The Washington Post laid off 20 staffers Tuesday, the latest in a series of media and technology companies to cut jobs in the face of a challenging economic climate and continuing declines in advertising revenue and readership.
In addition to eliminating those 20 positions, the company will also keep another 30 vacancies unfilled — altogether, numbers smaller than many had expected. In mid-December, publisher Fred Ryan told staff that the company would eliminate a “single-digit percentage” of its 2,500-person staff because it “cannot keep investing resources in initiatives that do not meet our customers’ needs.”
As part of the layoffs, The Post will discontinue its video game and esports section, Launcher, which debuted in 2019, as well as KidsPost, a long-running news and features section aimed at children.
In a note to staff Tuesday afternoon, executive editor Sally Buzbee wrote that “we are not planning further job eliminations at this time.” She also said that newsroom leaders tried to prioritize eliminating vacant jobs over laying off workers, and that laid-off employees have been offered help to apply for current openings in the newsroom.
“While such changes are not easy, evolution is necessary for us to stay competitive, and the economic climate has guided our decision to act now,” she wrote. “We believe these steps will ultimately help us to fulfill our mission to scrutinize power and empower readers.”
Even with the layoffs, The Post’s overall head count will remain the same or higher by the end of 2023. The company will continue to hire new personnel in other roles, Ryan has said. The company will continue to expand its coverage in areas that provide “high value to our subscribers and new audiences,” a Post spokeswoman said last month.
As news of the layoffs spread among Post staffers Tuesday, The Washington Post Guild sent a message to its members saying that “we believe any job eliminations right now — at a time of continued growth and expansion — are unacceptable.”
The industry at large is undergoing a dark season of cuts. CNN laid off hundreds of employees in December. Gannett went through several rounds of layoffs last year. Last week, Vox Media laid off 7 percent of its 1,900-person workforce, with the CEO citing the current “economic climate.” On Monday, Spotify cut 6 percent of its workforce, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, cut 12,000 jobs, the most in company history.
The layoffs at The Post mark something of a cultural shift for an institution that has largely avoided them — turning instead to voluntary buyouts during past contractions — and punctuate a recent period of internal tension and turnover heightened by a decline in digital subscribers.
Several senior managers and high-profile staff have departed for rival publications. In November, the company abruptly announced the closing of its Sunday magazine and laid off its 10 employees as well as The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic. New membership in the employee union surged, fueled in part by staff dissatisfaction.
Jeff Bezos, The Post’s billionaire owner, has lately been drawn into more direct involvement with the company. Visiting The Post’s headquarters last week, he held meetings with top executives, including Ryan and Buzbee, as well as some newsroom staffers. After he sat in on a morning news meeting, an employee approached him about the impending layoffs. He responded that he was there to listen, not answer questions, according to the employee, but added: “I’m committed. Believe me, I’m committed.”
In his meetings, Bezos asked about the state of the business and why some journalists and executives were leaving, according to four people familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private discussions.
Bezos, the founder of Amazon, transformed The Post after he purchased it for $250 million in 2013, ushering in years of investment and refocused ambitions to reach a greater national and international audience. The Post newsroom grew from roughly 580 employees to more than 1,000 today.
The subsequent years were a boom time for media, as Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency and later the pandemic supercharged the news cycle. The Post’s digital traffic soared, hitting 139 million monthly visitors in March 2020.
But many news organizations have seen a striking drop-off in audience since then. In December 2022, only about 58 million people visited The Post’s digital platforms. Digital subscriptions, which had grown to 3 million by January 2021, fell to 2.7 million by the end of that year.
Chris Roush, dean of Quinnipiac University’s communications school, said the “Trump Bump” may have been an aberration that delayed some media companies “from actually thinking about what they need to be doing” in the internet era.
“Him leaving office has made some media companies realize they need to refocus on their business strategy,” Roush added.
At The Post, the announcement in November that the Sunday magazine would shutter came as a surprise to staffers; the company also quietly closed its Spanish-language opinions section and podcast this winter. A companywide meeting in December turned rancorous when Ryan told staff to expect more job cuts without providing details — exchanges captured in recordings that went viral on social media. Within a day, 22 Post employees signed up for the Guild, including some of the paper’s most high-profile reporters. About 75 percent of the newsroom’s eligible employees are now members, the highest percentage in decades.
“Employees care about the direction of The Post, and we have a lot of ideas and a vision for the way this company has to be run,” said Sarah Kaplan, a reporter who is chief steward of the Guild. “The Guild is our platform for trying to assert that.”
Last year, The Post created new departments expanding coverage of climate and personal health, signaled plans to add more than 100 new positions and set the goal of reaching 5 million subscribers by 2025. Rival New York Times also has ambitious plans, setting a goal of 15 million digital subscribers by 2027 and acquiring sites such as the Athletic and Wirecutter. (In last month’s staff meeting, Ryan referred to the practice of acquiring other websites as “a sugar high” that temporarily inflates subscriber numbers, though without specifically criticizing the Times.)
The Guild cited The Post’s growth ambitions in a statement released Tuesday. “As far as we can tell, these layoffs are not financially necessary or rooted in any coherent business plan.”