April 20, 2023

Albert Samaha was on a Zoom call late Thursday morning for a fellowship program when text messages began flooding his cellphone. Friends were offering support and saying how sorry they were to hear the news.

The BuzzFeed News senior reporter wondered what they were talking about. He checked his work email, where he found a note from BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti. BuzzFeed News was shutting down. BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Karolina Waclawiak followed that note with her own shortly after.

“My heart dropped,” Samaha, who has been at BuzzFeed News for eight years, told Poynter Thursday afternoon.

In addition to closing BuzzFeed News, the company will lay off roughly 15% of its total workforce, representing approximately 180 people. In his lengthy note, Peretti said the newsroom has faced more challenges than he can count, including a pandemic, a declining stock market, and “decelerating digital advertising market and ongoing audience and platform shifts.”

The media world reacted to Peretti’s announcement with outrage. Many staffers tweeted their sadness over the news, with some sharing personal emails and skills for potential new employers or freelance work. Former BuzzFeed staffers offered an outpouring of support. Megha Rajagopalan was among them.

“I loved working at a place that had huge investigative ambition, but never took itself too seriously. It had an underdog spirit that often led to great, surprising reporting,” Rajagopalan told Poynter in an email. “When I joined, I thought it was amazing to work in a newsroom that had essentially no history, where no one would tell you you couldn’t do something just because no one had done it there before.”

In 2021 BuzzFeed News won its first Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for an investigation into long-term detention and incarceration in China. The four-part series titled “Built to Last” was written by Rajagopalan, then a senior correspondent, and contributors Alison Killing, a licensed architect; and Christo Buschek, a programmer and digital security trainer. The trio reported that China secretly built prison and tenement camps as a campaign against Uyghur Muslims, even as it publicly claimed the detainees had all been set free.

Rajagopalan, who took a buyout from BuzzFeed News and landed at The New York Times last year, found out about the shuttering of her former newsroom on Twitter. The investigative journalist tweeted that she was heartbroken. She said people were incredulous when she left her “old school media job” for BuzzFeed News in 2016. There, she began as Asia correspondent, based in Bangkok, and later moved to Beijing and then London.

Rajagopalan said BuzzFeed News nurtured an incredible amount of talent for its size, including what she described as some of the best reporters and editors in the industry. Among them, she said, are Ryan Mac, Craig Silverman, Mike Giglio, Katie J.M. Baker, Heidi Blake, Sapna Maheshwari, Sheera Frenkel, and “too many others to name.”

Rajagopalan said she feels sad that “more wasn’t done to find a sustainable model for the business.”

Peretti’s surprise email to the newsroom was exactly the kind of email Samaha would have expected.

“I wouldn’t have expected anything more. I wouldn’t have expected anything less,” he said. “You know, I don’t think there’s a nice way to announce that you’re ending a newsroom.”

Samaha had an opportunity to take a buyout last year, but didn’t. Part of the reason was because he had his faith in Waclawiak, who took over as editor last year.

“I was excited by the direction she was going to take the newsroom,” Samaha said. Though he said he didn’t know exact numbers, Samaha said it sounded to him like BuzzFeed News had reached profitability. He credited that belief to why many at BuzzFeed News were frustrated and caught off guard by Thursday’s news. He said many of his colleagues are upset.

“This is people’s lives, you know? We have people that are pregnant. We have people that have had surgery,” he said. “We’ve had people that have been planning their lives around the assumption that they will still be employed in one, two, three, four months.”

Samaha has covered inequity, culture and a lot more during his time at BuzzFeed. On Thursday, he tweeted a thread with stories he’d worked on for the outlet over the years, and how he did his best to illuminate the experiences of marginalized communities. A 2017 longform essay Samaha wrote on why Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte was outside of his beat, but his editors supported him traveling with his mother to the Philippines to report it through his personal and family’s lens. The essay inspired his second book, “Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes.”

“That is a perfect example of why I stayed at BuzzFeed for so long, and why I love that place, and why it was just a wonderful place for a young journalist to get their career started,” he said. “And it built a career for me.”

People held varying expectations in terms of how long BuzzFeed News was going to last, Samaha said.

“Even the folks that didn’t expect this place to last much longer, I think that doesn’t sort of alleviate the hurt of a special newsroom that a lot of us really grew up in, and made a lot of lifelong friends in, and did a lot of work we’re proud of,” he said. “For that to end, it’s sad — no matter the circumstances.”

Samaha’s colleagues had started to gather at a bar on Thursday afternoon to mourn. He said he’d be joining them soon enough.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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