Why the Washington Post's Gaming Layoffs Make Zero Sense
Along with 20 employees, Launcher, the seemingly growing video game vertical at the nation's second most-subscribed newspaper, is no more.
We’ve covered a lot of layoffs here at The Jacob Wolf Report the past few weeks. There has never been a more unstable time to work in the gaming industry—once known as “recession proof”—as it faces its first recession since it surpassed music, TV and film as the largest form of consumer entertainment. No sector of the industry has felt that more than games media, which in the past six months has eliminated hundreds of jobs and created almost none in their place.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post laid off 20 of its employees. Five of them are editors, writers and production people helming its video game vertical, Launcher, which started less than four years ago. With them, the seemingly growing video game section at America’s second most-subscribed newspaper is gone. The Washington Post will no longer cover video games after the end of March.
All of the layoffs in gaming media, at Giant Bomb, GameSpot, Upcomer and Destructoid, G4, VENN and Fanbyte the past two years have broken my heart. But none hurt more than this. Launcher was the best of us, covering all the right beats—streaming, gaming entertainment, labor rights and more—and it was growing, unlike some of the others. And it still got the axe from corporate executives. If Launcher wasn’t good enough, who is?
This is where I should make a disclosure. These are my friends. I had the pleasure of meeting some of Launcher’s leadership, including journalism legend Marty Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber in “Spotlight”), before they’d even launched the vertical in 2019. I once aspired to work there full-time—and thought, for the better part of my final two years at ESPN in 2019 and 2020, that ultimately I would. But I chose another path.
I’ve nonetheless come to love the Launcher journalists as friends, colleagues and peers. They deserved better.
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I was a part of the ESPN layoffs in late 2020. It wasn’t surprising to me. We battled to eclipse one million page views in any given month on ESPN.com, with a struggling YouTube and Twitch channel to boot, meanwhile the company was spending $1.5 million per year on 11 employees (reporting done by, you guessed it, the team at Launcher).
Everyone internally saw it coming. We went through immense leadership turnover, continually placed in the hands of people who wanted to cover esports like sports, all the while ignoring the vast differences—25+ years in age—between the NFL fan and the gamer. I was happy to get a payout and leave. I hated my job and I had plans to leave two months later at the end of my contract if they hadn’t done me the honor sooner.
Launcher was not the same. In fact, recently, as my friend and CNET journalist Imad Khan, who previously freelanced for Launcher, pointed out: The section was growing. Over the past two weeks alone, if you searched “The Last of Us” on Google, looking for news and stories related to HBO’s second-biggest hit in the past 13 years, The Washington Post stories sat at the top of the page. At one point Google itself pinned the Post’s explainer on cordyceps, the fungus the series’ zombification is based off of, in the info blurb. That’s millions of page views and clearly a sign of growth.
There is some irony, too, as pointed out by Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier, that as gaming has its most successful adaptation ever to come to film or TV, gaming media is dropping like flies. What’s worse about the Post is that, by my speculative calculations, the layoffs are saving the company owned by one of the richest men in America a measly $500,000, or less, per year. These layoffs are stupid, shortsighted and even contradictory to leadership’s own stated aspirations.
In a statement made in December, when The Post first teased its layoffs, its chief communications officer, Kathy Baird, specifically noted that the company would be reinvesting its resources toward new audiences.
"We are planning to direct our resources and invest in coverage, products and people in service of providing high value to our subscribers and new audiences," Baird said in a statement at the time.
So, how does killing your gaming vertical—and your kids vertical—make any sense? What new audiences are you chasing exactly, Post leadership? And why are you disregarding the largest form of entertainment?
The layoffs are even more surprising, considering the Post’s track record over the past few years.
Under Bezos’ ownership, the Post did something that The New York Times could never do: It truly seemed interested in telling stories interesting to younger audiences. In the rat race between America’s two most-read newspapers, the Post stepped outside of its posh Washington circle and gave a genuine try to imagining life outside of its retro area, none more prescient in that than Launcher, which covered stories from around the globe.
When Bezos bought the paper from its longtime owner, the Graham family, in 2013, there was an expectation that it would change the paper’s priorities and focus more on the world he comes from: technology. And it did! The paper does a much better job of covering deeper stories in tech, versus the Times, which focuses heavily on the Four (Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google).
The Post put more money and time into other topics like gaming, without spending copious amounts of money to do so like the gaming media backed by venture capitalists have the past five years. Launcher was lean and fiscally conservative in a way that is almost surprising considering the wealth of its ownership. All the more reason its death comes out of nowhere.
It is also a harrowing signal for what tough and hard-nosed journalism in gaming will look like for the foreseeable future. Because of the relationships required to get early access to game titles or special access to events, gaming media has become a quid pro quo business. If you give favorable coverage to a developer or publisher, maybe you’ll get that sweet “exclusive” (read: often not in reality) interview. If you color outside the lines, though, well, f—- you. No access. No early games. Good luck getting any traffic. It’s product coverage to its most extreme degree.
But it’s easier to say f—- you back when you’re The Washington Post. That name means something when it’s sprinkled in a fancy investor deck to show how well your game was covered. It doesn’t matter if the paper’s reporting on your labor rights issues, as one of Launcher’s writers, Shannon Liao, has done superbly of late with the likes of Activision Blizzard, in particular. The Post still covered “Call of Duty” like it would any other game, with the same access as IGN, GameSpot or some of the more run-of-the-mill games media.
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Now there really stands two: Bloomberg and Kotaku. The former is also very lean, employing two reporters—Schreier, gaming’s best scoopster, and Cecilia D’Anastasio, who, among many other big stories, brought Riot Games to its knees in 2018 while at Kotaku by reporting on the company’s systemic workplace discrimination. Kotaku, too, is doing some vital work (shoutout to Ethan Gach, in particular). But it’s sad when you look around and those are the only two outlets diving deep on the more investigative side of the beat.
Some of this just boils down to the oversimplified adage: Young people don’t read. But in this specific case, they were reading. A suit in the C-suite just didn’t understand how The Post was going to monetize it, especially in a world where younger audiences appreciate voluntary contributing via donations and subscriptions that aren’t forced. And those audiences also like a face to things, not just a corporate entity that seems soulless. Why would a behemoth like The Post, owned by a billionaire, need their money?
That plays a factor, too. Launcher was never paywalled like most of the Post’s other work. But it also should’ve put a face to the name, personalized the vertical a bit more and engaged in broader outreach. Its coverage, though, was spot on.
I’ve spent my entire afternoon mourning—and I’m not even a part of the damn thing, other than some freelance work that’ll find another home. This one hits harder than ESPN. I’m sad to see Launcher go. And I’m sadder to see what it means for gaming and accountability journalism moving forward.