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First was Upworthy, once a beneficiary of Facebook’s algorithmic largesse, which rang in 2016 with 14 layoffs, part of a move into “original video content.” Four months later, Mashable laid off 30 employees in a pivot to “non-news video content.” That November, Fusion laid off 70 people, in part because big bets within social video did not generate enough revenue.
In February 2017, Thrillist’s parent company let more than 20 people go, but was “continuing to dream in video.” In June 2017, Vocativ laid off 20 editorial staff members “in an organizational shift to an entirely video-first strategy.” Later that month, MTV News laid off at least nine employees and freelancers, “with an eye toward creating more video.” Fox Sports also released 20 writers and editors on the same day, “replacing them with a similar number of jobs in video.” The next month, Vice fired 60 employees while promising to focus on video production. In August, Mic dismissed 25 people from its news and editorial departments to refocus on “new mixed-media formats in social video.”
But then the bets on video started failing. After firing its writers and editors in June, Fox Sports had hemorrhaged 88 percent of its audience by September—a staggering feat, as traffic to sports websites usually grows when football returns. That month, Digiday reported that a “side effect of the pivot to video” was “audience shrinkage,” citing similar declines at Mic and Vocativ. Some of these traffic slides have continued: In April 2018, Mic’s traffic sat at 5 million uniques, down from 17 million a year earlier.
In February of this year, Vox Media, the publisher of SB Nation, Eater, and Vox, laid off 50 employees. “Facebook does not offer a viable path to monetize our in-depth video work,” its chief executive lamented in a memo. CNN Digital eliminated “fewer than 50” positions, including in the video department.
By our count, national media companies laid off more than 350 people from 2016 to 2018, at least partly as a result of Facebook’s herky-jerky incentives. Significantly, this number doesn’t include local newspapers that dropped staff while chasing video dollars. Since 2014, newspapers across the United States have lost more than 7,000 jobs, shrinking by 15 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Facebook can’t shoulder the blame for these layoffs alone. Media executives ultimately made these decisions, and journalism was an unstable industry long before the first Facebook video. In a Tuesday Wall Street Journal article, many publishers dismissed the argument that the social network was solely to blame for layoffs.
But Facebook wrote the rule book, owned the field, and served as the referee for the game that struggling publishers were trying to win. If what the suit alleges is true, it now looks like a dishonest umpire, too.