Digital Media is Now Facing the Consequences of Ragebait Content

Last week, online media companies laid off hundreds of staff members without warning, drawing questions about the future of digital content. Buzzfeed was among these online media and news companies, which announced the termination of 15% of its staff – an estimated 200 employees. Since the sudden announcement, Buzzfeed has made business moves that have drawn scorn from individuals online. First, the company plans on replacing the old staff with interns making minimum wage and receiving no employment benefits. They also initially refused to pay the laid off workers the unused Paid Time Off to which they were entitled, but after intense backlash online Buzzfeed did pay the laid off employees. Most recently, fans of the website noticed that many of the laid off workers were people of color.

Questions have been raised regarding Buzzfeed’s future as a digital content generator and news media outlet, but Buzzfeed wasn’t the only digital media company to suffer losses this month. The issue has less to do with monopolistic tech giants deciding to cut losses and more to do with the content itself. Online media that is adaptable, centrist, and moderate is thriving, whereas hyper-partisan and clickbait websites are not. Buzzfeed was recently involved in a scandal with the Special Counsel’s Office for publishing an article with unreliable sources and subsequently refusing to issue a retraction. The publication maintain their sources are correct and the Special Counsel’s Office did not comment further on any inaccuracies. Buzzfeed has also been notorious for publishing “ragebait” – clickbait content with the purpose of sparking public outrage – on their website and social media platforms, which garnered the company revenue in the short-term while simultaneously making Buzzfeed the cheap laugh of the internet forever.

Buzzfeed’s needs to improve the manner of announcing their executive decisions to halt further disloyalty and uncertainty within the company since this will continue to create problems for the company in the future, like the initial move to not give their laid off staff their unused PTO which was later corrected after online scrutiny, however letting go of these employees was not the wrong decision if they wish to create different content. While it’s sad when any person becomes unemployed, especially with so little warning, Buzzfeed and its CEO Jonah Peretti have every right to make this kind of decision. It’s been reported in the mainstream media and online news sources that companies like Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post have let go of primarily journalists, when in reality most of the staff that have been terminated in these moves are clickbait writers. These companies have determined this style of content is no longer profitable and detrimental to their reputation as well. This won’t “devastate democracy” as some have been calling it, but is rather a simple example of companies cutting their losses and restructuring their future business models and content.

The fact is, Buzzfeed laid off 200 workers, which does not mark the end of the free press or journalism. More moderate publications, both liberal and conservative, are doing well in times of supposed “financial stress.” Digital media companies and individual online commentators like Philip DeFranco have adapted to newer methods of successfully monetizing their platforms and branding their content in more moderate positions. This kind of digital content continues to thrive, and this is perhaps why Buzzfeed laid off some of the more hyper-partisan and clickbait staff members. The harsh reality is that catering to such a small subset of the population isn’t a sustainable business model in the long run.

Like other digital media companies, Buzzfeed is realizing that niche clickbait content only pays off in the short term, and that it’s time to say goodbye to an old era and save the rest of the company. The “ragebait” content and manipulation of search algorithms that lead to Buzzfeed’s initial success, has also caused its demise. Buzzfeed can make layoffs within the company where it sees fit, but the main problem they face now is dealing with the remaining employees who feel betrayed and dispensable. What Buzzfeed needs to do is create more loyalty and trust within its remaining staff. Much of the turmoil surrounding this layoff could have been avoided had the information not been leaked out before Buzzfeed’s higher ups were prepared. While layoffs are unfortunately going to eventually happen at most companies, Buzzfeed’s original decision to refuse the laid off workers their benefits serves no one well. Other digital news companies and independent creators are doing well for themselves in this market, so Buzzfeed’s next moves to secure a future need to be calculated and not anger the remaining staff.

Rebecca Rinaldi is a fourth year Criminology, Law and Society major. She can be reached at rinaldir@uci.edu.