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Journalismism

The Staff Of The Appeal Is Ready To Make Something New

Staffers from The Appeal, a criminal justice news outlet that was upended last month when workers rebelled against failed and toxic management, announced today plans to relaunch the site as a worker-led news organization. 

“We are not giving up on the mission that has made The Appeal a leader in covering the U.S. criminal legal system and the harms that extend from it,” the Appeal Transition Team said in a statement. “Although the events of the past few months have been difficult, we now have an incredible opportunity to write a new chapter for The Appeal that builds on our successes and improves our workplace.” 

The transition is being led by a group of workers from The Appeal who believe there is a need for their journalism that challenges existing narratives about mass incarceration, grassroots movements, policing, policy, and reports on people and stories that are often overlooked in other media. While setting up a democratically controlled newsroom is a challenge, especially given the overwhelmingly top-down nature of the broader media landscape, it will, in some ways, be easier to manage than what the workers have had to navigate to get to this point.

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The Reckoning At The Appeal Was A Long Time Coming

In May, staffers at the criminal justice news outlet—fed up with years of failed management, hypocritical power dynamics, and a toxic executive director—formed a union to demand more accountability and transparency. Immediately following the union announcement, The Appeal bosses announced they were laying off one third of the proposed bargaining unit. Facing pressure from the union and public outcry, management reversed course, paused the layoffs, and recognized the union. But still the future of The Appeal was uncertain. On May 10, executive director Rob Smith, who, as Defector reported, personally contributed to an unhealthy and rigidly hierarchical workplace, said in an email that he would be assuming a smaller role at the organization. There remained questions about what that role would be, and if his hefty salary would still come with it. Smith also said two other bosses that made up the organization’s bloated executive level, Jake Sussman and Alex Bassos, would be leaving their full-time roles, but that they would continue to be consultants for The Appeal (on what they would consult was also unclear). And, Smith said, Editor-in-Chief Matt Ferner would take over the running of the organization; Ferner resigned not long after he was tapped to lead The Appeal, following reports that also implicated him in the workplace’s dysfunction. 

After weeks of silence from higher-ups, followed by weeks of meetings between the union, The Appeal executive leadership, and representatives from Tides Advocacy, The Appeal’s fiscal sponsor, the latter two parties made an announcement: The Appeal would be shutting down on June 30, and everyone would be losing their jobs. Workers were offered severance, and reps for The Appeal’s brand new union went to work negotiating a better package. In the end, the union was able to nearly triple the amount of severance given to each employee, representatives from The Appeal’s transition team told Defector. The ultimately generous severance package is key, the transition team says, as it gives the workers, all of whom are volunteering their time, a longer runway to get the new organization up and running. 

In a call with Defector, six members of the roughly 20 reporters, editors, and lawyers who are part of the effort to relaunch The Appeal laid out the steps they’re taking. They said Tides Advocacy and the former Appeal management have agreed to transfer all intellectual property rights, and that Scalawag, a non-profit newsroom that covers class, food, queerness, abolition, literature, and blackness in the American South, has partnered with them to enable a small-dollar donation campaign that will cover the fees associated with filing and legal fees associated with setting up a new legal entity. The transition team says that the success of the fundraising campaign, which has an option for a recurring monthly donation, could help them decide what a future business model may look like. 

“I think that if we see that there’s enthusiasm for that we can build toward whether it’s subscription or membership,” said Anna Simonton, a senior editor at The Appeal who is also now the new effort’s interim director of fundraising, one of four elected posts within the transition team.

In the meantime, the team says they’re pausing news production while they establish themselves under a new fiscal sponsor, create editorial coverage priorities, and connect with donors; Simonton says she’s reached out to several of The Appeal’s donors and that she’s optimistic after hearing back from one fund that was previously a top donor. 

“We’re hopeful that our next steps of outreach will be fruitful as well,” she said. 

While there’s not much precedent for cooperatively run newsrooms, the staffers at least have a good idea of what they don’t want to be, and they’re committed to avoiding the failures of their predecessor. 

“One of the issues […] that had come up at The Appeal was lack of equity for women and for people of color, and particularly, women of color and a tendency of the organization to push those people out,” said Molly Greene, a lawyer and writer for The Appeal who is now the transition team’s interim director of legal and finance. “Our goal is to create a space where we can bring in the representation that we really think this organization deserves, and that this work deserves, at every level of the organization, from reporting to Editor-in-Chief.”

The transition team sees this effort as an opportunity, not only to create a better workplace for themselves but to change the ways in which power is conceived, both in the newsroom and in their work covering exploitation, injustice and inequality in the criminal legal system.

“I’m obviously a little terrified, but incredibly excited and inspired,” senior reporter and transition team member Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg said. “If you had told me nine months ago that […] we would actually be able to take over The Appeal and run it in a way that aligns with our values and our commitment to challenging this incredibly inhumane system, I never would have believed it. So, I keep thinking that as scared as I feel now, it is a hundred times better than I felt three months ago when I felt totally disempowered.”