The Reckoning At The Appeal Was A Long Time Coming
2:00 PM EDT on May 12, 2021
On Monday, The Appeal, a non-profit newsroom that primarily covers criminal justice, announced a set of sweeping organizational changes. In a staff-wide email, executive director Rob Smith announced “significant” impending layoffs and a plan to reform the company as an independent entity. Smith also said that he and other top executives would be stepping back from their positions in order to assume part-time advisory roles. Smith's message, which was sent just minutes after The Appeal's editorial staff announced their intent to unionize, was seen by staffers as an attack. In a statement issued after Smith announced the layoffs, The Appeal union said, “We have reason to believe they knew of our plans to unionize and to announce today. We believe the layoffs this morning are retaliatory, and illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.” Smith told Defector in a statement that the layoffs were “completely unrelated” to the union’s announcement. "The decision to restructure The Appeal had been a process explored over several months to put the organization on stronger financial footing and better reflect a traditional newsroom structure," he said.
But by Tuesday afternoon, management had already begun backtracking. The Appeal’s senior counsel, Jake Sussman, sent an email to the staff announcing that the proposed layoffs would be “paused” in order to “allow for discussions with management and union representatives.” The message also stated that management planned to “enthusiastically recognize” the union. The union’s win was unmitigated: Management even reinstated the job of a fact-checker who had been laid off the day before.
What’s played out at The Appeal in the last few days is nothing short of a drastic reversal of power, sparked by fed-up staffers’ demands for protections, transparency, and accountability. A non-profit that for years largely answered only to Rob Smith is suddenly being forced to answer to the dozens of employees who make its work possible. And while the shift seemed to happen abruptly and then all at once, the tensions that led to this week’s developments have been simmering for years.
For this story, Defector reviewed dozens of internal documents, memos, emails, and Slack messages, and spoke to nearly 30 current and former workers, some of whom agreed to be on the record. Defector granted a number of others anonymity because they feared they could lose their jobs or face personal retribution for speaking publicly about their experiences. Many were scared to talk because they had been compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to get severance. Nearly across the board, the people who spoke to Defector described a demoralizing workplace culture--especially for women and people of color--with little to no protection for staff and an extremely high turnover rate. Many sources said The Appeal was a chaotic but rigidly hierarchical organization in which Smith, who they said could be alternately bullying and patronizing, had ultimate say. Smith was also described as someone who jumps rapidly from one idea to the next and who makes big and small changes to the organization according to his own ideas of what the organization should be and how it can get funding, regardless of whether there’s buy-in from staff or what the changes mean for the people working there. If you were looking for one way to sum up what it’s been like to work at The Appeal, you could do worse than this: A line Smith employed when speaking about decision-making at The Appeal, a website dedicated to covering unjust systems in America, is “high input, low democracy.”
On Monday, just a few hours after Smith sent his email announcing layoffs, many of staffers’ problems with The Appeal were revealed in a story published by The Daily Beast. Defector’s own reporting corroborates much of what was reported by The Daily Beast, and also provides further insight into how these issues were created and exacerbated by the organization’s undemocratic structure.
Defector sent sets of specific questions and requests for comment to Smith, as well as three other bosses at The Appeal. Smith responded on behalf of the team, with a statement that did not address many specific claims and details in this story, citing a policy of not commenting on personnel matters. He said that "we do not tolerate any form of discrimination at The Appeal and are committed to ensuring we contribute to the stability and dignity of the people who work here as much as our work does for the communities we serve.” He also said: “As the Executive Director, the responsibility for building a safe, respectful, and inclusive culture stops with me. We strive to create an equitable and inclusive workplace, and any suggestion otherwise is upsetting and unacceptable. While we haven’t always gotten it right, we strive everyday to create and foster a supportive workplace for the team. When we fall short, we move quickly to try to remedy that and improve.”
What is now The Appeal began as the Harvard Law-affiliated Fair Punishment Project, which Smith helped establish in 2016. Its goal was to “use legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.” In 2017, the project struck up a content partnership with Slate and evolved to include its own website, a Medium page called In Justice Today, which billed itself as a “national criminal justice news outlet.” Then in 2018, In Justice Today rebranded as The Appeal. At the time of its launch, The Appeal was advertised as an evolution of In Justice Today; a Nieman Lab story from the time describes it as exactly that, but by 2019, Smith had redefined the origin story. In an internal April 2019 memo, obtained by Defector, Smith wrote that The Appeal “exists to serve the larger mission of The Justice Collaborative.” The Justice Collaborative, another venture focused on criminal justice reform that Smith spearheaded, grew out of the Fair Punishment Project around the time of The Appeal’s launch. In the April 2019 memo to staff, Smith wrote:
When TJC first started, we focused on providing support and context to reporters at external publications, and then soon realized that there isn’t enough capacity for consistent CJ reporting at the local level, and things like the need to drive serious traffic made covering some of the most important things that happen at the local level extremely difficult for many reporters outlets to do. So, we decided to pitch donors on this crazy idea to start our own news outlet within TJC.
Though TJC and The Appeal were outwardly billed as separate entities, with separate roles, and separate websites, they were both run by Smith, shared a Slack workspace, and in some ways operated in tandem. The idea was for the two sides of the organization to engage in something of a synergy: The reporters at The Appeal could use the lawyers and experts at TJC, the advocacy-oriented research initiative, as resources, while TJC could lob pitches and story ideas over the “firewall” to The Appeal, the independent journalistic operation.
The idea worked better in theory than in practice. In January of this year, Smith announced that he decided to dissolve TJC and “go all in” on journalism. In a letter to readers, he explained the change as “an expansion of The Appeal’s newsroom” that would allow them “to get the most out of our theory of change.” But the shift, and lack of internal transparency around it, combined with the existing rotten workplace culture, created more problems than it solved.
When TJC was folded into The Appeal, the workers from TJC were given a week to decide if they wanted to take a buyout or be moved into journalism-adjacent jobs with The Appeal, according to an internal email from Smith on February 3. Multiple sources said that it was understood that a number of those jobs for assimilated TJC staffers, who were not public relations or communications professionals, would be on the communications and audience engagement teams. While employees were trying to decide whether to take a job they weren’t hired to do or give up their salary in the middle of a pandemic in exchange for six weeks’ severance, Smith announced new productivity metrics for the communications and audience engagement teams: Team members would have to have 10 phone conversations per day with members of The Appeal’s “core audience,” which included organizers, lawmakers, and other reporters, in order to get them to share and cite The Appeal’s work on social media and in policy. That the executive director of the entire organization micromanaged to this degree wasn’t seen as irregular, but staffers were confused by the strategy and worried that team members’ performances would be evaluated on whether they met the metrics. According to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussion around the 10-call-per-day directive, Smith was warned that this cold-calling strategy was not only arbitrary and poorly thought out, but that it would drag down morale and prompt TJC employees weighing whether to stay or take the buyout to do the latter. According to these sources, Smith said that that was “the point.” Smith declined to comment on this exchange.
Four of the TJC employees who didn’t take the buyout were women who were assigned to the audience engagement team. Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said that the four women, who come from policy and law backgrounds, were converted into something resembling telemarketers. Their assigned work, which also evolved to include a daily quota of 50-75 individualized emails sent per day and weekly quota for stories pitched to The Appeal reporters, was tightly monitored--for a period of time, multiple sources said, they even received a daily automated message that asked who they had talked to on the phone that day. Seanniece Bamiro, one of audience and engagement staffers, who previously worked on the Hill and as a community organizer, said she didn’t mind the calls—“It’s the organizer in me, I love talking to and making connections with lawmakers and advocates”—but said the way that she felt her value, and job security, was tied to whether she met the productivity metrics was brutal. “It is particularly cruel,” she said, “to dangle people's employment status and health care in front of their faces during a pandemic.” That this team was the only one working under such onerous productivity metrics didn’t escape anyone’s attention.
“They’re being given impossible and nonsensical tasks, their expertise is being ignored, and their work is being monitored and criticized in a way that is degrading and demoralizing,” an Appeal staffer who was not a part of the audience engagement team, told Defector earlier this month. “I think The Appeal management is setting up the audience and engagement team to fail and, I fear, ultimately push them out of their jobs.”
These fears were realized when Smith sent his memo on Monday about “restructuring The Appeal around its core mission.” He explained that in order to do that, he would need to “create a more traditional newsroom communications structure by eliminating the audience team.”
“It feels like a bait and switch,” Bamiro said Monday, before the layoffs were paused. “I had consistently gotten praise from [Smith]. ... It just feels kind of like a slap in the face to then read that my contribution to the organization is inconsequential.”
Jess Pishko, a Dallas-based writer and researcher who focuses on Sheriff's offices, met Smith before the Fair Punishment Project was officially established. She worked with him on and off for four years as a contractor before joining The Justice Collaborative as full-time senior counsel in early 2020. She said she had, in the past, had issues with Smith and her work with The Appeal, but nothing like what she experienced when she joined full-time.
“Everything was bad and so much worse than I remembered,” she told Defector. “I was upset about the way people were treated, I was upset about management.” She recalled a time last summer when Smith pressured the team she was on to work over the weekend to help draft legislation in coordination with the Movement for Black Lives. According to Slack messages reviewed by Defector, Smith wrote that he was looking for people to work “some or all of the weekend” to help draft the language.
“Fwiw,” he wrote, “Gina and others from Movement for Black Lives have said that this is super important for them and they say these [sic] as an opportunity to define at the federal level what the movement's big demands are and they asked specifically for our help on this over the weekend in this moment; identifying it as a high priority ask and a favor for TJC. So, if this is something you feel like is important to you, now would be the right time.”
Another employee, a black woman who is no longer working at the organization and who did not respond to an email from Defector, responded to Smith’s message: “I would imagine that this is something that is important to everyone in this organization, whether or not we have time to dedicate to it this weekend. The right time to push back against racial injustice is all the time.” Twenty colleagues added a “heart” to her message. Pishko said Smith responded by clarifying what he meant and then conveyed a message: If anyone didn’t like the way he communicated, then this work may not be the best fit for them. Pishko, who left TJC only a few months after she started full-time, said it was a standard response from Smith. “I just thought it was really rude.” Smith declined to comment on the exchange.
Multiple people recalled how Smith treated another lawyer at TJC. The woman, who declined to comment for this story, had suffered a series of debilitating health issues in a relatively short period of time, including a stroke and a mastectomy, and she was still recovering when she started at TJC. According to several people who worked with her at the time, she had accommodations that gave her flexibility in her work. The sources said that it became clear that some managers who should have been aware of these accommodations weren’t, and managers who were, including Smith, didn’t seem to care. Sources described the woman as a brilliant lawyer who had been minimized because management wasn’t happy with her work, saying it was too slow. They say that when she went to management to voice her concerns that TJC was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act in its treatment of her, Smith insulted her, saying that a high school student could do the work she was assigned. The woman no longer works at the organization. Smith declined to comment on this exchange.
The Appeal operates as a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy, a 501c4 organization that provides back-end support like payroll and human resources to nearly 60 progressive groups and start-ups. According to Tides Advocacy’s 990 filing from 2019, Smith was the highest-paid person across the organization, with a salary of $229,713 plus $28,553 in additional compensation. But as a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy, The Appeal does not have to break out its own financial records, like salaries, donor information and funding records. As Laurie Styron, the executive director of CharityWatch explained to Defector: “These types of arrangements make it difficult for watchdogs and journalists to research how funds are being raised and spent since the financial activities of the fiscally sponsored organization are not required to be broken out separately in the public financial reporting of the sponsoring organization.”
This has always been a problem for The Appeal’s journalists. Over the years, staffers have pressed management on where it gets its money, how that money might dictate coverage, and how it is spent.
In April 2019, an outside financial consultant hired by the organization held a meeting to address staff concerns about donors. Author and veteran reporter Debbie Nathan, who is based on the U.S.-Mexico border and primarily covers immigation, asked several questions about funding for The Appeal and TJC. In a recording of the meeting, obtained by Defector, Nathan asked the consultant, Marisa Lee Bolssen, about who donates money, who directs that money within the organization, how donations for specific projects work, and if and when TJC funds are funneled to The Appeal. Though her tone was even and she listened to the consultant’s answers without interrupting, she received multiple messages from Smith in the following days telling her she had been out of line and had upset Lee Bolssen, and that she needed to apologize. (Lee Bolssen told Defector in an email that she was “not upset” by the questions. “I felt I answered everyone’s questions to the best of my ability and I encouraged folks to reach out if they had future questions, or concerns,” she said.) In one such message from Smith, reviewed by Defector, he said Nathan was “very hostile and aggressive” and that if she had problems she should take it up with him as he makes the “final budgetary and strategic decisions for The Appeal.” After scolding her, Smith’s tone grew condescending: “Let’s make sure that we are treating everyone we work with in a way that’s a little more generous in spirit, especially when they are trying to help us,” he wrote. Nathan didn’t respond. Smith then sent her an email, also reviewed by Defector, in which he again scolded her for not responding, for not apologizing to the consultant, and for talking with other reporters about editorial independence. He wrote, “You didn’t even bother to respond to me, and I am the executive director of the project where you work.” Nathan quit.
“This was towards the very end when everybody was leaving, people had already resigned, and I just didn't engage,” she said, referring to one of The Appeal’s waves of turnover in the spring of 2019, which saw several high-profile writers and editors, including Melissa Gira Grant and Sarah Leonard, leave the newsroom. “I was like, this is absurd, I'm just resigning.”
These departures also coincided with the beginning of the end of The Appeal workers’ first effort to unionize their workplace. In late 2018 and early 2019, multiple sources say, staffers had been meeting with the Writers Guild of America, East with the intention of forming a union of editorial staff to address organizational transparency, hiring practices, and accountability. But the circumstances under which Nathan, Gira Grant, and Leonard departed were enough to prompt staffers to put the union effort on ice, before they could ask for recognition from management.
By February of 2020, The Appeal was staffed by an almost entirely new group of reporters, and they again had questions about editorial independence and the structure of the newsroom. According to multiple people who worked for The Appeal at this time, the staffers scheduled a meeting with The Appeal’s editor-in-chief, Matt Ferner, who joined the organization in 2018. The message accompanying the calendar invite for the meeting, sent by reporter Aaron Morrison, who is no longer at The Appeal and who did not respond to a message from Defector, read: "The Appeal's EIC, Matt Ferner, has graciously agreed to hold a call with reporters about editorial independence and how we collectively handle attacks on our day-to-day hard work and credibility as professionals." The agenda for the meeting included the "firewall between TJC and The Appeal" and "transparency about TJC donors and active advocacy/campaigns that intersect with the Appeal's coverage, whether that should be noted in our stories and on the website."
Ferner responded, cancelling the call and writing that “the word ‘firewall’ is not helpful.” He also wrote:
“Rehashing some of these issues is not helpful. And, frankly, for folks who are still concerned about our independence at this point -- after all Josie and I have done here to secure it and protect it, after all TJC has done to secure and respect it, and importantly, after it has never once been breached -- continued doubts about our independence have little to do with reality or further communication about it. I love you guys, this isn't a negative thing, but: we’re doing a very particular kind of journalism, I get that it isn't for everyone, not everyone can or should work here. If you're not comfortable doing this journalism, come and talk to me one on one.”
Then, multiple sources say, Ferner called up a reporter, Kira Lerner, who had been at The Appeal in 2019, the last time staffers started asking questions about editorial independence. They say Ferner accused her of not being on board with what The Appeal was doing. This was language that, by that point, staffers knew to recognize as a veiled threat. Sources who were made aware of the call at the time said that Lerner, who declined to comment for this story, was on vacation when Ferner demanded a call with her. They said he castigated her in a lengthy one-sided conversation, telling her that if The Appeal wasn’t the right fit for her then he would be happy to cut her a severance check. Sources said Lerner was shocked and upset by the call. She left the Appeal later that year. Ferner, who Smith said on Monday was the “right person” to take over the running The Appeal, declined to comment.
Despite Ferner’s bravado, the issue of editorial independence and what it meant was not resolved. Last summer, according to one former and one current staffer, The Justice Collaborative was working with the Minneapolis City Council in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In June, when the City Council announced it would be disbanding the city’s police department, The Appeal broke the story; a triumphant headline read: “Minneapolis City Council Members Announce Intent To Disband The Police Department, Invest In Proven Community-Led Public Safety.” There was no disclosure about TJC’s work with the city council. And in January of this year, an article titled, “Murders Rose in 2020 But Experts Warn Against Drawing Big Conclusions” was mysteriously scrubbed from the internet shortly after it was published. At least two sources speculated that a donor had taken issue with something in the story. Defector couldn’t verify the speculation, but it speaks to the distrust of management within the rank and file. Smith declined to comment on TJC’s work with the Minneapolis City Council and the deleted article.
At the beginning of this year, The Appeal added a list of its donors to its website. Among The Appeal’s biggest donors are the foundations of various billionaires like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg (Chan Zuckerburg), former Microsoft exec Steve Ballmer (Ballmer Group), and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz (Open Philanthropy, which is run by Smith’s close friend Chloe Cockburn). While the list of donors was a bid for transparency, there is no way to cross-check it with public filings due to The Appeal’s status under Tides Advocacy, and therefore no way to know if it is complete. There’s also no way of knowing if or how the donors, or the process of attracting donors, influences coverage. In his statement, Smith insisted that “like any news organization, the editors of The Appeal exercise editorial control over the content we produce and publish.” He also said: “Since the inception of The Appeal, we have been open about our mission-driven journalism and the generous donors who have supported our work. Our staff is regularly informed of our funding model as is our devoted readership and the public by the list of donors we publish on our website.” While this statement does not accord with some of Defector’s reporting, spinning The Appeal away from Tides Advocacy into its own non-profit, which Smith said on Monday is the plan, would ensure actual transparency with regard to the funding model and donors, as the organization’s financial filings would be publicly available.
The Appeal’s relationship with dubious influencer Shaun King has been another point of tension between Smith and staffers over the years. The Appeal pays Shaun King in exchange for access to his various social media platforms, which account for a significant portion of the website’s traffic. As recently as March of this year, Smith was defending the practice, saying The Appeal was getting a great deal for the services King provides. “He's a controversial figure, he has a lot of opinions and a lot of track record, you know, but our relationship with with Shaun is that he is, undeniably, regardless of how people feel about Shaun, from any angle, somebody who's built a 5 million person following,” Smith said in the meeting, per a recording obtained by Defector. In his statement to Defector, Smith doubled down on paying for access to King’s accounts: “We try to build sustainable audiences for our work in many ways including by sharing The Appeal content with community groups, activists, and others with significant platforms, including Shaun King, who reaches millions of people.”
The Appeal’s opaque, top-down decision-making and its toxic work environment go hand-in-hand. Sources say there’s little recourse for staffers to raise concerns to anyone internally, and that Tides Advocacy human resources is distant and unhelpful.
Ethan Brown is a senior editor at The Appeal. Over the years, multiple staffers have complained to management about his behavior and treatment. He’s been accused of verbally lashing out at employees and getting disproportionately upset over minor misunderstandings. In 2018, Daniel Denvir, who now hosts The Dig, was freelancing regularly for The Appeal. In May of that year, he wrote a story about civil asset forfeiture, which Brown was assigned to edit. Denvir said Brown accidentally introduced an error into the story during editing, and that the story was published with the error. Upon realizing what happened, Denvir got in touch with Brown to let him know. Denvir said Brown called him and berated him, saying the error was his fault. “Even though it was obvious from the track changes that it was not me,” Denvir said, “[Brown] insisted that it was my fault.”
Denvir said he told then-EIC Sarah Leonard what had happened. “I asked for some sort of rectification and apology, and to work with a different editor,” he said. Denvir also made a complaint to Tides Advocacy HR, at which point he was barred from writing anything for The Appeal until Tides HR had completed an investigation into the matter. “I said that this feels like retaliation,” Denvir told Defector. “I'm making a complaint about being mistreated by an editor and I'm barred from writing and thus making income that is expected.” He said the investigation took about four months and yielded nothing. Tides human resources executive Ashley Bastinelli said, “When we learn of any concerns, we work together with The Appeal’s leadership to immediately respond to questions, address issues and investigate as appropriate.” She also said, “Daniel Denvir was an independent contractor with The Appeal in 2018. When he reached out to Tides Advocacy HR regarding a complaint, the organization responded promptly and investigated. Our records indicate we concluded the investigation and resolved the matter by early August. Tides Advocacy would not tolerate any retaliatory action.”
Denvir isn’t the only person to have complained about unsettling experiences with Brown. Multiple current and former Appeal staffers and freelancers describe him as an uncooperative editor, who expects reporters to craft stories that match his exact ideas for what they should be, but say that the problem goes beyond gruff editing. Jess Pishko said he once told her she “lacked critical thinking skills.” A young freelancer told Defector that Brown threatened to kill her story with every round of edits. Multiple reporters said they have refused to work with him and have complained about his behavior to both Matt Ferner and Josie Duffy Rice, the former president of The Appeal, who left the organization earlier this month. Before Debbie Nathan left in 2019, she sent an email to The Appeal’s then-EIC Sarah Leonard that read:
I am having a very difficult time with Ethan as my editor. I realize that things at The Appeal are busy if not jammed, and I hope to resolve the problem with no disruption to our publication's busy process. I can explain things at length, with documentation if you'd like, when we get a chance to speak. But in short, I've been edited for 38 years by daily, weekly, monthly, and every other kind of editors for the mainstream press, the left press, the scholarly press, print, online, everything you can imagine with scores of editors. I deeply appreciate editors and have a reputation for being easy to work with. But what I am experiencing now is unique and does not feel like editing.
Lauren Gill was a freelancer for The Appeal before she was hired full-time in May 2019. She said she was paid well as a freelancer and was excited to start what she called her “dream job." She began working with Brown, and she said she was excited to learn from him as a veteran journalist. Within a few weeks, she had reconsidered. One of Gill’s area of expertise is the death penalty; she’s published numerous reports and investigations about death penalty cases, including at The Appeal. But Brown told her that death penalty reporting didn’t fit with The Appeal’s targeted areas of coverage. In an email from October 22, 2019, Brown explained that Gill couldn’t cover the death penalty because it doesn’t “drive incarceration” and because “the practice is an extraordinarily marginal part of the criminal legal system.” He also asserted it wasn’t in The Appeal’s “wheelhouse.” He wrote:
The wheelhouse is critical to what we do and it’s critical we produce stories. We’ve determined that most DP stories just are not a part of the wheelhouse, with some exceptions that I already identified. Of course, when DP stories come up that are in our wheelhouse, we’d love to do them.
But we need you—and all of our staff reporters—to focus on a wider variety of stories, while of course, again, you can keep a look out for that exceptional DP story that works for us. I know that Matt and Josie feel the same way about our wheelhouse, but if any of this isn’t clear we can schedule a call with them to discuss this further if you need to.
Gill asked to set up a call with Ferner and Duffy Rice, but she said the call never happened. Gill and Brown's working relationship was rocky; at one point, she responded to a note he left in a Google doc and Brown responded to her by accusing her of arguing. He then sent her an email, reviewed by Defector, that said she “must submit to the editorial process and trust the judgment and discretion of your editor.” Brown continued: “This is non-negotiable, a baseline issue for making both the work itself—and the process behind it—successful. And here's what happens when we take valuable time to argue about guidance: we lose focus on the edit.”
Gill said she had been focused on the edit. “I thought I was just taking part in the normal editorial process,” she told Defector.
Gill said she made Duffy Rice aware of her issues with Brown and that Duffy Rice acknowledged there had been other complaints about Brown. Duffy Rice told Defector she didn’t remember the specific interaction but said she remembered talking to Gill about “her desire to be edited by someone other than Ethan.” Gill was reassigned to another editor, Craig Hunter, with whom she had a good and productive working relationship for more than a year, until November 2020 when Ferner abruptly laid her off, citing budget concerns. After a frustrating conversation with Ferner, Gill had a call with The Appeal’s senior counsel, Jake Sussman.
According to contemporaneous notes from the call reviewed by Defector, Gill told Sussman that there was a pattern of successful senior women leaving or being pushed out at The Appeal. According to the notes, he acknowledged the problem, saying he was acutely aware of and sensitive to it. Sussman did not respond to Defector’s request for comment. (In Smith’s Monday email, he announced that Sussman, along with another executive Alex Bassos, would be leaving their full-time roles to be consultants. According to the most recent 990 from Tides Advocacy, each Sussman and Bassos made more than $170,000 plus tens of thousands in additional compensation.)
Though Ferner cited budget cuts as the reason for why Gill was let go, The Appeal posted a job for a senior reporter shortly after her departure. The Appeal also began covering the death penalty, publishing multiple death penalty stories in the months after Gill left the company. In subsequent emails and communications between Gill, Sussman, and Tides Advocacy, which were reviewed by Defector, The Appeal’s position was that Gill was laid off because there were problems with her productivity. But Hunter, Gill’s editor at the time of her layoff and the editor with whom she worked for the majority of her time at The Appeal, confirmed to Defector that he had never had any issues with Gill or her work and that even though he was her editor when she was laid off, he was not consulted about the decision. Hunter is also no longer at The Appeal. Ethan Brown did not respond to a detailed request for comment. In his statement to Defector, Smith said, “Any claim of abuse, harassment, or discrimination in our workplace would be escalated to Tides Advocacy and its HR team. There has never been any finding or determination of abusive, harassing, or discriminatory behavior toward staff.”
Multiple current reporters told Defector that they were hired with the understanding that they could pitch and report their own stories only to find a stilted editorial hierarchy in which management would announce different editorial priorities, or “coverage busts,” as they were coined, every couple weeks. If reporters and editors could wedge their own ideas into these narrow windows, they would be allowed to report them. More often than not, however, their pitches were ignored and managers, namely Ferner and Smith, assigned stories directly or through other editors. The coverage priorities and process for pitching stories were constantly shifting, multiple people said, making it hard for reporters to establish a beat and cultivate sources. They were always spinning from one topic to the next with little idea of why the topics were being chosen.
An example of one such “coverage burst,” multiple sources say, was a focus on Mayors, announced in late January of this year. According to an internal Google document created by Smith, reporters were directed to single-mindedly blame Mayors for a city’s problems. Under the subhead “Examples of stories we are looking to cover for Mayors,” one bullet point read: “Make them take responsibility for the police. The police solve 50% of homicides? Let’s find the mother of a kid that was murdered, have her hold up his picture, talk about how the police didn’t do enough to solve it and the mayor didn’t care.” Another said: “Needles on the street? Take a picture. Have a mom talk about how she’s scared to walk down the street, and have her ask the mayor why he doesn’t hire people to pick them up and throw the needle away? Basically, make this the mayor’s issues--and do it by contrasting stupid spending. Same thing for homelessness tents. Etc.”
“It’s like manufacturing stories that he wants to see,” said a current editorial staffer. “And using people really extractively, who have experienced trauma.”
Smith declined to comment on the Mayor-specific coverage burst, but addressed the editorial process, saying: “We are a unique media organization in that we tell one story through different lenses (e.g. reporting, commentary, a white paper, a produced video) that require tight coordination across the various verticals. Everything we publish goes to the managing editors of each of our verticals to determine if they are a good fit.”
In late March, Rob Smith assembled the staff of The Appeal for a meeting. Smith wanted to address an anonymous Medium post that had been published, which accused the organization of having a toxic work environment, as well as the existence of several stories about The Appeal and its treatment of staff, especially women, that he said he knew were in the works. He marshalled his managers, and struck a contrite tone:
First of all, the buck stops with me, and I'm very sorry, personally, and as somebody who's leading an organization for my role in contributing to a culture where anybody feels, former staff or current staff, like this is a place that’s toxic. … We never want to be able to have a culture that looks like that. And part of the problem here is not just, you know, affirmative actions, but inaction to sort of do the hard work to be able to build a positive culture where people feel like they belong and feel like it's inclusive, and I want to say I'm sorry for that and we are really going to lean in and spend a bunch of time, not just in the moment, but over a long period of time to make sure that our that our culture reflects our values.
But it wasn’t until months later, after workers organized and forced management to contend with their demands, that anything changed. And even now, amid yet another organizational restructuring, the hard work of ensuring that The Appeal’s culture reflects its values still needs to be done. The union, which already succeeded in pausing the layoffs, plans to be involved in that process.
“We are grateful that management came to its senses, paused its plan to lay off nearly one-third of our bargaining unit, and granted our union voluntary recognition,” said The Appeal reporter Jerry Iannelli, as a spokesperson for the union. “We as a staff are committed to The Appeal’s mission and to making this a fair, safe, and just workplace for all people. We look forward to a positive working relationship with management going forward.”
What role Smith and the other bosses, having retreated from their executive jobs into part-time advisory roles, will have to play in this process is still unclear. It is similarly unclear how much money the trio will go on earning for their consulting work. Smith declined to answer Defector’s question about whether he and the other executives will still be drawing a salary in their new roles. The Appeal union stands ready to ask these questions.
“Management has provided next to zero clarity as to what Rob Smith’s role at the organization will be from here on out. Management must also explain why it feels that it ought to retain another top-level position at an already top-heavy organization while, at the same time, requesting massive, company-wide layoffs. We will be asking for clarity on these issues from management in the coming days,” Iannelli said. “We look forward to changing this place for the better."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that an anonymous Medium post that accused The Appeal of having a toxic workplace had been deleted.