Employment troubles at Longreads

Note: I don't often talk about employment issues. There are good and bad stories about employment nearly everywhere. I write about this one because it was quite public, and to do with one of the largest employers in our space — one often cited as a great place to work. I believe it merits deeper consideration.

Recently, Sari Botton and Soraya Roberts shared Twitter threads expressing their displeasure with the employment practices and culture at Longreads, which they say deteriorated over time as Automattic continuously cut funding and resources for the site. In the threads, they both say they resigned as long-term “permalancers” at Longreads in protest to their own and others' treatment there.

Acquired in 2014, Longreads is a popular website and platform for discovering high quality (and as the name insinuates) long-form content. The content has changed over the years but has included mixes of curated and original content.

After Automattic acquired Longreads, some members of the team, including founder Mark Armstrong, moved into other parts of the company’s editorial needs. Mark now manages Automattic PR (and is my own contact for Automattic news). However, they didn’t leave Longreads behind.

Automattic increased Longreads’ editorial budget to more than $130,000, according to comments from Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg in Post Status Slack. Matt said the strategy, “didn’t get the results they hoped for, so we had to start bringing it back to the normal range ($30k/mo),” which he says they implemented over the course of half a year.

Matt and Automattic’s official statement both say they continue to be committed to Longreads. However, it is clear that the 75%+ reduction in funding hit the Longreads team really hard.

Automattic is deeply committed to the future of Longreads. The current story fund is at $30,000 a month — this includes about $10,000 directly from readers, and an additional $20,000 in matching funds from Automattic. This will not change, and we will be sharing more details on how Longreads will move forward in the days to come.

Longreads underwent a difficult re-org earlier this year because its previous structure and model proved unsustainable. Over the past two years, during a period of aggressive growth and experimentation, editors and other contributors joined the team on a contract basis and their work was subsidized by Automattic beyond the story fund match.

We will continue to put reader subscriptions toward projects that tell powerful stories, and will focus in particular on those that also have long-term social impact.

In a tweet since the original critique threads, Sari Botton highlights seven total staff (in addition to herself) seeking work.

Soraya said the cuts came seemingly out of nowhere, “I didn't want more money. I just wanted to feel secure in my position. Instead, six months ago, out of nowhere, our budget was cut dramatically. We lost editors, fact-checkers, researchers, copy editors, basically everyone needed to produce great writing (+ podcasts).”

Soraya and Sari both square their critique directly on Matt Mullenweg’s control of the organization, citing several poor employment practices and how he “systematically decimated Longreads.”

Again in Slack, Matt responded in more depth to the threads:

I obviously disagree with Sari's allegations, and in fact there's a correction from the editor that she claims was fired. The accusation has thousands of likes, the correction has almost none… that is unfortunately how news works these days. I hope it's obvious because of Automattic's track record on these issues over the past 15 years, including structural aspects like being global, being distributed, doing hiring over chat, all the things we do to open up opportunity for the widest number of people possible. If you believe that the same organization that would advocate for global pay equity would broker discrimination of this type, I'm not sure what to tell you!

Funding journalism in 2020 is as hard as it’s ever been, and it’s never been easy. Longreads enjoyed a respite from traditional ad-driven, attention-seeking publications due to significant big-tech funding, reader funding, and a focus on in-depth pieces that aim for reading engagement over page views. Still, Automattic clearly felt that the increased budget was unsustainable, and despite apparent attempts to slowly adjust back to a smaller budget, you just can’t sugarcoat that degree of cuts.

Sari, Soraya, and several others were clearly caught off guard and soured on Matt and Automattic in the process.

These are difficult issues.

Automattic’s hiring, employment, and payment equity history do indeed speak for themselves. At the same time, as Sari and Soraya note, many Longreads “permalancers” were not protected under that same umbrella.

This is not unheard of in Matt’s sphere, though it is strange for a company acquired by Automattic — and Automattic has long sought editorial, marketing, and PR talent. The permalancer status and eventual cutoff from tools like Slack and email showcase how separated from Automattic Longreads contractors were.

When I speak of Matt’s sphere of employment, I mostly speak to the various people who work or have worked for him via non-Automattic avenues, like Audrey or direct contracting. Such employees have historically not had the same privileges as Automattic employees. Employees like former WP Tavern writer Jeff Chandler often cited a sense of employment isolation.

Additionally, I’ve known many people who have cited that working for Matt is a challenge. It is documented in Scott Belkin’s 2013 book, The Year Without Pants, and even nicknamed at least one practice of his as, “Mattbombing” — by coming in late in a process with a comment that upturns the entire plan for a team.

I don’t know of any CEO with as wide of an attention span as Matt. He runs Automattic, WordPress, Audrey, and other endeavors. Yet he also reads and interacts more in this ecosystem than anyone I know. Additionally, he has a ton of direct reports between A8C, the WordPress project, and elsewhere. I have long inquired about these direct reports — something he’s told me he’s worked to improve on.

Longreads contractors didn’t really work directly with Matt. Their distaste came from decisions that felt immediate, cutthroat, and discompassionate — whether intended or not. I believe these issues could be related. A team without the full privileges of Automattic, combined with being affected by seemingly rash decisions from top management, could easily spiral into an unhealthy workplace that does not look or feel like the one Automattic is frequently (and I think rightly) praised for.

I believe Matt and other Automattic management think deeply about creating a workplace that encourages employees, builds them up, and supports them deeply. However, even with our best intentions and great efforts, we can still fail to achieve these outcomes all the time.

It is clear to me that the Longreads team got a raw deal. Significant cuts may not have been avoidable in a corporate sense; even a well-funded tech company cannot ignore financial bleeding forever. But the timing was not good for the Longreads team, with at least some of the cuts coming during economic uncertainty.

Somewhere along the line, communication — at a minimum — failed here. I still believe Automattic is a great place for people to work, though, like all workplaces, it is far from perfect. I’m sure everyone involved here will learn from the experience. I hope Automattic HR is able to fully review this outcome to learn and improve team reduction practices in the future. I hate it for that team and their talents. I wish they could’ve had a much softer landing.

I think it's important to consider the difference between intentions and perceptions, and between plans and outcomes. I think Automattic, and ultimately Matt, are well intended as employers, and likely planned to accommodate a soft landing for reducing the Longreads budget. The perception internally at Longreads was quite different than those intentions, and the outcome was difficult and also a public affair that I'm sure everyone would've liked to avoid.