Laid off during a pandemic: Former HuffPost employees find new ways to commiserate

March 10, 2021, 4:45 PM UTC

HuffPost and Buzzfeed, two large online publications, announced they would be merging on Feb. 16. On Tuesday, less than one month later, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti notified staff that 47 of the 190 U.S. HuffPost employees would be laid off, and HuffPost Canada would be shut down entirely. 

The layoffs came as a surprise to employees, who were reportedly invited to an online video meeting Tuesday morning where the password “spr!ngisH3r3” (spring is here) was required for entry. During the meeting, they were told that they would have to wait until 1 p.m. to see if they received an email informing them of their termination.

In the meantime, fellow journalists got to work honoring what has become a now common tradition, updated for the pandemic: They began devising ways to pay for the drinks of their newly unemployed comrades. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through the United States and caused unprecedented unemployment levels, newsrooms were in a severe state of decline. Regular, massive layoffs have, unfortunately, become as routine as burnt coffee in the office life of a journalist. Newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23% between 2008 and 2019, and employment at newspapers in particular dropped by about half

As layoffs became increasingly commonplace, newly unemployed journalists began announcing the drinking holes they would be congregating in, and friends at other publications would call up and pay down their tabs or even send pizza. The process has been referred to, and is not unlike, a very boisterous wake and is also a common practice among campaign staffers

This time around, a Venmo fund was created and promoted on Twitter by Nora Biette-Timmons, a HuffPost union committee member. By the mid-afternoon, she had already received donations into the high four-digits, and plans had been made for pandemic-appropriate drinks in the afternoon—it helps that New York City was feeling particularly sunny and springlike. The money, she noted, would be divided up into a self-care fund for the newly unemployed and wasn’t just intended to be used to purchase beer. That means former employees will receive a fair share of the money and will be free to use it on whatever they want, though they’re encouraged to use it on something that makes them feel happy and cared for.

Members of the HuffPost union (of which 33 members, nearly 30%, were let go Tuesday), also worked to create a spreadsheet with job opportunities and appropriate contacts for journalists now looking for work during a pandemic that has been particularly harsh on journalists.

In 2020, media layoffs paced at record highs, as the pandemic led to a loss in the advertising revenue that many publications rely on. 

When it comes to the woes facing the news industry, there’s plenty of finger pointing to be done: the Internet, the social media conglomerates dictating misguided pivots to video, bad business decisions, the reframing of publications as billionaire pet projects, and so on. But no number of think pieces about the state of the media has stopped the steady Twitter stream of “I was just laid off, and I’m looking for freelance work” announcements. 

On Tuesday, Peretti told employees that the cuts were meant to “fast-track the path to profitability” for HuffPost after its losses exceeded $20 million last year. “When BuzzFeed was losing too much money, we adjusted our strategy and our size,” Peretti reportedly told employees. “It was difficult, painful work, but now we have a stronger business than ever before. We want HuffPost to be in the same position of strength, and we will apply all that we’ve learned and built to get there.”

The HuffPost Union, organized as part of the Writers Guild of America, East, slammed Peretti’s decision. “We are devastated and infuriated, particularly after an exhausting year of covering a pandemic and working from home. This is also happening less than a month after HuffPost was acquired by BuzzFeed. We never got a fair shot to prove our worth,” members wrote in a statement.

Losing a job is never easy, but losing a job that has been guiding daily routines and perhaps even providing a sense of purpose in the midst of a global pandemic—while loneliness, anxiety, and economic pain run deep—can be particularly devastating. And traditional outlets for coping with the emotional distress and stress of losing a job aren’t currently available to HuffPost staffers. They’re hoping that these funds and spreadsheets can stand in for the traditional close-bodied commiseration with coworkers and loved ones after a layoff.