About an hour after the news that BuzzFeed is acquiring HuffPost first broke, BuzzFeed chief Jonah Peretti held an all-hands for HuffPost staffers over Google Meet. Peretti appeared enthusiastic and optimistic, according to two HuffPost staffers who were on the call, and those feelings were shared by some members of the staff at HuffPost, but not without some trepidation.
“I think the newsroom generally feels a lot better being part of a company that is journalistic at its core, rather than being part of a telecom company that ran us very poorly,” one of the HuffPost staffers told CNN Business. “We’re just waiting to learn specific information about what the plan is because you don’t benefit from being part of a company with a brighter future if you get laid off.”
HuffPost — which Peretti co-founded along with Arianna Huffington and others in 2005 — has been owned by Verizon since 2015, when the telecom company bought it along with TechCrunch and Engadet in an deal with AOL.
As is typical when media companies are combined, there is real fear that layoffs will be coming soon. Beyond that, the two HuffPost staffers and one more said, that first meeting with Peretti did leave them with another concern that reminds them of the labor issues they have been grappling with under Verizon’s ownership. While Peretti said he wanted to be transparent during the acquisition process, HuffPost staffers did not have an opportunity to ask their new management any questions during the video call.
“We were all sitting there receiving their messages, and they couldn’t hear a word from us,” the second HuffPost staffer told CNN Business.
“It mirrors what’s been happening with our diversity demands,” said the third HuffPost staffer “It’s the same transparency problem over and over again.”
At the bargaining table with Verizon Media, the HuffPost union — which all three staffers are involved in — has been frustrated by their ownership’s lack of transparency. In particular, the union has asked for data to back up the company’s claims of pay equity — to no avail.
‘The fact that they released data is a really rudimentary step’
The three HuffPost staffers told CNN Business they take pride in being part of a newsroom whose progressive values are reflected in its news coverage, which has included stories about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, in the Democratic Party and at companies like Facebook. But there have long been concerns about a similar lack of diversity in HuffPost’s newsroom. For years, HuffPost’s union has been pressuring Verizon Media Group to commit to addressing that problem. There are concerns among HuffPost employees on whether BuzzFeed and Peretti will rise to the occasion, the three staffers said.
“Jonah values transparency, and has promised it throughout the entire process. However, it is standard that there are limits to how much we can speak to employees before a deal closes,” a BuzzFeed spokesperson told CNN Business on Monday. “We are doing everything we can to make this a transparent, quick, and smooth transition for both HuffPost and BuzzFeed employees.”
Verizon Media declined to comment for this story.
The push for newsroom diversity was one of HuffPost staffers’ reasons for organizing in 2015. A lack of diversity is common across media organizations and has been a driving force and key issue for other newsrooms’ unions, as well, including recent campaigns inside Bustle Digital Group, Hearst Magazines — and BuzzFeed. Five years after organizing, the HuffPost union, comprised of 116 people, was about 67% White, 7% Black and 2% Hispanic or Latino as of July, according to an internal survey obtained by CNN Business. (Verizon’s public diversity report includes breakdowns of Verizon Media but not of individual companies like HuffPost.)
This past June, amid the reckoning over racial injustice across America, the HuffPost union sent leadership a letter including specific demands for diversity commitments. The seven demands included releasing demographic data about the newsroom, conducting a pay equity study, committing to hire from underrepresented groups, promoting more people of color to leadership roles, evaluating the diversity of sources in HuffPost content, conducting an independent analysis of the newsroom culture and holding racial equity training sessions for journalists.
Verizon Media responded to some of those demands. The company has released demographic data internally, conducted racial equity training, audited sources and verbally committed to the analysis of newsroom culture.
“The fact that they released data is a really rudimentary step. It acknowledges what their employees can already see,” said the second HuffPost staffer. “I think that speaks volumes about how far they are behind their peer companies that they are just now, in response to the events and political climate of the summer, acknowledging basic facts.”
A HuffPost manager who is not in the union told CNN Business that managers also view the lack of diversity as a problem. The manager said that Verizon Media has not agreed to managers’ suggested actions such as paying to post job listings in groups serving underrepresented journalists.
The HuffPost union launched a public campaign on Twitter in September to call out Verizon Media’s inaction and pointed to other media organizations’ recent commitments. In July, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde shared his goal increasing representation of women and people of color to 50%. In August, Gannett announced an initiative to have its hundreds of newspapers reflect the diversity of America by 2025. The Los Angeles Times committed to making its newsroom one-quarter Latino over the next five years and hiring more Black journalists.
But Verizon Media repeatedly declined the union’s demand to factor in diversity goals into hiring decisions, according to the second staffer, who was at the meetings where these conversations took place. Verizon Media also declined to provide data that proves pay equality, instead encouraging the union to bring up individual cases, according to two of the staffers. A few hours after Thursday’s all-hands with Peretti, HuffPost union found out that Verizon Media had declined to rectify a specific case in which a person of color was paid thousands of dollars less than their White colleague in the same role, one of the staffers said.
“We’re not blind. We can look around our newsroom and see who’s leaving and who’s staying and who’s getting opportunities and who’s getting promoted and who’s not,” said the first HuffPost staffer. “That just made it clear to us that we needed commitments. [Verizon Media’s] just going to keep saying nice words, and it’s not backed by action.”
‘It’s a therapy session that goes nowhere’
Will BuzzFeed and Peretti take action? In June, freelance journalist Patrice Peck publicly criticized BuzzFeed’s treatment of Black staffers, which prompted other former BuzzFeed staffers to share their negative experiences. The BuzzFeed News’ union had listed the need for diversity as a reason for organizing with the NewsGuild in 2019.
BuzzFeed has shared its diversity numbers publicly since 2014, earlier than many newsrooms. According to September data, 58% of its BuzzFeed’s US operations is White. But the demographics remain disappointing to current and former employees, especially when it comes to the demographic breakdown in leadership.
“I think BuzzFeed has gained a reputation for being ahead of the game on diversity because it’s such a White industry. But we’ve always had a lack of underrepresented people in management,” Albert Samaha, a BuzzFeed News reporter and member of the union’s bargaining committee, told CNN Business. “Even when we do hire folks from underrepresented groups, for whatever reason we’re not able to hold on to them, or they’re not getting promoted in our newsroom.”
Some staffers blame Peretti for overseeing a culture that they believe is a lot of talk and not enough action.
“Racism or any other problem at BuzzFeed you talk, you voice it, and it’s a therapy session that goes nowhere,” a current BuzzFeed staffer told CNN Business.
BuzzFeed management has taken some recent steps, including bargaining with the BuzzFeed News union over diversity proposals. Samaha said management and the BuzzFeed News union have agreed “diversity is important,” but the company has resisted the union’s proposal to have “50% of candidates brought in for interviews be from underrepresented backgrounds.”
“We’re pleased to have found common ground on concrete, meaningful measures to make our newsroom more diverse and inclusive in the midst of a global pandemic, and look forward to working with the union to build upon our recent progress,” the BuzzFeed spokesperson said in reference to BuzzFeed News union’s proposals.
BuzzFeed publicly shared its progress and some future steps on hiring and promotions in an October blog post with its latest annual diversity report. BuzzFeed said the company was partnering with diversity organizations and implementing new guidelines for recruiters and hiring managers. The company also conducted an independent analysis of its pay equity.
“BuzzFeed is committed to hearing and learning from the experiences of our employees, over the long-term. We recognize that D&I work is never done and we are especially focused on improving in key areas, including diversity in leadership, equity, and fairness, as shared in our annual diversity report in October,” the BuzzFeed spokesperson said.
For staffers in HuffPost’s union, the push for diversity in their own newsroom will continue under BuzzFeed.
“The same disproportionately white newsroom is moving over to BuzzFeed, and it doesn’t change how much we need it to change the makeup of our newsroom,” said the second HuffPost staffer.