HuffPost's Layoffs Are a Succession Episode #irl

Sabra Boyd

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HuffPost laid off 47 employees in the U.S. today, and closed HuffPost Canada altogether.

It's a real life Succession episode. Only this time, there's a pandemic, and everyone at the fictional media company Vaulter is working from home. Although in the #irl COVID version we are all now living, Kendall Roy wouldn't need to endure the embarrassing task of announcing layoffs in person. At best, in the Succession COVID scenario, he might hold a Waystar Royco Zoom meeting, mute all the staff writers, and explain that he is systematically gutting the recently acquired Vaulter. In Season 2 Episode 2, with a measured monotone, Kendall informs the crowded room of employees that their health benefits are being terminated and that they have 15 minutes to gather their belongings before exiting the building. An enraged Vaulter employee spits in Kendall's face, a move that held a very different set of risks when the episode first aired in August 2019. Blindsided by the decision, Lawrence Yee, founder and CEO of Vaulter runs after Kendall for an explanation. "Sorry about the cloak and dagger," Kendall concedes, describing how this is a move to "find the profit centers, keep the union off our back." Lawrence rocks back and forth in anger, struggling to process that the company he built is being torn apart. He presses Kendall, demanding to know the real reason. "Because my dad told me to," Kendall says stoically. Lawrence parrots it back in mocking disbelief.

Back in November, just before COVID cases surged following the holidays, Buzzfeed acquired HuffPost in a stock deal. The future was uncertain, as are many things in a pandemic. Reminiscent of the mass layoffs and implosion of the publishing industry during the 2008 recession, a HuffPost restructuring with layoffs seemed inevitable.

The timing for the HuffPost layoffs in March 2021 is suspicious because it comes on the heels of HuffPost Canada filing for their union certification. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but as the labor rights movement grows more traction and unemployment numbers remain high, a newly formed union was probably perceived as a thorny impediment to investors and executives after the merger. However, research consistently shows that unions improve productivity, retention, work quality, and overall company morale. The Journal of Human Resource Management published a study in 2019 finding that "labour unions help to reduce the rate of labour turnover, and develop efficient grievance settlement schemes that will lead to a harmonious working environment. Therefore, trade unions contribute to the enhancements in the production level, productivity and discipline, thereby improving on the quality of work life." But executive management rarely considers the metric of turnover rates, seeming more keen to fire people and hire new staff at a lower salary. Perhaps this is because the math is simpler? Afterall, the tenets of datapoints like cost effectiveness for employee retention and company satisfaction are virtually excluded from P&L spreadsheets.

Compounded with the timing of the union's formation is the callous cruelty of mass layoffs in a pandemic riddled with high unemployment rates, especially when HuffPost and Buzzfeed could have chosen to apply for PPP loans instead. Writers, journalists, and editors erupted with anger when the layoffs were announced. Many offered support, praising talented reporters' work, and chastizing the decision. Editors put out calls for freelance submissions in solidarity, and other colleagues tweeted that they were setting up a donation fund. Anna Silman, a senior writer at New York Magazine deftly pointed out that for international employees, working for HuffPost in the U.S. during a pandemic, might now face insurmountable difficulty with keeping their work visas.

It is hard not to frame this as déjà vu, a decade after the 2008 recession's similar gutting of the publishing industry. Only this 2.0 version is compounded with a deadly virus. It's a real life premise that Succession's writers would have laughed at when filming the second season of the HBO show about money, power, greed, and media. HuffPost's layoffs are shocking and disheartening. But it is not surprising. Afterall, we have seen this all before.

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Sabra covers economics, tech, food, exploitation and human trafficking, homelessness, climate change, the logging and fishing industry, and culture in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle, WA
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