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CBR layoffs: What led to the firing of three-quarters of their editors (and what happens next)

Owner Valnet's pursuit of high traffic at low cost appears to have pushed out the leads behind the site

CBR Logo
Image credit: CBR

It’s been two weeks since CBR, one of the most-trafficked sites for pop culture and genre entertainment online, lost three quarters of its core editorial staff in a sudden and surprising move from parent company Valnet, Inc. Since then, questions have been circulating about what happened — most notably, what did happen, and why? 

Popverse has spoken to a number of present and former Valnet employees, CBR contributors, and other involved parties to try and get some answers. All spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals... but we'll get to that soon enough.

Prehistory of CBR (or Comic Book Resources)

CBR
Image credit: Valnet

CBR started life as Comic Book Resources in 1995, founded by Jonah Weiland as an off-shoot of a message board devoted to the DC miniseries Kingdom Come. (The internet was a different, kinder place back then.) It quickly grew to become one of the leading destinations for comic book writing, thanks in large part to a balance of a robust review section and op-ed columns from creators including Robert Kirkman, Matt Fraction, Gail Simone, and many others; Warren Ellis’s presence on the site in its early days via his 'Come In Alone; column was an important moment for both parties, giving the site credibility and significantly expanding Ellis’ reach as a writer.

Valnet, Inc. is a Canadian publisher founded in 2012 that is known for its purchase of a number of pre-existing sites and brands, including Screen Rant, MovieWeb, and Collider. In 2016, it purchased Comic Book Resources from Weiland, who said in a release at the time, “I'm very proud of what the site has become and what the CBR team has accomplished. Knowing that the CBR legacy will continue to grow in the capable hands of Valnet and their team is enormously gratifying,”

Within five months under Valnet ownership, the site had officially changed its name from Comic Book Resources to CBR.com, with the comicbookresources.com URL no longer functioning. Comics were increasingly sidelined for coverage under Valnet ownership, as were both reviews and columns as focuses for publishing; instead, the site refocused on shorter news pieces and reactions to news stories.

Under Valnet ownership, turnover of writers and editors alike increased. Adam Swiderski had only been in the editor-in-chief position since July 2022, with former lead news editor Christopher Baggett having only been in his position since November 2022. By comparison, Stephen Gerding, the third editorial lead to be laid off, had been with CBR since 2005; it was, arguably, his departure that led so many outside the company to sit up and take notice of what was going on.

The Memorial Day massacre at CBR

From what Popverse has been able to piece together from multiple accounts, the timeline of what happened at CBR is as follows:

  • On Friday, May 26, the CBR editorial team held what was believed at the time to be a regular planning meeting with Valnet executives. The meeting appeared to be productive, with all parties agreeing to schedule a follow-up meeting to further explore issues raised in the coming days.
  • On Monday, May 29 — Memorial Day in the US, which meant that the CBR team was not working, while the Canadian Valnet team was — multiple one-on-one meetings were scheduled between Valnet executives and CBR’s editorial team for the beginning of the next day.
  • On Tuesday, May 30, Adam Swiderski, Stephen Gerding, and Christopher Baggett were each told in their one-on-one meetings that they were being laid off. CBR contributors were informed of the layoffs via a group Slack message from Valnet Inc. content director George Edelman, which also revealed that managing editor Jon Arvedon would be taking over leadership of the site, with further calls being scheduled with other editors throughout the week to discuss their positions and duties in the new era.

Popverse has been given to understand that, in the days prior to laying off the three CBR editors, Valnet also laid off the two-person HR team responsible for CBR. In the wake of the layoffs, additional CBR leads and contributors are considering parting ways with the site, according to sources, with some resigning in solidarity with those laid off.

Valnet on CBR “Turning the corner on both culture and performance”

In its internal message to contributors announcing the layoff of Swiderski, Gerding, and Baggett, Valnet Inc. content director Edelman wrote that the site was “undergoing major structural changes related to turning the corner on both culture and performance,” adding that there would be more focus on “individuals who can create a more positive culture going forward.”

This raised eyebrows both outside the CBR community as well as inside. For those outside, the immediate question that followed that message was, “what were the cultural problems at the site?” According to multiple current and former insiders, the answer appears to be nothing that was made any better with the removal of the three laid off editors. In terms of the cultural impact of the three, current and former writers were extremely complimentary almost entirely across the board; the three had separately and collectively tried to protect and champion the writers on the site, according to multiple testimonies. The few complaints shared were purely on an individual basis — specific concerns weren’t responded to quickly enough, or dismissed — instead of cultural or endemic.

“The culture problem, to Valnet, is that they don't want people disagreeing with them in the least and they will not flex or bend on anything,” one source told Popverse, summing up a line of thought shared by multiple people who have worked for Valnet in the past few years at CBR and other sites. Multiple examples were raised about layoffs or retribution for those who pushed back against the company’s demands. Many pointed to former CBR editor Samantha Puc’s Twitter thread of May 30, commenting that her experience mirrored their own. In the first tweet of that thread, Puc writes bluntly, “Valnet is a monster.” Later in the same thread, she adds, “Anyone who attempted to push back or ask for more was either pushed out or outright let go.”

From what Popverse was given to understand by multiple sources, Edelman’s reference to “turning the corner on both culture and performance” appears to implicitly be a reference to a plan to simultaneously reduce workload offered to contract writers while lowering pay-per-view rates — something that Swiderski, Gerding, and Baggett had pushed back on prior to their dismissal by the company, according to contributors talking to Popverse on background.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, pay-per-view rates are just what they sound like; for Valnet sites, it represents an additional bonus payment once a story goes above a set number of page views, often used - as is the case on Valnet sites - as justification for a low base payment. The argument in favor of a pay-per-view system is that it incentivizes writers to write stories that people will want to read, as if writers would otherwise prefer no-one saw their work.)

The combination of lowering workload and pay-per-view rates would represent, according to multiple sources, just the latest attempt to lessen the amount of money contributors to CBR would earn. One former contributor to the site said that, upon Valnet’s purchase of CBR in 2016, contributor rates were almost immediately halved, while expectations of output were increased, with upwards of 20 stories expected per day from some contributors. This, as it turns out, was not uncommon in regards to Valnet purchases.

From speaking to current and former contributors to other Valnet-owned sites, it was clear that CBR was not alone in its problems. Their experience mirrored what has been happening at CBR, with contributors laid off for unspecified concerns about attitude or similarly vague excuses after speaking out about potential issues over Valnet’s management and business practices. The cultural problem, it appeared over and over again, was specifically Valnet’s problem with a culture that permitted its contributors and employees to question corporate decree. 

The silence from CBR and Valnet

It’s reasonable to ask why, if Valnet is pushing its staff and contributors so hard with so little seeming reward, that this hasn’t been openly discussed more often. The answer is rooted in one simple legal fact: the company includes non-disparagement clauses in its contracts and severance packages, to prevent current and former employees from speaking out. Every single person Popverse spoke to for this story did so under the condition of anonymity for that reason, with multiple sources repeatedly seeking confirmation that they would not be named or, in some cases, even quoted directly for fear of reprisal from Valnet.

Nonetheless, there was also a repeated gratitude expressed that people were finally starting to look at Valnet’s business practices as a whole in light of the CBR layoffs. As one said, “Valnet hurts people. I can't say it any simpler and clearer than that.”

CBR and the story that wasn’t

A curious side note to all of the above is that, in the immediate aftermath of the layoffs, one rumor appeared dominant in the emerging narrative: that a primary point of conflict between the CBR editorial staff let go and Valnet was the potential use of AI to generate articles for the site. That was a recurring them raised in multiple conversations Popverse had with those outside the company, as well as former Valnet employees — but, having spoken with a number of involved parties on background, it appears to be a rumor with no basis in truth. Based on conversations with those with knowledge of the situation, there was no push from Valnet for AI-generated editorial content to be placed on the site, and it was not an element of disagreement between the company and the laid off editorial staff.

Perhaps grimly amusingly, relating this to one former anonymous Valnet employee produced a response of, “Not yet, anyway.”

Where we are today with CBR and Valnet

As things currently stand, CBR is continuing to publish multiple stories daily with little visible difference on the site itself. Arvedon is the de facto editor-in-chief, although his title remains managing editor,  a position he’s now held for just over a year. CBR contributors have been told to work as before, despite having no direct editorial leads for either news or features — a shift that reflects similar moves made at other Valnet sites.

Several openings at CBR are listed on Indeed.com, including news editor (TV/movies), Tv/movies weekend news writer, and list writer (tv/movies). All positions listed are described as freelance, with the editor position listed as part-time despite requiring the individual to "Edit/Write a minimum of 10 news articles daily".

No comment(s)

CBR’s online press kit refers media queries to pr@cbr.com. As of writing, any email sent to that address bounces back because the address cannot be found, or is “unable to receive mail.” Similarly, Valnet as a whole has not responded to a request for comment.


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About the Author
Graeme McMillan avatar

Graeme McMillan

Staff Writer

Popverse staff writer Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.

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