Protocol layoffs raise some troubling questions

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

When Protocol, a new site focusing on technology coverage, launched in February, expectations were high. After all, the man behind the site — Robert Allbritton, who owns it through his holding company, Capital News — also helped create Politico, one of the most successful digital media companies of the last 20 years or so. And it sounded like Protocol was going to duplicate the Politico model: hire a bunch of talented writers away from leading publications, set them loose on a topic, and then rely on a combination of advertising and high-end subscription revenue to pay the bills. Lather, rinse and repeat. Except that’s not what happened. This week, Protocol laid off 13 of its employees, according to one report, and it appears that more than three-quarters of that total — or 10 staff in all — were reporters and editors. The site’s entire complement of editors and reporters numbered about 25 before the layoffs, according to Protocol’s About page, which means that Allbritton just laid off almost half of the site’s newsroom.

Obviously, no one in the media industry saw the coronavirus coming, and it has thrown a wrench into the revenue plans of virtually every news publisher out there, big or small. Companies have been cutting salaries, putting reporters and editors on paid leave, and taking other steps to curb their spending in the hope that they can survive the virus-triggered downturn in advertising. But it’s difficult to think of a publisher that has taken the kind of extreme step that Protocol has, and laid off more than 40 percent of the staff that report and edit its news. In a memo to staff, Allbritton and two senior managers said that the coronavirus “has done nothing to shake our faith in Protocol’s mission or our long-term opportunity,” but added that its spinoff effects have “profoundly changed the economic realities of the present” (CJR tried to get a comment from Protocol or Allbritton, but they didn’t respond by publication time).

In a memo to staff at Politico, Allbritton said the current crisis “has elements of the fear that we felt after 9/11, the financial worry that we experienced in 2008, and the unknown that surrounds a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado all rolled into one.” He went on to say that Protocol “hired ambitiously in anticipation of rolling out a significant number of new growth products in the second half of 2020,” and that he had to make the “difficult but necessary decision to reduce short-term costs until a more robust revenue pipeline resumes.” What’s confusing about the layoff decision, given this statement, is the finality of it. Many companies have put their staff on furlough, which implies that they will be able to come back once the economic downturn starts to recede. If Protocol’s owner was genuinely committed to its “mission and long-term opportunity,” why wouldn’t he keep some of those 13 people around by putting them on paid leave, or cutting salaries enough to meet short-term goals?

Along with all the usual expressions of dismay and sympathy from other journalists on Twitter about the layoffs, there was a strong undercurrent of bitterness. Why? Because this isn’t the only round of sudden layoffs that has taken place at an Allbritton-owned digital news startup. Although it wasn’t caused by a global pandemic, something similar happened at a site called TBD.com (whose name was a play on the phrase To Be Determined) in 2011: more than half the editorial staff was let go, and the site was folded into one of the Allbritton family’s TV websites. Ironically, just after TBD launched in 2010, Allbritton said one thing he had learned from starting Politico was that “you’ve got to have some staying power for these things to work.” Six months later, virtually the entire team was gone. “Allbritton cutting off the legs of a nascent news brand showing nothing but editorial promise, months after assembling a very talented team? You don’t say,” one former TBD staffer posted on Twitter.

There’s no way we can see inside Protocol, or inside Robert Allbritton’s other investments (his family sold their TV stations for close to $1 billion in 2013), to see the full picture of what the coronavirus downturn has done to cash flow. But letting go of that many people so soon after launching a site certainly implies that some significant mistakes were made in Protocol’s vision or road map, and that doesn’t send a great message to those who remain employed there. As BuzzFeed opinion editor Tom Gara put it on Twitter: “Poaching away a bunch of reporters from steady gigs elsewhere and then firing them within a few weeks of an economic downturn is just disgraceful, and would make me think twice about ever working for them.”

Here’s more on the media and layoffs:

SCMP: The South China Morning Post has introduced a package of cost-cutting and revenue-raising measures intended to help it weather the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the global media industry hard. Twenty-seven senior executives have agreed to have their pay cut immediately, and all staff earning more than $2,500 a month have been asked to take three weeks unpaid leave by the end of March next year. Salaries will be frozen, except for promotions, and there have also been a limited number of redundancies. In an email and video message to staff, CEO Gary Liu said the past year had been a “truly unprecedented time” in Hong Kong, with eight months of civil unrest followed by the coronavirus outbreak.

Axios: Co-founder Jim VandeHei said that Axios is among the small businesses that qualified for a PPP loan to protect existing jobs and help weather the coronavirus crisis, because it is “both a media company, which covers government and business, and a job-creating small business with a national presence.” VandeHei said the site qualified for a loan of close to $5 million, and that this would ensure the company can avoid layoffs and pay cuts for its almost 200-person staff. Axios has raised more than $30 million in venture capital since it was founded in 2016. The Seattle Times said it got a $9.9 million loan under the same program.

Fox: CEO Lachlan Murdoch will forgo his salary as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and 700 employees at Fox will see pay reductions, Murdoch said in an internal memo Wednesday, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Executive officers, including Murdoch patriarch Rupert Murdoch, will go without pay until October, the memo said. Lachlan Murdoch said the moves were needed so that “to the greatest extent possible, we are able to protect our full-time colleagues with salary and benefit continuation during the period we are most affected by the crisis.” Other senior executives will reduce their salaries by 50 percent through October, while middle managers will have their salaries cut by 15 percent.

Tribune: The company that owns the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale and a half-dozen more titles is requiring most non-union employees earning between $40,000 and $67,000 a year to take three weeks of leave over the next three months. The action, announced in a letter to staff by CEO Terry Jimenez, comes about two weeks after the company implemented permanent pay cuts of 2 to 10% for higher salaried employees. Jimenez also said that similar pay cuts or furloughs for unionized staff will be determined in the near future, and that they may be extended.

Other notable stories:

A new study looked at the distribution of deaths from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and compared their locations to viewing patterns of certain television programs, and found that there was a correlation between higher numbers of deaths and viewers of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News when compared with viewers of fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson. Hannity was much more skeptical of the pandemic in its early days, and said regularly that it was no more dangerous than the flu and therefore social distancing was overkill. “Greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight leads to a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” the authors write.

Writers at Wired magazine will form an editorial union as the publication’s parent company Condé Nast plans deep cuts amid the coronavirus-fueled economic downturn. The Daily Beast reports that organizers informed magazine managers on Wednesday morning that they will unionize with the NewsGuild of New York, which represents staff at a number of other publications. “WIRED has always focused on the future, the better to prepare readers for its promise and upheaval,” the union said in its mission statement. “Now it’s time to secure our own place in that future, with our voices rooted in a workplace of transparency, diversity, and fairness.”

As part of the Year of Fear, a collaborative effort between CJR and the Delacorte Review. every week until Election Day, CJR has been publishing another chapter from one of four towns. This week, Jason Togyer writes about how Allegheny County in Pennsylvania is dealing with the coronavirus. “As of this writing, there have been more than one thousand cases of COVID-19 reported in Allegheny County, including 55 deaths and 180 people hospitalized, but health officials say Pittsburgh-area intensive care units haven’t yet been overloaded like those in Detroit and New York City.”

New trend data from Morning Consult shows that Americans’ views about the media and its credibility have hit a new low during the Trump administration, largely driven by declines among Republicans. The share of U.S. adults who said nine leading media outlets — including CBS and The New York Times — were credible has dropped roughly 9 percentage points since December 2016, from 60.6 percent to an average of 51.2 percent today. Last year, the average credibility rating sat at 55.4 percent.

CNN won’t send staffers back into its offices until at least September. In an internal email obtained by The Daily Beast, network chief Jeff Zucker told staff that the vast majority of company staff will “not be returning to the office in any significant way” before the end of summer. “Our expectation is that the rest of you will not return before early September, with a few exceptions in July for newsgathering and some in August, depending on the political conventions,” Zucker said, noting that some dates could be subject to change. “But, to be clear, production of our programs will continue from home, as is it is now, until the end of summer.”

In an essay, Dan Gillmor and Kristy Roschke of Arizona State University’s News Co/Lab argue that journalists should be collaborating more in order to provide context to breaking news about the coronavirus. “Traditional journalism has never been great at providing context,” they write. “The best and most efficient way to provide the context we need would be wide and deep collaboration across news organizations. Some regional and local collaboration is taking place, but Big Journalism’s long-standing traditions have made this approach a rarity at the national level. Whether newsrooms collaborate or not, they should make context central in how they approach this story.”

In mid-March, text messages started popping up on the smartphone screens and in the social-media feeds of American citizens with great regularity, warning that the president was about to lock down the country and prevent anyone from leaving their homes, and citing sources with the Department of Homeland Security. Eventually the White House’s National Security Council had to issue an announcement saying the rumors were untrue. According to a report in the New York Times, based on interviews with multiple members of the US intelligence community, those messages were the work of Chinese operatives trying to destabilize American society.

Blaming Russian disinformation efforts for problems in the US, including the delays in responding to the coronavirus, is a mistake according to an essay in Foreign Policy magazine. “Focusing on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s minions not only misses the big picture but can undermine the search for solutions,” Seva Gunitsky writes. “Shifting the blame onto foreign autocrats, though politically palatable in Washington, creates a neat distinction in which an innocent democracy is being subverted by shadowy outside forces. And once you accept this framing, the problems of the U.S. informational sphere become a foreign disease.”

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