They Can't Even Fire Us Right

You'd think after doing something a couple thousand times the bosses would have the process down.

The first time I got laid off I thought that I was going to get a raise. I got a calendar invite the night before for a 9 a.m. meeting with the CEO and our executive editor, which was similar to the one I’d gotten six months before when my salary had been bumped from $45,000 to $50,000. When I got to the meeting, there was a box of tissues on the table and it became clear that I was in for a different sort of day. I didn’t need to use the tissues — my only emotion was numbness and then a general sense of betrayal I wasn’t sure who to pin on — but the executive editor did. When I left the room I found that my Gmail access had been shut off. I had to ask the managing editor to turn it back on so I could download my contacts. She also cried. Maybe laying people off is more painful than getting laid off yourself. I wouldn’t know.

The second time I got laid off I was asleep. I worked Monday-Wednesday-Friday at Splinter, and the site was shut down out of nowhere on a Thursday, so when I started getting Slacks and texts at around 9 a.m. I was still dead to the world. There is a special kind of fear that comes from working in an industry where you go to sleep every night not knowing if you’ll have a job in the morning.

There is no good way to get fired. But you would think, that after close to 8,000 layoffs in 2019 alone and hundreds more in the first half of 2020, that the people in charge would have the shit-canning process down pat. They do not. Here are some stories from people about how they were laid off. All sources are anonymous for obvious reasons.

The 2019 Vice Media Layoffs

I was [away from the office on vacation] and woke up to an email from some reporter asking for my thoughts on the layoffs. That’s how I found out it was happening, and then I watched it unfold throughout the day with greater fury.

I started unloading my feelings about it and our useless capitalist scumbag C-suite vampires on Twitter, so when I got an email from HR around 4:30 that day, my first thought was, uh oh, they’re mad about my tweets. Then I quickly realized, oh, no, lol they’re gonna lay me off.

The way it was rolled out back at the office was particularly grim. First, you’d get a Gchat notification telling you to come upstairs. Then, you’d go up and get your head chopped off, essentially. Then you’d have to get your stuff and immediately leave the building.

There was no warning and seemingly no rhyme or reason for who got cut; it was just a slow-moving massacre.

The 2016 Fusion Layoffs

Employees who were being laid off received a calendar invite telling them to meet in a conference room; everyone else—the survivors—was hauled into another conference room and told that everyone on the other side of the wall was being let go. It felt like being told someone was being murdered in the next room.

There was just total confusion for all the remotes, and because we had people on both coasts, it was like, a day-long process to get in touch with everyone, so there was just this rolling catastrophe all day long.

The 2020 Outline Execution

It was my day off. That morning, I got an email from someone at the parent company, a conglomerate that owns a whole array of publications. The person who had contacted me, from the human resources department, asked to talk on the phone later. I assumed it would be related to one of the bullshit offers I got from them from time to time, offering amenities like free text messaging therapy sessions in lieu of actual health insurance.

As I was waiting, I did what I usually do in the morning and went online. To my surprise, I saw a tweet from my editor. Apparently, everyone working that day was on a conference call with our boss, who'd informed my coworkers that the publication was being folded. We'd all been laid off, said the tweet. In real time, I saw a series of posts from the rest of my coworkers saying the same thing. It was still half an hour before my scheduled call.

The 2017 DNAInfo/ Gothamist Execution

I found out via an email (at 5 p.m. on a Thursday) from owner Joe Ricketts, as did a lot of DNAinfo reporters who were out in the field.  

Back at the office, the discovery process was even more jarring. At 5 p.m. on the dot, Ricketts' team posted a closure announcement on both Gothamist's and DNAinfo's homepage, which is how and when my colleagues found out (at the exact same time as readers). This also rendered both sites inaccessible, so no one could access their archives or go to any page outside the homepage. People understandably freaked out, starting crying, etc. From what I understand, right after that one of the Gothamist founders came into the newsroom and told everyone to pack up their things and leave. 

That was pretty much it. At some point we were allowed back in the office to get the rest of our stuff, pick up our computers, etc., but I believe all that was communicated through our union.

The 2018 Mic Execution

I was at a bar in the Financial District sending off a colleague who was leaving for another job when all our phones started blowing up. We were all being sent a link to a Recode article that said that there were going to be layoffs at Mic and they were going to be bad. We all ordered another round. There was no word from the company, radio silence from managers and executives. We all went home drunk and confused and a little scared but mainly just ready for this to end.

I showed up to One World Trade a few minutes early to meet my fate. Chris Altchek called everyone in and clumsily, awkwardly told us this was it. Everyone in editorial was losing their jobs immediately. We’d have until noon to pack up all our things and leave. I remember he cried, which made everyone uncomfortable. He failed to bring up that he and the other leaders of the company had an escape plan in the form of a golden parachute from none other than Bryan Goldberg.

I remember one phrase—“industry headwinds”—that Altcheck said in his speech and someone laughed because it was such a bullshit evasion of responsibility.

The 2020 Vice Layoffs

After [the email from CEO Nancy Dubuc], everyone went into panic mode and it took almost two hours for anything concrete to come through.  Since everyone is remote right now, the whole process was particularly awful and chaotic.

Some teams were told they were safe, while others waited for any news at all. Over the course of about five hours, people were invited to calls with management and HR, and were told they were laid off. Reportedly, others were told through Slack or found out when their Slack was deactivated.

Thank god we had our union slack (unions forever) where we could all share information, coordinate, and say goodbye to our beloved colleagues.  A couple of months prior, the CEO had instituted a few days of “pause”—planned days off during the pandemic for “quiet and rest.” It was a “Day of Pause” for Vice News on the day of the layoffs.

This is of course a woefully incomplete list. This week the same process played out all over again at Conde Nast, Refinery 29, Quartz, and BuzzFeed. At Quartz, executives created a #goodbye channel in company slack so the people who just had their livelihood ripped away could swap contact information. In 2019, during the last big BuzzFeed layoffs, founder Jonah Peretti announced the cuts that were then rolled out over the course of days, not hours.

The question I’m left with though is how, after years of this practice, are the people making the cuts still so fucking bad at it?

Here’s what one former manager told me about how the process often works.

The C-suite comes up with a list of who to cut. Sometimes they consult with managers, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s literally just everyone’s name and salary dumped into a spreadsheet and they just lop off the most expensive people.

A lot of people in the director/senior level end up knowing a little early who is going — then for management it becomes a game of: what causes the least amount of panic, because there's no way to avoid panic when you can people.

You can tell who doesn’t have their ducks in a row before they do a layoff, because their goal is for everyone to know as close to as once as possible, and because it takes WEEKS to prepare for one — an insane amount of paperwork.

There's 50 million individual decisions to make and usually they are all bad and they fuck them up.

As we all have seen, in the absence of clear info and guidance, people will fill that void with mostly anger and panic, because what else can they do.

The biggest stressor in all of these stories, then, is time — the time between knowing something is going down and knowing whether or not you still have a job. Executives have a duty to condense this period as much as possible: One email from the top boss announcing layoffs immediately followed by a round of direct communication to everyone who is losing their job at the same time.

The fact that despite facing this situation nearly every year for the past half-decade, media executives still bungle the process every time tells you something that should have already been clear: they are not very good at their jobs.

It also tells us that they do not care one whit about the human cost of their actions. If you told a media CEO all they had to do to guarantee profitability was to literally cut out an employee’s heart at a public all-hands meeting every year they’d be online shopping for obsidian knives faster than you could say “revenue stream.”

As I was writing this blog I realized I didn’t really know what compiling all of these stories will do to help. I don’t know what starting a Substack newsletter with my colleagues from another dead publication will do to make anything better for anyone. As Discourse Blog’s Jack Mirkinson put it to Luke O’Neil the other week, “in the media industry these days if you haven’t been laid off it’s just that you haven’t been laid off yet.” The future is unclear and dark for every single one of us regardless of whether or not we still have employer-provided health insurance.

What I hope is that blogs like this will remind people that there is an “us.” When you get fired from a job you feel sad and angry and tired and sometimes a little relieved but mostly you just feel alone. You are not. The union movement in media is growing, and those unions are making management afraid. They’re afraid because they know that the stronger unions get, the more responsibility bosses will have to take for the consequences of their actions. If you are a new freelancer, there are resources for you: the NWU’s Freelance Solidarity Project in particular.

Projects like these make management afraid because they give workers teeth. Management loves to say that executives aren’t the real enemy here — the big tech publishers who destroyed the industry are. This is a clever way of telling a half-truth and absolving themselves of blame. What the executives have done is used their employees as human shields from the pain inflicted by the big tech publishers, rather than standing up to them. That makes them as much our enemy as Facebook and Google are. The goal of unionizing, organizing, and advocating for each other is to force the people at the top to absorb the pain, rather than coasting from one elite position to another and leaving broken newsrooms in their wake. The end goal is that when hard times strike again, their heads, not ours, are the first to roll. After all, we’d be much better at the logistics of showing them the door.

Image: Flickr/ Kai Schreiber