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Staff in The Appealâs Crusading Newsroom Spent Years Fighting Its âCruelâ Culture
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/GettyBelittling women. Unfairly targeting nonwhite staffers. Blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy. Those are just a few of the many accusations that have been percolating at nonprofit newsroom The Appeal, where internal infighting and employee discontent has been simmering under the surface for yearsâbefore it all burst into public on Monday.The publicationâs editorial staff announced on Monday morning that they were forming an editorial union, partially as a response to what they said was âdemeaningâ treatment by managers and high turnover, particularly among nonwhite staff.âThe entire workforce is often subjected to new policies, priorities, and performance metrics we had no say in creating, and which, for many staffers, contradict why they were hired,â staff said in a statement.The announcement was public for less than ten minutes before the organization had an announcement of its own: The Appeal would be laying off staff, and many top leaders in its executive suite, including executive director Rob Smith and its general counsel Jake Sussman, would be stepping back into advisory roles.Mondayâs blowup comes following years of growing dissatisfaction among rank-and-file staff within the nonprofit news organization. Employees have criticized what they said was bullying behavior by top managers, as well as what some believed were messy editorial conflicts-of-interest between The Appeal and its partner organization The Justice Collaborative. In recent months, The Daily Beast has spoken with over a dozen current and former Appeal staffers, many of whom said that while they supported the organizationâs mission, Smithâs leadership created a workplace that encouraged some managers to treat staffâespecially female employeesâcallously. âNone of the female reporters felt safe approaching [the top editors] to discuss even everyday work issues, let alone problems in the workplace,â one former reporter, Lauren Gill, said in a complaint to human resources obtained by The Daily Beast.Launched in 2018, The Appeal focuses on the U.S. criminal justice system and its broad impact on American society, from local district attorney races to national news events like the police shooting of George Floyd. Until early this year, the publication operated as an arm of The Justice Collaborative, a network of lawyers and communications and policy experts advocating for reducing incarceration and reforming the criminal legal system (TJC itself is a project of Tides, a fiscal sponsor of left-leaning nonprofits). While TJC advocated for policy changes, The Appeal was a newsroom in the mold of The Marshall Project and The Traceâsmall, mission-driven, and explicitly-ideological, focused on exposing the law enforcement agencies overzealously putting people behind bars.But over the past several years, frustrations have grown among the organizationâs journalists with leadership. Jessica Pishko worked at both The Appeal and TJC for four years. She told The Daily Beast that while she was pleased with her work covering sheriffs departments across the country, she felt that top leaders made often-demeaning statements. Sheâd singled out Smith and another editor at The Appeal, Ethan Brown, whom she said told her during a heated dispute that she âdidnât have critical thinking skills.â She told The Daily Beast that she took her complaints about the incident to Smith, but never received any indication that her concerns were addressed.âHe fostered an environment in which it was not just acceptable but rewarded for people to be cruel and inappropriate,â she said of Smith. âHe told me once that he didn’t want to hear anything about what I thought, he just wanted me to do what he wanted.âOthers ran into similar issues when they made more formal filed complaints.Washingtonian CEO Apologizes for Op-Ed âThreatâ to Staffersâ Jobs if They Donât Return to OfficeDaniel Denvir was a freelance writer in residence for several years with an earlier iteration of The Appeal when it was still a part of the Fair Punishment Project. He told The Daily Beast that he grew frustrated after Brown blew up on him after Denvir said the editor had inserted what he said was inaccurate language into a story. When he tried to complain about the incident, he was told to file a complaint with human resources, and was simultaneously prohibited from writing for the publication for several months, cutting off a freelance gig that until that point had been an important regular source of income.”I was retaliated against for making a complaint against an editor,â Denvir told The Daily Beast. âAnd spent four months with this neverending situation haunting me. It was so unpleasant and unfair and mean. And it didn’t have to be any of those things.”Others said the publication created a culture that stifled internal criticism or reflection, and the aggressive management style pushed by men in positions of power at the publication alienated some reporters on staff, including many women.Lauren Gill was a senior reporter from early 2019 until she was laid off from the publication late last year. In an email with Tides human resources after she was let go, Gill said that when she raised questions to the siteâs editor-in-chief Matt Ferner he would become âaggressive and angry,â which she said made her âscared to speak out.âIn the email, which was shared with The Daily Beast, she described a 2019 editorial meeting in which a reporter raised issues of editorial independence, prompted by The Appealâs deeper integration with TJC. The email sparked a blowup from Ferner.âThough she had nothing to do with organizing the meeting, Matt called a female reporter and accused her of conspiring against him and told her he would cut her a severance check,â she said in an email to human resources. âHe then went on to cancel the meeting by sending out an email threatening our jobs if we raised further concerns.âIn a statement to The Daily Beast, The Appeal did not respond to individual incidents, but said that âany claim of abuse, harassment, or discrimination in our workplace would be escalated to Tides Advocacy and its HR team,â and that there has ânever been any finding or determination of abusive behavior toward staff.âStill, the organization said it was seeking an independent review of its workplace policies and practices.âAs a mission-driven media organization centered on solving the problems of injustice, discrimination and inequity in our society, The Appeal takes any and all concerns about workplace diversity and culture seriously. If, and when, we fall short of the high standards we have set for ourselves, we take swift action to remedy and improve.âThe purposefully murky boundaries between The Appeal and TJC were a longstanding source of tension within the organization. Since its inception, many of the reporters at The Appeal were concerned that its editorial mission was possibly too influenced by TJC, the advocacy arm of the project which was directly engaged in working to reduce incarceration through policy work and advocacy. Staff at The Appeal were occasionally expected to field and write stories pitched by staff from TJC, which the organizationâs journalists said were not always interesting or timely.In 2019, staff wrote a letter to top editors with several requests. First, employees wanted full separation from TJC. They also demanded to know âevery source of funding for TJC and for The Appeal,â and expressed concern that donors may be âparticipating in editorial processes and decisions,â and âsome editorial staff at The Appeal may personally be controlling the distribution of donations for work related to The Appeal.âInside the Hunt for the Washington Postâs Next Top EditorâJust as no one on The Appeal side is supposed to engage in advocacy work and/or in the media engagement team, we ask that no one doing advocacy or media engagement work for TJC do work for The Appeal, unless their related advocacy work is noted with a disclosure or they produce work that is published in a clearly delineated opinion space,â staff wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Daily Beast. âCurrently, our website and overall procedures do not make this distinction clear.âThe internal questioning and criticism by staff irked leaders at The Appeal and TJC, who insisted that they were pioneering a type of advocacy journalism aiming to use the policy chops of the organizationâs advocates to add expert voices and context to The Appealâs journalism. In leadershipâs eyes, journalists joining The Appeal knew that they were being hired by an explicitly ideological outfit that was directly related to the organizationâs work crafting progressive criminal legal policy and working to elect local officials who hewed closer to those goals.But the organizationâs leadership seemed to send mixed messages about the relationship between The Appeal and its advocacy arm.Last year, the Houston Chronicle wrote an article mentioning that The Appeal was a media outlet ârunâ by TJC. The line set off Ferner, who described the Chronicle story as âsome bullshit.ââThe Justice Collaborative does not ârunâ The Appeal,â he wrote. âThe Appeal is editorially independent from TJC. The staff of the award-winning Appeal “runs” The Appeal, ffs.âWould have been great and ethical had @houstonchron actually, I don’t know, reached out to me or @jduffyrice to ask about the relationship to TJC, one we are deeply deeply proud of. Some of the smartest ppl in the country are our colleagues there. But they don’t run The Appealâ Matt Ferner (@matthewferner) January 31, 2020 But Fernerâs defense of The Appeal as a completely editorially independent entity of TJC cut against what TJC and The Appeal were saying to staff. Leaders at the organization repeatedly attempted to integrate the two branches. In a Slack message at one point last year, Ferner wrote that â25% of our content should be content we decide to accept from cross-TJC pitches.â And when asked about the relationship between the two earlier this year, Ferner said in a statement to The Daily Beast that the organizationâs âporous boundaries were a feature, not a bug.ââWe built The Appeal as a project of TJC to tear down, not erect, walls between advocacy and journalism. We explicitly told staff that our objective was for us not only to work together in the same organization, but on the same teams and projects,â Ferner said in a statement. âWe reject the notion of âobjectiveâ journalism, and the many dangerously wrongheaded norms that accompany that erroneous tradition, perhaps none more than the idea that the separation of advocacy and journalism is a virtue. This brand of journalism is not for everyone, and thatâs okay, but we are deeply proud of it.âStill, earlier this year, the organization merged TJC into The Appeal, a move that leadership acknowledged was partially motivated by the lack of clarity about the relationship between the two organizations, and a desire to increase The Appealâs visibility and impact.The move accompanied other major changes: The Appeal launched a redesigned website, and said it would be collaborating with the left-leaning data firm Data For Progress on public opinion polling of criminal legal issues. It also said it was broadening its editorial scope, and had hired a former reporter from BuzzFeed News, and made many of its donors public on the publicationâs website.âWith local newspapers laying off staff or shuttering altogether, news deserts are cropping up around the country. We aim to tell stories that connect the dots between the many crises happening in communities across the nation, while deepening our readersâ understanding of how those crises are harming everyday people,â The Appealâs then-president Josie Duffy Rice said in a release. âWeâre excited for what we have in store for the coming months.âBut that transition hasnât gone smoothly.The Appealâs leadership has told staff the organization lost some funding from donors as part of the shift. Managers moved TJC staff to unfamiliar roles and offered buyouts to employees who felt uncomfortable in new positions. Those who remained found goals that some employees felt were almost impossible to meet.Last year, staffers from TJC with little-to-no journalism experience were reassigned to The Appealâs audience team that multiple staffers described to The Daily Beast as essentially a glorified phone banking operation. Each staffer was expected to speak with ten “core audience members,â lawmakers, advocates, or others, in order to solicit around two dozens weekly âcitations,â including retweets, references or buzz around existing Appeal stories. They were also asked to use these calls to generate story ideas for staff to chase down, and to pitch at least five potential story ideas a week. The audience team quickly found that actually getting ten different influential people a day was nearly impossible, and convincing them to engage with the content was even more difficult given the sheer volume of calls they were expected to make in a day to meet the ten conversation minimum. They filed a complaint to the organizationâs human resources department, noting that the four staffers expected to accomplish those goals were all nonwhite women, and arguing that they were being held to different standards than their white counterparts.On Monday, Smith wrote in a note to staff that as part of a restructuring, The Appeal intended to lay off members of the audience team, including some who had filed a complaint.Other issues within the organization had begun to leak out into public earlier this year.In March, an anonymous user on Medium published a piece taking aim at The Appeal. The post alleged that The Appeal was paying Shaun King, a highly controversial figure in the criminal justice community, $2,500 a month to share the organizationâs posts. It also alleged that the founders of The Appeal had fostered a toxic work environment. In a meeting with employees after the post was published, leaders confirmed that they paid King as a consultant for the organizationâs social media strategy.The Medium post immediately set off a chain reaction within the organization. The same day, leadership announced it would be holding meetings to hear about concerns from staff, and was hiring an ombudsperson. The chaos of the last few months and the op-edâs publication also influenced the organizationâs president Josie Duffy Riceâs decision to resign. Rice told people privately that she had been planning on leaving the organization, but felt targeted by the piece, which leadership at The Appeal believed was written by a disgruntled former staffer.For now, the organizationâs future is uncertain.The Appealâs staffers are hoping the unionization effort brings employees increased power in the newsroom. In a statement, the organization said it âsupports unionsâ and was âworking with our fiscal sponsor Tides Center towards recognizing the effort announced today.â Many of the organizationâs leaders including Smith are also stepping back for the first time in the publicationâs history, an opportunity that some on staff hope will change the organizationâs culture.âThe place is a dumpster fire,â another staffer said. âWe are squandering a collection of unbelievably talented and dedicated people.âRead more at The Daily Beast.Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast hereGet our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.