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May 8, 2018, 12:09 p.m.
LINK: specialprojectsdesk.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   May 8, 2018

It’s high season for newsrooms writing critically about their owners, apparently. First, The Denver Post’s editorial page called its owners, Digital First Media and Alden Global Capital, “vulture capitalists.” And now comes a Gizmodo Media Group exposé into its parent company, Univision.

The piece, published Tuesday, was published across all of the GMG sites (including Deadspin, Jezebel, and The Root). In the piece, three GMG employees — Kate Conger, David Uberti, and Laura Wagner — write about how Univision’s “corporate raiding, complacency, excess, and incompetence are gutting a media company that matters to tens of millions of people.”

“Despite the debt hanging over Univision’s head, the company indulged a culture of complacency and excess, embodied in many ways by the operations of Fusion Media Group, an ill-fated attempt to stay relevant in the digital age,” they write. “And now that the ship is off course, the rival interests in the company are at each other’s throats, in some cases diving off the ship and in some cases teaming up to force enemies off the gangplank.”

Some depressing digital bits from the piece:

— Big cuts have either already happened or are coming. Gizmodo Media Group staff “fears the newsroom may be cut by up to a third by the end of June.”

— Fusion has become “one of the most spectacular digital media failures in recent memory”:

For years, money flowed into a series of pet projects — this U.S.-Mexico border concert is a typical example — favored by executives and FOILs [Friends Of Isaac Lee], while editorial staffers were left confused about the value of the stories they were pushed to pursue and wondering about the long-term viability of a company spending huge amounts of money without doing much the public seemed especially interested in. (As far as anyone could tell, practically no one watched the Fusion channel.)

One often-mocked example was Project Earth, Fusion TV’s environmental unit. Headed by Nico Ibargüen, an environmentalist and FOIL in top standing, it produced so much content about sharks that it became not just an internal joke but a subject of outside coverage. “There were teams that had to work on shark stuff,” a former Fusion staffer said. “It was, ‘[Nico] is a genius and therefore we must make shark content because he wants it.’”

Fusion’s struggles haven’t just been caused by mismanagement, though; “its digital offerings launched at the height of Facebook’s dominance over the media industry,” its posts couldn’t get into the top of the News Feed, and the company spent “seven-figure sums” to buy Facebook traffic, according to one source.

— Univision’s TV news division, Noticias, which is aimed at Spanish-language speakers in the United States, has seen particularly big cuts despite the critical work it does:

While Jorge Ramos deservedly serves as the face of the division, and of Univision, there is more to what Noticias does than what appears on TVs across the country: According to a comScore analysis, Univision’s news traffic beat out that of several other leading Spanish-language digital news sources — Telemundo.com, Yahoo.ES, and CNN Español — fairly handily. Univision’s news site drew between 2 and 3 million unique visitors per month between March 2017 and March 2018, according to ComScore data, a vast reach in relative if not absolute terms.

In April, 35 percent of Noticias’ 85-person digital staff was laid off.

With these deep cuts, Univision’s voice — the work of journalists who in many cases were forced to flee countries like Venezuela, Mexico, and Guatemala, where they were persecuted for their reporting — has been muted. In the Miami office, where the newsroom is based, morale is dragging. Staffers, some hired less than two years ago, are confused about why these cuts are happening right now; some in the U.S. on work visas are scrambling to find ways to stay in the country legally. Two newsroom sources say that reporters and supervisors cooperated and in some cases even sacrificed their jobs to ensure that reporters facing unstable or unsafe conditions in their home countries, like Venezuela, could keep their jobs and stay in the U.S.

— Gizmodo Media Group has a large and growing audience, the authors write — with 58 million unique U.S. visitors in March, according to comScore, and revenues “believed within GMG to have been up by a double-digit percentage last year,” though Univision wouldn’t comment — and they argue that it’s “in an increasingly strong position relative to competitors, in part because of its relative lack of reliance on Facebook”:

According to comScore, BuzzFeed’s U.S. unique visitors were at 67 million this March, down nearly 20 percent from March 2017; GMG traffic is up by a third over the same period. Why, then, is the company facing deep cuts? An answer has never quite been given, but according to Univision, while GMG — whose predecessor, Gawker Media, was characterized upon its acquisition in August 2016 as a “consistent, compelling and profitable digital media business” in a company-wide email signed by Isaac Lee — may be thriving, it did not turn a profit last year.

— Toward the end of the story, the writers offer a bleak sum-up of today’s media sphere:

There is no clear way forward for media organizations today, even ones with large audiences and sustainable business models. Google and Facebook have solidified their stranglehold on digital advertising, and even the deep-pocketed likes of Vice and BuzzFeed have missed revenue targets amid this shift. The subscription-based model used by The New York Times is not feasible for most publications, where newsrooms are whittled down to component parts, and audiences expect free content. Startups like the ad-free, subscription-only website The Athletic are using investors’ money, which will eventually run out, to hire at seemingly unsustainable rates. Conglomerates like Sinclair Broadcast Group and Gannett have snapped up local outlets to cut costs through synergies, threatening those outlets’ individual voices with a corporate political project and standardized content, respectively. Time Inc. was recently sold to the Meredith Corporation, which plans to chop up its vaunted brands and try to sell them off one by one. Companies like Vox Media have stayed afloat thanks in no small part to unpaid and underpaid labor. The entire industry is slimy and shadowy and fucked.

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