Print Refugees Laid Off by Web Site That Was Supposed to Save Them

Oyster.com, a hotel-rating site that launched just five months ago with the aim of hiring real journalists—ones who got laid off from all the real journalism jobs—is laying off a bunch of people. The lifeboat is sinking.

Oyster's schtick when it debuted to much fanfare in June was that it would hire experienced staffers to stay in hotels and write reviews, giving it a competitive advantage against user-submitted sites like TripAdvisor.com. Sure enough, the site hired 20 reporters and at least three editors—veterans of the New York Times, Money, Fast Company, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and all sorts of other former lions of print—to fly around all the time and stay at hotels. "We pay for all the expenses, the plane ticket, taxis, meals, rooms and, of course, salaries and benefits," co-founder Elie Seidman told the New York Times in June. He added that he hoped that by the end of 2010, he'd have 150 full-time staffers.

Well, that couldn't last very long, could it? After just under two quarters of operation, the site has engaged in what we hear are massive layoffs: 75% of staff is gone, our tipster says. A spokeswoman for Oyster confirms the layoffs, but says the 75% figure is laughably high. She declined to offer the accurate numbers, or say how many staffers the site currently employs. UPDATE: Oyster's rep got back to us with figures that indicate the site laid off one-third of its payroll, though the mix of full-time and temp staffers isn't clear: "At our 2009 production peak, we had more than 30 people, full-time and temporary. As a result of both economic conditions in the market and our decisions to slow our rate of new market additions after 18 months of torrid growth, we now have more than 20 people — full time and temporary."

In a statement, Seidman said Oyster was just limiting its coverage area:

After a burst of massive growth over the past 18 months, we've covered a very large percentage of the U.S. leisure market with a product that has been incredibly well received. In order to focus on winning in the markets we've already covered, we've decided to slightly slow our rate of new market coverage.

(That 18 months figure must include a lengthy pre-launch "burst of massive growth," because it hasn't been 18 months since Oyster launched in June of this year.)

Anyway, if you're a reporter terrified of losing your job and dreaming of an online gig where you get paid to travel and stay in luxury hotels and write about it, that escape hatch just closed. Maybe it's time to think about law school.

UPDATE: Two sources confirm that 17 staffers got the axe at Oyster, including 11 reporters. It's still not clear whether that constitutes 75% or 33% of payroll or somewhere in between, but it's a huge chunk of the site's editorial staff. Four reporters remain, we're told. To make matters worse, one tipster says the company sent eight non-editorial staffers on an all-expenses trip to Jamaica last month, which was explained as a gift in lieu of bonuses. And they were buying everybody free lunches every day until late October, when they apparently realized they needed to stop spending money and start firing everybody. One former Oyster reporter writes, "This is a sinking ship, and a severe case of entrepreneurial hubris. Shame."

If you know the details on who got fired, or how many people it was, let us know.