- Getty Images/Michael Kovac
- BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti admits the company “invested more than we should have earlier than we should have” in the UK.
- The NBCUniversal-backed firm made 39 British staff redundant in January, 23 of whom worked in the newsroom. A further 60 lost their jobs in the US.
- The job cuts were quick and clean, as staff left with what a source described as “extremely generous” redundancy packages.
- The upheaval is not over, however, and Business Insider understands that the company is looking to vacate its swanky London offices because they are too expensive.
- Despite the difficulties, BuzzFeed’s reporting has still set the agenda in January.
Late last week, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti admitted that his company overreached in its mission to figure out the future of journalism in the UK. To an extent, he was acknowledging the obvious.
BuzzFeed UK had just laid off 39 of its 140 employees when he told the Columbia Journalism Review that “we invested more than we should have earlier than we should have” during a “tough business climate” in Britain.
Sources in the company speaking to Business Insider fleshed out the situation, describing a bleak process which saw almost a third of the company shown the door in a few weeks.
Peretti’s admission comes against a backdrop of missed revenue targets last year – BuzzFeed fell 15-20% short of its $350 million (£247 million) goal – and declining traffic.
ComScore figures show BuzzFeed UK hovering at just over 10 million unique users towards the end of 2017, down 20% since January 2015 (see chart below). BuzzFeed does, however, consider itself a multiplatform publisher and its website traffic is not its only measure of success.
Business Insider has spoken to a number of BuzzFeed UK insiders coming to terms with the unexpected severity of the cuts after Editor-in-Chief Janine Gibson once said there’s a “genuine sense that we might just be ﬁguring out the future of journalism over here.”
The redundancies were part of a global cull of 100 jobs, and the full scale of the impact on the UK was made clear in early December. US Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith originally said around 20 people would be affected in Britain, but this figure was revised up to 40 when the London newsroom was brought up to speed a week later. The Christmas party was also swiftly cancelled. Insiders were floored by the news.
Thirty-nine of 140 UK staff left, 23 of whom worked in the newsroom. Business Insider compiled this list of those willing to go public with their departure. By the middle of January, there was a flurry of “last day at BuzzFeed” tweets, as journalists publicly said their farewells.
In most cases, it was quick and clean (although not as brusque as in the US where staff were shown the door on the same day as the cuts were announced). BuzzFeed dished out “extremely generous” redundancy packages, according to one source, in exchange for silence from those involved with non-disclosure agreements. This kind of arrangement is not unusual in Britain if golden goodbyes exceed statutory requirements.
BuzzFeed targeted some obvious areas. Gone are its full-time staff in Scotland, while the website’s British science desk has been shut down. A layer of what an insider called “ceremonial” management was also stripped out, with founding editor-in-chief and Head of European Growth, Luke Lewis, the highest-profile departure.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) was on hand to assist members (there were around 44 at the company prior to the cuts) with legal advice, but said the redundancy programme was “brutal,” and carried out without “any meaningful consultation.”
Staff are still fighting for union recognition at BuzzFeed UK and the case is currently with the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), which will help define the terms of a group bargaining unit.
Two of the most prominent voices in the campaign for union recognition, Science Editor Kelly Oakes and news journalist Francis Whittaker, were made redundant this month.
They publicly disagreed with BuzzFeed’s vision for union recognition, openly questioning management’s characterisation of the way staff are organised and rewarded. You can read a summary their testimony here. Oakes and Whittaker declined to comment.
A BuzzFeed UK spokeswoman made clear that the redundancy programme was not linked to the ongoing wrangle over unionisation. She said: “BuzzFeed UK’s restructure was driven by internal business needs. The timing of the restructure was unrelated to the CAC proceedings, which have been going on for more than a year. The restructure was part of a global company change.”
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One insider reflected that it was “weird and ridiculous” to wave goodbye to so many colleagues. “I am just gutted. So many talented people – couldn’t be prouder of the work we do,” they said. It was a sentiment shared by others. Head of Celebrity and Entertainment Kimberley Dadds tweeted:
A lot of my very good friends and extremely talented colleagues are leaving BuzzFeed this week ???? Which means you could be lucky enough to snap them up! Please do, you won't regret it.
— Kimberley Dadds (@KimberleyDadds) January 18, 2018
And the upheaval is not yet over. BuzzFeed UK will likely have to move out of its swanky central London offices, located practically next door to Oxford Circus station. Some insiders said the lease has become too expensive, but others pointed out that the space simply doesn’t make sense with a smaller team.
There is also speculation over more job cuts in the future. “That should be the end of that, at least until some sort of round two,” said one source.
BuzzFeed UK has still set the agenda in January
Some remaining staff were keen to move on from the narrative of cuts. It is noticeable that the majority of its highest-profile journalists remain in place. The London investigations team, for example, was kept intact under former Sunday Times journalist Heidi Blake. Politics was also left largely untouched.
The impact of its reporting has remained high in January too. Notably, BuzzFeed first reported TV news presenter Carrie Gracie’s bombshell letter about the BBC’s “secretive and illegal pay culture,” which has reinvigorated the controversy around the gender pay gap at the British broadcaster.
And if evidence were needed that BuzzFeed is now a firm part of the British media illuminati, then it came only this week. Senior Political Correspondent Emily Ashton was elected chair of the parliamentary lobby, a prestigious position, which means she poses and fields daily press questions to Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman.
As Political Editor Jim Waterson noted, only four years ago, BuzzFeed was refused a lobby pass “because the parliamentary authorities didn’t think it was worth having us in there.”
And as Peretti pointed out to the Columbia Journalism Review, BuzzFeed is still a growth story. “We had another year of growth in 2017, but we’re always trying to grow more and faster. I would say we had a good year but not a great year,” he said.