HuffPost Canada capsizes, taking 70 jobs with it, just as workers were about to unionize — but the industry crisis goes beyond HuffPost

Since the shutdowns started in March 2020, Canada’s beleaguered media industry has laid off 2,096 and counting
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TORONTO — On March 9, BuzzFeed announced that it will be laying off workers after it acquired digital media company Huffington Post from Verizon three weeks ago. HuffPost Canada and Quebec stopped publishing content as of March 9, its website features will be permanently disabled as of March 12, and the company will end its operations by the end of the month. 

“We are grateful for your support and readership,” the now static website landing page stated. 

Existing content will remain as an online archive with the article and author information remaining online indefinitely, the company said. The landing page redirects to the HuffPost Canada Twitter account as well as its American counterpart HuffPost.com.

PHOTO Courtesy of HuffPost Canada

 

Along with the departure of Canadian executive director Hillary Frey and international executive editor Louise Rough, 47 American employees will be furloughed in a restructuring plan that would mitigate financial losses and “fast-track the path to profitability.” 23 domestic employees will be laid off because of this decision, the Canadian Press reported

Huffington Post lost around US$20 million in 2020, according to BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti.

“Though BuzzFeed is a profitable company, we don’t have the resources to support another two years of losses,” Peretti said.

“We also want to maintain high traffic, preserve your most powerful journalism, lean more deeply into politics and breaking news, and build a stronger business for affiliate revenue and shopping content.”

In November 2020, Verizon announced that the two companies would operate as “separate, distinct news organizations” with their separate websites and editorial staff as Peretti spearheaded the combined company.

CWA Canada said that two dozen workers at the Canadian satellite offices filed for union certification in February and were “eagerly anticipating” being unionized with the media union.

“The frustrating thing is, it’s so unfair and unnecessary,” CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon said. 

“If BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti really cares about people and journalism, as he claims, he will reverse this short-sighted decision and work on building a better company.”

The HuffPost Canada Union tweeted that it was informed about the decision before its organizing effort and that the company’s closure is not linked to its unionizing: “Still, it is even more devastating in the wake of the hope and optimism we had following a strong union drive.”

“HuffPost Canada consistently punched above our weight and did vital, important journalism in Canada,” the union continued in the Twitter thread. 

“We stand in solidarity with our colleagues in the US and the UK who are experiencing layoffs of their own. It is a sad day for journalism.”

The HuffPost Union, which represents US workers, also released a statement commiserating with their fellow employees who had lost their jobs. “We are devastated and infuriated, particularly after an exhausting year of covering a pandemic and working from home,” it wrote.

PHOTO Courtesy of HuffPost Canada

 

According to the Toronto Star, however, the Canadian news media industry was in dire straits even before the pandemic. News Media Canada, a group representing major print and digital publishers, said that the extant revenue model is not only obsolete but also no match for tech giants like Google and Facebook.

“Newspapers used to sell local ads to support local newspapers, which would hire local reporters to cover local news. What has happened is this cycle has been broken, and billions of dollars are siphoned off to California,” News Media Canada’s president John Hinds told the Star.

In a report, the group said that governments need to level out the playing field and protect their own journalism industry. News Media Canada proposed solutions, including changing policies and legislation — as Australia expanded its intellectual property rights for publishers — and allowing publishers to collectively bargain to force platforms to take action.

News Media Canada argued that big tech uses “their monopoly power to scoop up 80% of online advertising revenues and to free ride on the news content produced by hardworking journalists and publishers across Canada.”

Perhaps more pressing is that advertising interests can pollute journalistic integrity when corporate media outlets prioritize profit over credibility.

FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting obtained a leaked recording of CBC News’ CEO Catherine Tait singing praises of “branded content” for its Tandem division, currently in development.

“Even with the complexity of the conversation we’re having and the natural friction between the journalism and commercial part of our business, I still think [advertising] makes us stronger,” she said. Tait argued that advertising helps news organizations better understand and “be close” to audiences.

According to FRIENDS, however, “Branded content is a Bay Street buzzword for secret advertising on CBC’s podcasts, website and more. And it has no place at our public broadcaster.” 

Ultimately, branded content would erode the public’s trust in CBC, FRIENDS said. It has launched a petition addressed to Tait, protesting against Tandem and the advent of branded content.

Canada seems keen on emulating the Australian approach, especially because the already floundering print media industry is at risk of losing 700 jobs with big tech’s monopoly if the state does not intervene. 

And the economic recession caused by the government’s approach to COVID-19 only compounded the existing grievances in the news media industry. 

According to FRIENDS, the deceleration of business activity has resulted in a 60% revenue decrease in media outlets, translating to layoffs and wage cuts. Although the federal government promised an advisory committee to allocate tax credits to print media organizations, unfortunately, “these measures were insufficient to prevent further layoffs and closures.” 

While HuffPost suffered a sizeable shortfall, it certainly was not the only — nor will it be the last — piece of collateral damage to the economic crisis induced by the government’s response to the pandemic, as well as the social media domination that has decimated traditional news media.

PHOTO Courtesy of CBC News

 

FRIENDS also has a live counter of the number of layoffs the Canadian news and media sector experienced since the start of COVID-19. At the time of publication, the number is 2,096. 

The grassroots organization also has a dated list of domestic news media companies that have been impacted by the government’s approach to the pandemic, starting from Quebec news organization Le Citoyen laying off 60% of its collaborating journalists. The list is updated regularly.

Similarly, Poynter has compiled a list of all news companies across the US that have shuttered their newsrooms, jettisoned staff, or have been otherwise affected by shutdowns. 

“We want this list to reflect what happened to our industry, including layoffs that aren’t credited to the pandemic,” author Kristen Hare wrote. “We don’t yet know the full impact of the last year and want to capture as many changes as we can here.”

The list was started on April 6, 2020, and is also updated regularly, with the help of tips from readers. 

Wiki Production Code: A0710

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