✎STUDY HALL DIGEST 5/26/2020✎

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By Study Hall staff writer Allegra Hobbs (@allegraehobbs)

HOW AUTOMATTIC GUTTED LONGREADS 

Amidst all the very public layoffs, furloughs, and budget slashings across the media industry, former employees reported on Twitter on Friday that Automattic, the parent company of WordPress, had been quietly gutting Longreads since the beginning of the year. Longreads is a site publishing original essays and features that grew out of a longform aggregator founded in 2009; Automattic acquired it in 2014. It is largely subscription-powered, with regular membership drives. In fact, it hosted one in February with the goal of raising $50,000; however much it raised, it wasn’t enough to save some workers’ jobs.

Fact-checker Samantha Schuyler broke the silence around the cuts with a tweet noting she had been laid off along with the rest of the Longreads research team in January, and that the parent company — which was valued at $3 billion in the fall of 2019 — had “essentially tanked the publication” by slashing its budget (another round of layoffs had followed in March). Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg defended his company on Twitter, claiming it took a $1.5 million loss in 2019 and that it is “still investing in editorial.”

Three former Longreads workers — all of whom except Schuyler agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity — describe an opaque process at Automattic that resulted in Longreads’ funding abruptly being cut, leaving contract workers with no benefits or job security in the cold. 

Longreads had long been powered by contract workers who regularly put in full-time hours with no benefits, job security, or paid sick leave, the staffers said — and those were the positions that were eliminated over the last few months. (Mullenweg referred to an editorial staff of “8 full-time employees” in a tweet, but these are Automattic employees who do not primarily work for Longreads, and they enjoy full benefits plus a three-month sabbatical every five years.) There were two rounds of cuts: at the end of January, two or three Longreads workers plus the entire audio production team were told their contracts wouldn’t be renewed, then in March, three more workers were informed their contracts would be up at the end of May.

Schuyler’s contract was eliminated in January. She had been working full-time fact-checking for Longreads since 2017, but was classified as a contract worker, so eliminating her position was simpler than a traditional layoff, when she might qualify for severance or unemployment. “There was nothing I could do in that situation — I had no recourse,” she said. “It was just like, the checks were going to stop coming.”

Schuyler said that the workers whose positions had been cut weren’t told to keep quiet about the cuts, but staggering layoffs discouraged workers from speaking out publicly. “I think if everyone had been dropped in January, we wouldn’t have had anything to lose,” she said. As it was, there was a feeling of loyalty towards those who remained — no one wanted to jeopardize their tenuous positions.

The reason for the cuts was never fully explained to workers beyond the need to close the gap between revenue and expenses — a gap that seemed to have suddenly become alarming to Automattic. The company provided a generous budget to Longreads, then suddenly “it seemed like the rug had been pulled out,” said one worker. Automattic hadn’t expressed any concern about the budget before the end of 2019, when they raked in $300 million in series D funding and hired a new CFO to spearhead aggressive revenue growth. Though Longreads contractors had previously been paid out of Automattic’s payroll, Mullenweg abruptly clarified in December of 2019 that those contractors should be paid out of Longreads revenue alone, which came primarily from reader subscriptions (Automattic also has pledged $3 for every $1 donated by readers). Staffers proposed a plan to dramatically increase revenue to keep contractors on payroll, but it was rejected. Cutting contractors seemed to have been the only cost-saving option considered, the former workers said.

The cuts happened gradually. In January, the contract workers who were left after the first round of layoffs saw their hours cut in half, leaving them scrambling to cobble together freelance work on the side. The team also had almost no fact-checking resources, severely limiting the kind of work they could do. “It’s a husk of what it was,” said one former staffer. “We haven’t been able to contract any new stories since December.” (When those remaining permalancers saw their positions cut in March, the staffer said, they were given back their full original hours and salary for the remaining two months of their contract.) With the publication a “husk of what it was,” it’s worth asking what sort of operation readers are being asked to help fund.

According to the workers, Longreads was a dream job, and the laid-off workers are devastated by the loss. The cuts come at a time when other journalism positions are being eliminated, and there are few places left to go. “It’s not like journalism is an industry where I can say, ‘I’ll just hop on over to this other place’ — that just doesn’t really exist,” said one worker. “So I’ve been in a lot of grief about it.”

It seems Longreads isn’t exactly a priority for Automattic: it couldn’t even bother to keep a few fact-checkers on permalance contracts to help power the publication’s freelance longform journalism. Mullenweg tells Study Hall that the introduction of contract jobs was a fairly recent move for Longreads that hadn’t proven sustainable — between 2016 and 2018, the company brought on those contractors in hopes of growing subscribers. “The external contractor and freelancer spend was $1.5M over what was brought in in 2019,” he explained. So Automattic chose to reduce rates and end contracts with a few months’ notice. He clarified in a tweet that in terms of fact-checking, that can still be incorporated into a story’s budget. He also offered to jump on a call with any employees who wanted to discuss the matter — though Schuyler and others said this offer of transparency should have come sooner.

In any case, the cuts demonstrate that, in addition to large media companies going through layoffs, smaller publications are in crisis, too. We’re losing the kind of quirky independent publishing that digital media was known for, and we don’t know what will replace it. 

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At The Atlantic, 68 workers were let go this past week. Twenty-two of those workers were in the editorial department (many from the National Security desk), and 11 of those editorial workers were part of the now-extinct video division. The rest of the layoffs mostly hit live events (which are, of course, no longer happening) and marketing. The company cited a “bracing decline in advertising” due to the pandemic’s impact on ad sales, but business seemed to have been booming in just about every other respect. The publication had attracted an additional 90,000 paid subscribers since March, and had in recent years had launched a big expansion with new hires. As with Longreads, there seems to have been little concern over the publication’s budget until very recently. 

In 2018, the company launched the “Talent Lab” to recruit new employees as part of an ambitious expansion plan that included hiring 100 new staff. The Talent Lab was shuttered as part of the layoffs last week. The layoffs cannot be entirely blamed on COVID — David G. Bradley, the chairman of Atlantic Media, said as much in a memo to staff. Cuts were coming either way, but, “In the absence of a pandemic and global crisis, we would have found some kind of kinder contraction,” he wrote. “Surely, we would have paused over furloughs instead of severance if we believed the positions were coming back.” In other words, this is a business model shift, not just a response to advertising decline.

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HOW WORK-SHARING IS SAVING UNION JOBS DURING MEDIA LAYOFFS

Each week we highlight one post from Delia Cai’s daily media newsletter Deez Links. Here’s a Q&A with LA Times journalist and union member Matt Pearce about work-sharing, an arrangement to cut down collective hours to save jobs.

DC: What was the process like for coming up with this idea within the guild and then taking it to management? How long did it take to reach an agreement? 

MP: I discovered the work-sharing program while reporting a story on how the CARES Act had dumped a bunch of stimulus money into the unemployment system. Management had just told us they needed to cut $2 million from our newsroom, and I was scrolling on my phone in bed late one night, reading some corporate lawyer blog that casually mentioned that Congress and the Trump administration had made work-sharing programs eligible for the $600 weekly stimulus — and I snapped wide awake and was like, holy shit. 

People could have their weekly hours reduced as little as 10% under a work-sharing program, get their lost wages offset by the federal stimulus, while letting management reach its budget target. The journalism industry doesn't have to have these pointlessly brutal layoffs that devastate people's careers. There's another way.

DC: This may be a dumb question, but does work sharing actually work when journalism is kind of notoriously not an hourly, 9-to-5 kind of occupation?

MP: That's been the hardest part so far. We're all so conditioned to being available all the time, always having Slack on, emailing and texting at crazy hours. It's a big adjustment to go to a shift system where our hours are spread out across the week to make sure the newsroom's gaps are covered, and then to really log off when we log off. It could be unemployment fraud if you fuck around with the rules and don't respect the system. I have been deadly serious about this with people. We will do whatever it takes to stop layoffs. 

But I would not be surprised if some people actually thrive under a shorter workweek. There are a bunch of studies showing that people are actually more productive when they shift to shorter hours; Americans are so burned out and unfocused for much of their workweeks and they don't even realize it. We'll see.

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EVERYTHING ELSE

— Huge podcast news: Spotify has signed the Joe Rogan Experience in a $100 million multi-year exclusive licensing deal. This is the second big podcasting purchase for Spotify — the company bought The Ringer for $200 million in February largely for its audio content. 

— A (prospective) Apple+ series about the glory days of Gawker is just what the world needs right now. I’m sure there won’t be any sensationalizing or romanticizing and the experiences of women at the company will be well-represented. 

— A true story billed as a real-life Lord of the Flies published recently in The Guardian has already been optioned. New Regency bought up the rights in a 7-figure deal, further cementing the reasoning that larger-than-life true adventure stories are where the money is!!

BuzzFeed, after suffering some pandemic-related pay cuts and furloughs, seems to be instituting a new editorial plan, including the creation of new desks and beats, including an inequality desk to cover race and gender and a “refocused” government desk.

— Aeon has launched a new digital magazine, Psyche, about mental health, “how to live” (please, I’m all ears), and “the artistic and transcendent facets of life.” 

– Ben Smith focused his New York Times media column on the phenomenon of artists and journalists “moving quickly to find new business models as huge swaths of the media business have been wounded or shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.” That is, moving to self-publishing platforms like Substack and monetizing their identities on Cameo. The writer-influencer discourse continues apace.

— Following the recent Chrissy Teigen/Marie Kondo controversy, Alison Roman posted on her Instagram that she using this time of self-reflection to — what else? — launch a newsletter.  

— The Daily Beast examined the fall of alleged grifter Sean King’s multimedia project The North Star, which King blamed on over-ambition but former staffers blamed on King’s “absenteeism, insistence on absolute control, and radical incompetence.” 

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