Just weeks after news broke that tech site CNET was quietly using artificial intelligence to produce articles, the company is doing extensive layoffs that include several longtime employees, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. The layoffs total around a dozen people, a CNET staffer says, or about 10 percent of the public masthead.
The layoffs began Thursday morning and were announced internally via email by Red Ventures, the private equity-backed marketing-turned-media company that bought CNET in 2020. In the email, a Red Ventures executive suggested the cuts were made to focus CNET on areas where the site can succeed at bringing in traffic on Google search — a top priority for the company.
“To prepare ourselves for a strong future, we will need to focus on how we simplify our operations and our tech stack, and also on how we invest our time and energy,” wrote Carlos Angrisano, president of financial services at Red Ventures.
CNET will focus on “authority,” a metric Google considers in search rankings
Angrisano says implicitly what Red Ventures’ — and CNET’s — focus will be going forward: coverage areas where the company has “a high degree of authority, relevance, differentiation” and can “make a large difference in the lives” of audiences. “Authority” is among the metrics that Google stresses to websites as it decides what content ranks highly in search.
Under Red Ventures, former CNET employees say the venerated publication’s focus increasingly became winning Google searches by prioritizing SEO. On these highly trafficked articles, the company crams in lucrative affiliate marketing ads for things like loans or credit cards, cashing in every time a reader signs up.
In the email, Angrisano said CNET would focus on consumer technology, home and wellness, energy, broadband, and personal finance — the sections Red Ventures could best monetize, a current staffer says.
“But those sections are shadows of what they once were, particularly home,” the staffer says. “If you want to do that section the right way, you don’t sell off your Smart Home, get rid of its video team and cripple your editorial staff.”
In January, Futurism reported that CNET had published dozens of articles since last November that were generated using AI tools, much to the surprise of readers — the outlet hadn’t formally announced it was doing so. Other Red Ventures-owned properties, Bankrate and CreditCards.com, had also been publishing similar pieces. The company paused the practice after public outcry and factual errors in stories and promised to do an audit of all articles using AI systems. On CNET, more than half of the articles eventually had corrections made to them.
Though the AI-generated stories were put on pause in January, Red Ventures is preparing to deploy the tool again soon, according to an internal meeting held in late February, first reported by Futurism and confirmed by The Verge.
Even beyond the shift to affiliate marketing, former CNET staff told The Verge that working conditions under Red Ventures deteriorated since the acquisition. Former staff recounted multiple instances in which CNET employees were pressured to change their coverage of companies that advertised with Red Ventures — a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics that put CNET’s editorial independence at serious risk.
Red Ventures didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.