Input Logs Off at Bustle Digital Group, While Mic Is Muted

After years of investing heavily in building a Culture & Innovation group, CEO Bryan Goldberg announced a reversal in strategy, shuttering the tech title and gutting the staff of the millennial news site

Rank and file employees at Bustle Digital Group’s Input and Mic woke up on Monday expecting a usual week of toiling in the content mines, but by late morning it was clear that was not to be. “Our union reps got an email around 10 a.m. saying that there would be layoffs at Mic and Input,” said Matt Wille, a former associate editor at Input, who’d worked at the title since 2019, the year it launched. “They thought that Mic was going to be affected more than we were, but it ended up being the reverse.”

In an email sent on Monday afternoon, BDG CEO Bryan Goldberg clarified that the effect would be more structurally drastic on Input, which would only survive as a component of Inverse, another of the company’s publications. “After a lot of reflection, we have decided to cease go-forward operations on Input,” he wrote. “Input’s reviews section and some staff members will move under Inverse. We have decided that sections of Input will serve us better inside of a more comprehensive Inverse.”

Goldberg underplayed the effect the day’s changes would have on Mic staff. “We are also planning to shift our editorial strategy on Mic and rethink the role it plays in our broader portfolio,” he wrote. “Mic remains an important brand for BDG and our editorial leadership is working hard on a plan that will enable Mic to thrive with a new generation of readers.” By the end of the day, it was clear to former employees that most of Input’s small team would find new jobs elsewhere in the company, but that Mic’s staff had been decimated, with ten of them laid off, according to Adweek. BDG did not respond to a request for comment.

The Mic staff who spoke with The Fine Print were even more surprised than their peers at Input. BDG acquired the once-high flying millennial news site for $5 million in 2018, soon after it had burned through its $60 million in financing. It took nearly three years for BDG to relaunch a redesigned Mic last October under editor-in-chief Shanté Cosme who was brought on in 2019. “It seemed like they were continuing to put resources into the publication,” said former Mic staff writer AJ Dellinger. “The whiplash from being infused with new capital and new talent, and then just having that ripped out from under us was a really big surprise,” said a former employee. As late as last week, when staff talked about the departure of a colleague on a Zoom call, Cosme seemed happy to be part of a discussion about the site’s future direction. “If she knew she didn’t let on at all,” said Dellinger. Cosme did not respond to a request for comment.

The departure of Joshua Topolsky, who had overseen BDG’s Culture & Innovation group, which along with Inverse, Input, and Mic, also includes Gawker, raised questions about the future of the titles. When he left the company in late April, he didn’t express misgivings about the future of the sites in his farewell email to staff. “I have never felt more confident in [Culture & Innovation’s] potential to truly make an impact and continue its incredible growth,” he wrote. However, he did include a gesture toward the differing visions that would lead to Monday’s layoffs: “Bryan and I will of course continue to have heated debates about the future of media until we’re both old men.” Topolsky seemed to have gotten thoroughly out of the loop by the time The Fine Print reached him for comment on the site shutting down on Monday. “I wouldn’t know anything about that as I don’t work at BDG any longer,” he told us.

However, former employees said they’d braced for instability since Topolsky resigned. “I’ve been through enough of this that I thought we were fucked as soon as Josh quit,” said one. “His leaving definitely threw a wrench in all our plans,” said Wille. “Ever since then, we’ve been hemorrhaging people — we’ve lost, I think, three full-time editors and a few writers since then and, basically the whole summer, Bustle has been dragging its feet on letting us rehire for those positions.”

That foot-dragging was only perceptible from inside the company. “They’ve let us put up postings and by the time we get to the point of making an offer, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, no. Now we can’t do that,’” said a former employee. According to two sources, by the end, Input was down to a full-time staff of seven and a smattering of part-timers, which had an effect on their metrics. “They were doing well, selling campaigns off of us. Our traffic was good,” said a former employee. “Our traffic has been down this year, but we’ve also been down people significantly.” A few weeks ago, piling on the ominous signs, the company told staff that they’d be slashing freelance budgets, but, according to Wille, they insisted nothing was wrong. “It was very much like them telling us over and over again, ‘You’re fine,’” he said. “‘We’re just waiting.’”

At the start of June, BDG announced that GQ’s global digital director Jon Wilde would take over the Culture & Innovation group. Just three months later, and on the other side of Labor Day, he spent a chunk of his Monday sitting through layoff calls. “Basically all he would say is that they had to make some tough decisions,” Wille recalled of his call with HR and Wilde. “He seemed a little blindsided by this as well.” Wilde did not respond to an interview request.

The sense among the former employees who spoke with The Fine Print is that Goldberg made the decision over Wilde’s head. “I don’t think he was driving it at all. I think he was put in an awkward situation,” said one. “I think they had it out for us as soon as Josh left. I think Josh was the one protecting us, as the founder, as the head of [Culture & Innovation]. Once he was gone, I know they didn’t like how opinionated we were. They didn’t understand why we covered some of the things that we cover.”

Employees from both Input and Mic are mourning the loss of brand voices that had grown over the site’s short lifespans. “We were able to do a lot of really voice-y tech criticism that other sites, like our main competitors like The Verge, or Gizmodo, or sites like that, shy away from a little bit more,” said Wille.

Input published oddball features, gave Internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz an outlet between when she’d left The New York Times and started at The Washington Post, and ran the only advice column from a ’90s rock star we’re aware of. “It was a unique brand, and we all really cared about it a lot,” Wille said. Former Mic staff noted that their outlet was a platform for people whose voices weren’t heard as loudly elsewhere. “We built a really smart, interesting site with a lot of voices that aren’t often seen in mainstream publications,” said Dellinger. “We did a lot of coverage of experiences from different identities and told some stories that I don’t think you get to see in a lot of other places and don’t get presented the way that they were at Mic.”

That work was ongoing when the layoffs came. Dellinger had features in edits when the news hit. “I don’t have access to our CMS anymore, so that’s frozen somewhere in the carbonite of the internet,” he said. However, the pain was dulled a bit because it was not his first time living through a media layoff cycle. “When I was at The Daily Dot, I was part of a layoff,” he said. “That was my first full-time writing gig, so it was pretty devastating to me, personally, to go through that. At this point, I’ve been let go from other publications for financial reasons and all that fun stuff, so it’s just kind of expected that this comes for you eventually. It’s just part of being in the industry. It’s hard to say that the writing was on the wall for Mic and Input specifically, but just working under the banner of a massive corporation, especially one that has the ambitions to go public — which has been on Bryan’s radar for a while, it seems — there’s always the possibility that you’re gonna be the fat that gets trimmed.”