Why So Many Journalists Got Laid Off at HuffPost and Vocativ

Continuing a tough week in the news business, Wednesday saw all of Vocativ’s editorial staff lose their jobs, and 39 journalists at HuffPost too.

It was a bloody Wednesday in an already wretched week for the risky journalism business as both HuffPost, the popular news and opinion site launched a dozen years ago by pundit-turned-lifestyle guru Arianna Huffington, and Vocativ, the four-year-old multimedia venture of Israeli tech and security tycoon Mati Kochavi, abruptly fired dozens of writers and editors.

The corporate carnage—in which Huffpost laid off 39 staffers and Vocative cut its entire 21-member newsroom—came a day after Time Inc., the once-indomitable magazine empire, announced the dismissals and voluntary buyouts of 300 staffers at such marquee titles as Time, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune.

“Today is a hard day,” Huffpost editor in chief Lydia Polgreen and CEO Jared Grusd wrote in a joint memo late Wednesday. “[W]e had to say goodbye to some incredibly talented HuffPosters. We appreciate all that they’ve done and want to acknowledge their dedication and admirable passion.”

The layoffs among the worker bees—coming not long after Polgreen had announced high-profile management hires such as editorial strategy director Hillary Frey and former New York Daily News editor in chief Jim Rich as Polgreen’s second-in-command—were the result of corporate restructuring as telecommunications giant Verizon closed its acquisition of Yahoo and merged it with AOL, HuffPost’s parent company that Verizon swallowed up in 2015.

Ironically, as HuffPost employees were getting their pink slips, departing Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who had attempted with little success to re-energize the troubled Internet behemoth, walked away with a golden parachute worth a reported $260 million.

HuffPost’s Washington bureau was particularly hard hit, with White House correspondent Christina Wilkie, congressional reporters Michael McAuliff and Laura Barron-Lopez, financial policy reporter Ben Walsh (a New York-based journalist who works for the D.C. office), and longtime “Eat the Press” editor Jason Linkins among the bylines that will no longer appear.

HuffPost’s longtime global editorial director Howard Fineman will stay on, according to sources, but—in a decision that flabbergasted several observers—senior military affairs writer David Wood was unceremoniously sacked. The wizened war correspondent is responsible for HuffPost’s sole Pulitzer Prize, the 2012 national reporting Pulitzer for his powerful series on severely wounded soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“The Huffington Post’s political reporting has been among the most important over the last decade,” said the site’s former Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim, using the original name of the site that was promptly rebranded after Arianna Huffington separated from her brainchild last year to start ThriveGlobal, a lifestyle venture. “It helped shaped politics as we know it, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see this happening.”

Grim himself recently resigned from HuffPost to oversee the Washington coverage for eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s investigative site The Intercept.

At Vocativ, the bad news arrived in early-morning emails summoning staffers in an “all hands” meeting at which Chief Operating Officer Danna Rabin announced to stunned employees that the venture’s online print journalists were being abolished effective immediately in favor of an all-video operation.

It was left to Vocativ editor in chief Ben Reininga, who will also be leaving after an indeterminate transition period, to console his staff.

“This sucks,” a clearly upset Reininga told his charges, adding that he only learned of the company’s plan for summary execution a week ago, according to witnesses. “I love you guys. Thanks for the work you did. It’s been a blast.”

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Then, although it was barely mid-afternoon, the whole newsroom repaired to a nearby bar in Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue fashion industry neighborhood to say their alcohol-fueled farewells.

They had reason not to be completely devastated: According to company sources, owner Kochavi—who had compensated his fired employees with handsome salaries, benefits, and vacation time—had arranged for unusually generous severance packages, hardly the norm in a dog-eat-dog industry.

“I haven’t had my meeting yet,” said one former Vocativ journalist as his colleagues met with human resources to learn their financial fates, “but no one’s been pissed as they came out.”

A Vocativ insider, meanwhile, argued that Wednesday’s developments don’t represent a downsizing but simply a strategic adjustment; the insider noted that Kochavi intends to triple his investment in the company’s video operations as a way of targeting a more demographically desirable younger audience that prefers its news and information in lively visual form.

This former staffer noted that the gravy train was bound to end, and though the swiftness of Wednesday’s events was an unpleasant shock, they were not necessarily a surprise.

“The company didn’t seem to be making any money; there’s no ad sales team,” this person said, noting that it’s difficult to figure out how the privately held company could earn a profit despite several production deals with various mainstream media outlets, including making Showtime’s Dark Net, a series helmed by the Tel Aviv-based Kovachi’s adult daughter Adi.

Vocativ, which had yet to gain traction journalistically in the way that HuffPost has done, “is a vanity project for an Israel billionaire,” the ex-staffer insisted. “I don’t think anybody is wailing in the street. People are pretty depressed, but resigned. I think we all know what we were doing here. This was a billionaire’s whim. But a billionaire’s whim can be taken away at any time.”