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'Truly a shame': HuffPost Canada staff say site closure hurts underrepresented voices

TORONTO — HuffPost Canada workers say a recent decision to shut down the news site is not just cutting jobs, but also taking away a valued platform for underrepresented voices.

TORONTO — HuffPost Canada workers say a recent decision to shut down the news site is not just cutting jobs, but also taking away a valued platform for underrepresented voices. 

Twenty-three people working for the Canadian and Quebec divisions of the New York-based media business co-founded by author-entrepreneur Arianna Huffington were laid off Tuesday as part of a broad restructuring undertaken by parent company BuzzFeed Inc.

While content from both sites will be kept through an online archive, workers are mourning the loss of a platform that was known for exploring issues impacting women, people with disabilities and racialized, LGBTQ and Indigenous communities.

"It was a space where we could really pitch whatever was in our hearts and managers would listen," said Alisha Sawhney, who worked at HuffPost's Toronto office.

"We were amplifying underrepresented voices, who often don't get a chance to speak or to share their stories... and it was so nice, I think, to be a part of the part of journalism, where you are letting other people feel seen and feel heard."

Sawhney, a member of the company's audience development team, co-hosted the second season of HuffPost Canada's "Born and Raised" podcast, which looked at love, sex and immigrant family values.

The podcast Sawhney co-hosted with Al Donato built on a series of articles under the same name that HuffPost reporters and freelancers wrote in earlier years. The series, which won several Canadian journalism awards, focused on children of immigrants and how they face culture, race and language issues.

Sawhney was working on the third season of the podcast on March 9, when she and her colleagues learned they were being laid off.

"My jaw completely dropped. I couldn't even get it up," said Sawhney. 

"To say it was a shock is almost an understatement."

BuzzFeed said in a statement to The Canadian Press that HuffPost Canada and Quebec did "magnificent and important" work, but the company made its "difficult" decision because of business losses and local economic conditions.

"We are confident that these journalists will continue to do impactful and necessary reporting in the future," it said in an email.

At the same time as Sawhney and her colleagues lost their jobs, 47 HuffPost employees in the U.S. were laid off. The company also began consultations linked to "slimming operations" in Australia and the U.K.

The moves came after roughly two dozen workers at HuffPost Canada filed for union certification in February with CWA Canada, who said Tuesday that the decision to close appeared to be planned. 

The union filing was made after Verizon Media reached an agreement to sell HuffPost to BuzzFeed in November.

Verizon purchased the company from AOL in March 2011 for US$315 million and Huffington left in 2016 to launch a health-focused startup called Thrive Global. 

She founded Huffington Post with Kenneth Lerer, Jonah Peretti and the late Andrew Breitbart in 2005 and they initially focused on aggregating news.

They opened HuffPost Canada in 2011 and HuffPost Quebec a year later.

Rashida Jeeva, a former HuffPost general manager, helped launch the brand in Canada. She believes HuffPost Canada's commitment to diverse voices flourished from its willingness to hire and nurture young journalists and support stories that might have been seen as "too niche" elsewhere.

"We wanted to be representative and remove the barriers that people would normally have faced," she said.

"They were in an environment where they felt comfortable enough that they could speak about subjects that mainstream media wasn't quite embracing at the time."

She recalled reporters profiling queer and trans families across Canada in the "How I Made My Family" series and using a range of journalism techniques, including first-person storytelling, to talk about culture, disabilities, mental health, gender and adoption

Jeeva left the company in 2017, but the closure news still hurt because HuffPost was "ahead of the curve" with its emphasis on diversity,

"Many media outlets are making it more of a priority, but it is not back at a galloping pace. It is moving slowly," Jeeva said.

Mel Woods, a viral/trends editor who worked for HuffPost Canada in Vancouver since 2019, observed that trajectory too and was pleased that HuffPost bucked the pattern.

"I'm a queer kid from rural Alberta and I got to write stories that were about me and my experience and I know a lot of other places wouldn't have that and so I'm very very grateful for that," she said.

HuffPost gave Woods a job when she was fresh out of graduate school and then opportunities to cover federal elections and travel across the west coast reporting on climate issues.

She doesn't have her next job lined up yet, but she's optimistic about freelancing until new opportunities emerge.

"It is truly a shame in the Canadian media landscape because I think for a lot of us this was our dream job, and it's really hard to think about working anywhere else."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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