Dotdash Meredith's move to cut 200 jobs, cease some print publications is about embracing digital future, CEO says

Two months after Dotdash acquired venerable Des Moines magazine publisher Meredith Corp., the shakeup is beginning.

Dotdash Meredith CEO Neil Vogel told employees Wednesday morning that the company will end the print editions of six of the former company’s magazines: EatingWell, Entertainment Weekly, Health, InStyle, Parents and People en Español.

The move, which resulted in 200 layoffs, is the first of the changes Vogel promised after his company, New York-based digital publisher Dotdash, bought Meredith for $2.7 billion. When the companies announced the merger in October, Vogel explained that the new business would blend Dotdash's approach, geared to online searches, with legacy Meredith's decades-old household names, such as Better Homes and Gardens.

"Buying Meredith was about buying brands, not magazines or websites," Vogel wrote in his email to employees. "It is not news to anyone that there has been a pronounced shift in readership and advertising from print to digital, and as a result, for a few important brands, print is no longer serving the brand's core purpose."

Company spokesperson Erica Jensen told the Des Moines Register in an email that most job cuts occurred in the company's New York offices. She said Dotdash Meredith laid off "roughly 3% of our local Des Moines workforce." With about 870 employees in Des Moines as of November, the cuts would equate to about 26 local jobs.

Neil Vogel, the CEO of Dotdash Meredith, is shown at the company's Des Moines offices, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Neil Vogel, the CEO of Dotdash Meredith, is shown at the company's Des Moines offices, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

"These employees have helped create some of the best media brands in the world," Jensen said. "We thank them for their years of dedication and are committed to helping them make a smooth transition. Dotdash Meredith remains committed to and invested in the Des Moines community as well as the City as a key operational hub as we continue to grow."

More: As new CEO of Dotdash Meredith, Neil Vogel trusts 'The Process,' promises 'changing and changing and changing'

Dotdash Meredith is part of billionaire Barry Diller's publicly traded tech incubator, IAC/Interactive Corp. Before the merger with Meredith, Dotdash had grown quickly over the last five years by publishing articles on its sites, such as The Spruce and Brides, designed to attract readers through internet searches — Google, mostly.

The company invests heavily in computer analytics to determine what information people are seeking out online. Editors often assign articles to answer those specific questions.

The Meredith Corporation downtown Des Moines campus on Monday, Sep. 27, 2021.
The Meredith Corporation downtown Des Moines campus on Monday, Sep. 27, 2021.

Vogel, who built Dotdash using content from IAC's former About.com website, has said he wants to freshen legacy Meredith titles, which include People, Southern Living and Travel + Leisure. He has said the new company should be one of the largest media businesses in the country, an attractive lure for advertisers.

Vogel has signaled since the merger was announced that some print products were likely to fold.

"We're not the guys that are going to change the secular advertising decline on print," Vogel said during a Nov. 5 IAC earnings call.

More: Meredith Corp. walks back communication about job losses in pending Dotdash sale

At the same time, he told investors, "Their magazines are beloved, and they're incredible." Days after the merger went through in December, Vogel told the staff that he planned to support the print publications.

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Vogel reiterated that in his email to employees Wednesday. He said Dotdash Meredith will invest $80 million in improving content this year, and has 100 new positions to fill. Among other changes, he said the company wants to improve the quality of the magazines' paper.

More: Top Meredith Corp. executives out after company's sale brings them big payday

"Today's step is not a cost-savings exercise," he wrote, "and it's not about capturing synergies or any other acquisition jargon, it is about embracing the inevitable digital future for the affected brands."

But Wednesday's announcement showed that the Dotdash and Meredith cultures do not fit seamlessly, a fear that many legacy Meredith employees have held since the deal was announced, said Entertainment Weekly Senior Editor Seija Rankin.

She said employees have worried that the search-engine-focused Dotdash team would steer Entertainment Weekly away from the writing that loyal readers love. She didn't see how some of the title's staples, such as book reviews and cultural criticism, would fit the company's model.

"Maybe print's not as lucrative as it used to be," she said. "But if that’s all they're using in the equation, they’ve totally lost the plot. Today just kind of feels like a really stark reminder in the difference in outlook of people who are trying to fill the bottom line and people who care about art and culture and criticism."

Rankin, who was not among the 17 staffers laid off at Entertainment Weekly, said the staff received a message Wednesday morning asking them to attend two Zoom meetings. California-based employees who were laid off attended a meeting at 8 a.m., Pacific Time. The rest of the staff attended a separate meeting 15 minutes later.

Rankin said Leah Wyar, president of the Dotdash Meredith entertainment group, did not take questions after telling the staff about the cuts. Rankin estimated the meeting lasted 90 seconds.

The NewsGuild of New York, which represents Entertainment Weekly's staff, will bargain over the laid-off workers' severance package. Rankin said she suspects workers will have some leverage, as the staff needs to finish its April publication, the last one scheduled, by the end of next week. She said the current staff doesn't have the expertise to substitute for some of the laid-off staffers, including four designers and the publication's lone full-time fact checker.

Beyond the print publication, though, Rankin questioned how the cuts fit with the company's strategy to grow Entertainment Weekly's digital product. Some of Wednesday's cuts were internet-focused staffers, including digital-only writers, a designer for online covers and the head of podcasts.

"We have to figure out, 'Who's going to publish digital covers now?'" Rankin said. "'Who's going to help us tape the podcasts?' I imagine I won't have anything else to do this week. None of us know what to do."

She said Dotdash Meredith executives explained during a recent staff meeting that they view Entertainment Weekly's competitors as information-heavy sites like Wikipedia and IMDB. Before, the staff viewed established glossy magazines like Vanity Fair as their competitors.

She wonders if the company will try to draw readers looking for a list of an actor's film credits, as opposed to reviews and essays.

"If left to our own devices, if we’re allowed to be in charge of it ourselves, I feel really good about the soul (of Entertainment Weekly) remaining," Rankin said. "But that being said, I don’t feel good about being supported from on high. I don’t know what to think about how we’re going to be supported and what kind of rules and formats we’re going to be under. There seems to be a lot of questions."

News Guild of New York President Susan DeCarava criticized Dotdash Meredith for "not investing in its workers and instead defining its growth as a purely financial enterprise, focused on clicks, rates, numbers, and audience.”

“Laying off the employees that made these publications what they are today undermines the future of the company," DeCaravasaid. "We hope Dotdash Meredith will work with us at the bargaining table to ensure a better future for its workers.”

As of June, most of the magazines ceasing print publication had at least 1 million subscribers:

  • Parents: 2.2 million.

  • EatingWell: 1.8 million.

  • InStyle: 1.7 million.

  • Entertainment Weekly: 1.5 million.

  • Health: 1.4 million.

  • People en Español: 500,000.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at tjett@registermedia.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Dotdash Meredith shakeup is about magazines' digital future, CEO says