MTV is restructuring once again. This time, the changes are focused on the MTV News department, which according to a source with knowledge of the situation is closing the chapter on what many saw as a bold and fascinating experiment in longform editorial. Multiple sources have told Billboard that layoffs are expected as early as today.
MTV had introduced a new direction for its news department in November 2015 with the hiring of Dan Fierman, former editorial director of Grantland, who was brought on as MTV’s editorial director. His arrival portended a sea change for the network toward longform journalism, think pieces, a staff made up of a majority of women and minorities and a coterie of well-regarded writers, editors and journalists.
Now, that direction is coming to an end, as sources tell Billboard the new restructuring will included a stronger emphasis on video rather than a focus on reporting and longform.
“With MTV News, we’re doubling down on where we’ve seen our biggest successes in youth culture, music and entertainment,” an MTV spokesperson said in a statement provided to Billboard. “While we’re proud of the longform editorial work from the past two years, we’re returning the editorial operation to its roots of amplifying the audiences’ voices and shifting resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.”
At a time when MTV’s television wing was airing Friends reruns and episodes of Teen Mom* the MTV News reboot ushered in by Fierman had shifted to producing widely discussed stories on topics as diverse as harassment at Planned Parenthood, a clinic for trans veterans, and what to say to a friend who has been sexually assaulted.
Over time, the staff would grow to include author and former Pitchfork Review editor Jessica Hopper; Grantland’s Alex Pappademas and Molly Lambert; The New Republic‘s Jamil Smith; writer Ana Marie Cox from Wonkette; Spin vet Charles Aaron; former Rolling Stone staffer Simon Vozick-Levinson; Village Voice music editor Hilary Hughes; and Refinery 29 and Buzzfeed alum Erica Futterman. The staff also included a bullpen of young writers with powerful and distinct voices, including Meredith Graves, Ezekiel Kweku, Doreen St. Félix, Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Marcus Patrick Ellsworth and Rachel Handler.
Reactions to this bold experiment varied greatly inside the company.
Within MTV’s traditionally large, young and diverse workforce, some said they were encouraged by stories on hot-button social and political topics, while MTV News employees who were on staff when Fierman arrived (and survived layoffs) were far less enamored with the changes. In general, executives within the cable and media business were facing larger existential issues and were more concerned with their own jobs, cord cutting and a shrinking bottom line.
“Dan was brought in to do a specific thing and he succeeded at it, but it just wasn’t right for MTV,” a source tells Billboard. “The whole strategy of getting back into youth and celebrating them and their passion points and artistry is really at odds for 4,000- to 6,000-word written pieces.”
According to ComScore, engagement time on MTV.com rose from 3.6 minutes in November 2015 to 4 minutes in February 2017. At the same time, MTV.com’s worldwide monthly unique visitors dropped precipitously from roughly 23 million a month in November 2015 to 15 million in February 2017. In fairness, other websites lost significant amounts of traffic during this time period as well, due in part to changing algorithms on social media platforms like Facebook and the growing popularity of video content.
According to the source, the new plan for MTV News will include doubling down on video, a de-emphasis of longform journalism and bringing in a new person to replace Fierman.
“It’s curious that a pivot into video involves firing everyone in the video department,” said a former employee on the condition of anonymity and who contended that the site’s video traffic actually rose significantly over the past year. “But look, the truth is that MTV is the most toxic environment for creatives I’ve ever worked in. And the creative community is well aware of that.”***
Presiding over the network’s reboot in 2015 when Fierman began was then-president Sean Atkins, who had headed Discovery’s digital network before taking the reins the previous September from MTV vet Stephen Friedman. According to Nielsen, MTV had seen a 23 percent ratings hemorrhage the year before Atkins came in.
Under Fierman, MTV News returned to television with specials on police brutality, live reports from the 2016 political conventions, special news reports on topics ranging from Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting to Prince‘s death. The site also began to feature a litany of short documentaries like The Gospel According to Kirk Franklin, the hip-hop evangelist with ties to Kanye West and Chance the Rapper; and The Reign of Future, a behind-the-scenes look at the rapper’s career.
At a time when Donald Trump was sowing the seeds of divisiveness in his run for president, Fierman’s strategy got MTV noticed, with a first-ever ASME Award nomination for three articles written by Doreen St. Felix on police killings. Adding to the credibility was the critically and commercially acclaimed podcast Rookie featuring Tavi Gevinson, whose first show had Lorde playing her then-new album and went to the top five of the iTunes podcast charts.
But changes were afoot: Fierman answered to no less than five bosses in his 16 months at MTV: Friedman, who hired him, was gone before he’d started; he was followed in succession by Colin Helms, Kristin Frank, Erik Flannigan and, most recently, Garrett English.
Atkins made it to October as president before being summarily replaced by Chris McCarthy, an MTV veteran who led sister network VH1 to its biggest ratings growth in 15 years. He is now refocusing MTV on its core 18-24 youth demographic and has found linear success with reboots of “Fear Factor” and My Super Sweet Sixteen” and is now turning his attention to revamping MTV News.**
Since Fierman’s departure in April, a number of staffers have followed him out the door, including Hopper, who is going to Spotify; Cills, who announced a move to Jezebel; and St. Felix, who left for The New Yorker.
MTV is littered with the shells of great ideas that never quite broke through, such as MTV Urge (its streaming platform), MTV Hive (its indie music portal), MTV Other (a digital content lab) or MTV Iggy (an online hub for global music and trends), initiatives that began with fanfare but, according to many, had the plug pulled too soon. Personnel changes made it impossible, sources said, and there was a lack of vision or support in the building on the corporate level. But if one thing is certain, this latest experiment at MTV News is something that will be examined and unraveled for years to come.
*Originally this article stated “My Super Sweet Sixteen” was rebooted under Sean Atkins but that actually came later in May 2017 under now-MTV President Chris McCarthy. “Super Sweet Sixteen” was subsequently changed to “Teen Mom.”
**Chris McCarthy, current MTV president, was inadvertently omitted from this story, his return to the network was added in following the initial publication of this story.
***In the interest of fairness a quote from a former employee was added in after the initial publication of this story.