Publications Make Staffing Adjustments While Dealing With Fallout From Coronavirus

Alt-weeklies and local papers have already seen the effects

an empty office
Staffers are starting to see changes to pay and employment status due to the coronavirus. Getty Images

Layoffs and furloughs have begun hitting national media companies, many of which have a portfolio of publications, amid the international coronavirus crisis that’s sure to put a strain on many—if not all—industries.

These staffing changes are especially hitting alt-weeklies, a business model dependent on advertisements from local businesses and editorial content largely centered on events and experiences from their communities. That strain is also making its way to small daily newspapers and tabloids that depend on print ads.

Journalists have been losing their jobs at precipitous rates over the last decade, and newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by about 25% from 2008 to 2018, according to Pew Research. The industry is continuing to lose workers, as media misses out on digital ad dollars that are instead funneled to Facebook and Google. As the pandemic continues to spread across the globe, it creates additional tension for media organizations that are seeing an increase in traffic due to their coverage, but struggle with tangible ways to monetize it.

Publishers of mainstream media outlets who spoke to Adweek on background in recent days have said it’s too early to tell just how much the digital ad industry will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic—or even precisely when it will be able to count on the market returning to normal. It’s taken constant contact with their respective boards, investors and industry forecasters to determine how their businesses should respond.

Earlier this month, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson publicly said he’s expecting a 10% decrease in digital ad revenue. But the effects of the coronavirus began making their way to staff at media outlets this week.

Future Media Group, a holding company that now includes Watch Journal magazine and Surface Magazine, acquired W magazine from Condé Nast in June last year. The company told staff that it was furloughing some of them due to the coronavirus and that 17 employees would be affected, according to the company’s WARN notice. Employees are not unionized.

A Future Media Group spokesperson did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.

In addition, Future plc, a company with sites like PC Gamer, and TechRadar, told staffers it would lay off 15%—or nine employees—of its bargaining unit. A request for comment from Future plc was not returned.

“These workers are each a critical element of their already threadbare teams. Without them, we do not have confidence in our publications’ capacities to properly operate or for this company to recover from this crisis,” the bargaining unit, represented by Writers Guild of America, East, said in a statement.

BuzzFeed also took measures today in what BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti alluded to as being an effort to avoid layoffs. The plan will reduce the salaries of employees who earn above $40,000 through May and determine on a monthly basis if further adjustments should be made.

The cuts are staggered so that those who make between $40,000 and $65,000 will see a 5% decrease, between $65,000 and $90,000 will see a 7% decrease and so on. Those who earn more than $225,000 will see a 13% decrease. Some executives will see a 14% to 25% decrease beginning April 1.

“Please know that we didn’t come to this lightly, but as we operate through a major crisis as a more mature company, we have to put both the greater good and the long-term health of the company at the center of our decision-making process,” Peretti said in a note to staff.

Peretti said in the note that the company was “well on track” to profitability this year, but “the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy will almost certainly cause the company to lose money, even as we take aggressive action to control costs.”

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.