The Tragic Farce of Another Media 'Restructuring'

"They come in and say, ‘We love what you do, now do it this way.'"

Managing a company is not an easy thing to do, I imagine. I have never done it, but I have worked at several media companies, and they are usually chaotic, dramatic, and stressful.

One of the most important things that can mitigate the natural human messiness that comes with the general indignity of labor is a clear, well-defined organizational structure. This does not have to be hierarchical, but usually it is — and while bosses are always bad, they’re easier to deal with when the boundaries of their power are transparent and clearly delineated.

The problem with this system is that the people who are doing most of the jobs do not control the organizational structure, and the people who do control it — the ones who usually have “executive” in their title — are overwhelmingly idiots.

When a company goes through hard times, the idiots have two responses: first they fire people. Then they “restructure,” a technical term which generally means taking apart the internal structure of a media organization — even if it was working just fine — and putting it back together haphazardly with a new boss on top and some kind of promise of “growth.”

Every media company does this: Splinter, this site's predecessor, was restructured out of elements of Fusion Media Group and restructured into Gizmodo Media Group and then restructured out of existence by G/O Media. But few have done it as frequently or as disruptively as Vice Media, where waves of layoffs and restructuring have become an annual or even semi-annual occurrence for years. Last Friday, Vice laid off more than 155 people, and now it's time for another restructuring. (Discourse Blog contributors Caitlin Schneider and Paul Blest, who work for Vice Media, did not contribute to the reporting or content of this blog in any way.)

In an email to staff on Friday, CEO Nancy Dubuc called the latest layoff cycle a “strategic realigning,” portraying Vice executives as heroes working to save as many jobs as they could. We know that they saved one job at least — a new executive role, which will be filled by a woman named Stephanie Clary.

Clary was most recently the director of Social Publishing at CNN. Before that, she was managing editor at Mic, where she worked with Cory Haik, Mic’s then-publisher who is now the chief digital officer of Vice Media. (Vice Media did not respond to a list of questions Discourse Blog sent regarding Clary’s role and the company’s new organizational structure.)

According to a copy of Vice Media’s new organizational chart which was obtained by Discourse Blog, Clary, whose title is listed as “VP,” will oversee what remains of Vice.com’s original digital verticals, like Motherboard, as well as the newer lifestyle, culture and features verticals, and some digital video and social teams. The primarily print verticals like Motherboard and lifestyle still report to North America Editor in Chief Derek Mead, who now reports to Clary, according to the chart. Mead previously reported to SVP of Global Content Katie Drummond. She will now become the SVP of Global News and oversee a new grouping called Vice World News. Other parts of Vice News will still report to Jesse Angelo, the former CEO and publisher of the New York Post who was brought on after another restructuring in June  2019 and was also, coincidentally, the best man at James Murdoch’s wedding (Murdoch is on Vice Media’s board of directors).

At least, that’s how I think it all works. Multiple current Vice staffers who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons told Discourse Blog that, to paraphrase, they have no idea what’s going on. (They also could not provide a clear explanation of the difference between Vice News and Vice World News.) According to those staffers, the changes, including Clary’s hiring, were announced by Haik, the Chief Digital Officer who used to work with Clary at Mic, at an all-hands meeting over Zoom on Monday. They were then followed by immediate pandemonium in Vice’s company Slack channels, as employees tried to parse what they meant for their jobs. As of today, two days later, multiple staffers told me they still have no clarity on how the new org chart works. It’s also unclear when Clary was hired at Vice. The Vice Union tweeted on Tuesday that it had met with management to discuss the changes, but as of Wednesday, multiple staffers told me they still have no clarity on how the new org chart works. (The union also signaled its refusal to see the changes as set in stone, describing the restructuring as “proposed” in its tweet.)

While Vice is the freshest example, the confusion, pain and inefficiency that "restructuring" often inflicts is a familiar story across the media industry.

“I think what happens every time is that the new execs come in like, ‘we love the work you do, we’re so excited to help you do that work sustainably,’ and then what actually happens is everyone is expected to do more work with fewer resources,” one former Vice employee who was present for past shakeups told Discourse Blog. “Instead of listening to the people who understand the work, they come in and say ‘we love what you do, now do it this way.”

And more often than not, it’s the company’s most vulnerable employees who suffer. The recent Vice layoffs decimated the company’s international bureaus, eliminating roles away from the central offices in New York and L.A. BuzzFeed’s recent layoffs did the same, axing the publication’s U.K. and Australia bureaus entirely. Restructuring also often means internal diversity takes a hit: two of the U.S.-based employees laid off by Vice last week were prolific trans writers who covered beats related to gender and sexuality; BuzzFeed’s 2019 layoffs struck several prolific, public-facing POC or LGBTQ employees

The goal of restructuring is usually to find or empower a media company’s revenue-generating structures — the 2019 BuzzFeed restructuring, for instance, consolidated and reorganized the organization’s branded content platforms, while also hitting editorial employees with sweeping layoffs. Vice sources said that Haik repeatedly referenced editorial’s relationship to the commercial side of the company in her all-hands speech. One source said that staffers were also worried that Clary would push the people she oversees to produce more brand-friendly content. 

“The fact that the newsroom’s diversity took such a hit really underlines that concern. If they aren’t worried about upholding that value why would we believe that journalistic integrity is going to be prioritized either?” one Vice employee said.

It’s unreasonable to expect any company’s structure to remain static year after year. Restructuring could be an opportunity to support structures that work and empower managers who have built trust by dealing with their employees (and ideally, their employees’ union) in good faith. Vice’s union spent weeks proposing and arguing for cost-cutting measures that would minimize layoffs, which it says management refused to discuss. Instead, Dubuc appears to have followed the media CEO’s familiar playbook: bring in a new executive to squeeze employees for every ounce of labor and energy that they can get. Somehow, their grand theories of restructuring almost always involve adding more weight at the top, and weakening things at the bottom. It’s no surprise that what they build always seems to topple.

Photo by Jack Crosbie