. It's earned a stay of execution on that. It's a public profit, a company desperately trying to find a path to profit.

SIMON: Common element here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, you could argue these are different forms of ownership. Vice is owned by a consortium led by the private equity firm Fortress Investment Group. And what they want is to recoup their investment as best they can after they bought it out of bankruptcy. BuzzFeed - a public entity. But I think you're seeing, you know, the strains in a time in which news, except in, you know, very specific sectors at the top level - the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, for example, or in television - news is not really a profit center in the way in which people think of it as being. In the digital space, you know, it's very hard for them to make money off digital ads on their own, and it's really hard for them to - you know, they promise these content shops where they'd be making bespoke advertising, the magic of their own special formulas, and people have found other ways to do it. They're going to TikTok. They're going to Facebook, Meta, and going directly to the digital source.

SIMON: Public radio, of course, is not for profit, but it's not immune from the same forces. Our member station in Washington, D.C., WAMU, shut down its digital news site called DCist yesterday. What's the reasoning there?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Erika Pulley-Hayes is the general manager of WAMU. Although she's a board member at NPR, she hasn't responded to my inquiries, but she talked to Axios, the digital news site, and said they were basically pivoting to audio. There had been tough times that she had foreshadowed for her staff financially, questions of philanthropy and the like. The digital site doesn't, you know, bring in that kind of money that the audio, you know, podcasting and particularly broadcast does for a place like WAMU. She's presenting this as a pivot to audio, but what it does is it shuts down this local digital news site. And it also, you know, gets rid of almost, you know, about two-thirds of its newsroom, its reporting staff. This is a blow for the local news scene in D.C.

SIMON: From what you can tell, David, is there more upheaval ahead in the industry?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, we've just seen, you know, this - the most recent chapters in what I've been describing, a media recession. The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal laid off 30 people. The LA Times laid off, you know, something like 10% after earlier layoffs last year. Messenger just shut down, losing hundreds of jobs. News has ceded distribution to, you know, the big digital platforms, to Google and Meta primarily. And when those companies decide they're not interested in news anymore, it's awfully hard for these digital sites to get traffic online.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much for being with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.