Staff in The Appeal’s Crusading Newsroom Spent Years Fighting Its ‘Cruel’ Culture

·13 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Belittling 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 years—before it all burst into public on Monday.

The publication’s editorial staff announced on Monday morning that they were forming an editorial union, partially as a response to what they said was “demeaning” treatment by managers and high turnover, particularly among nonwhite staff.

“The 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,” 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.

Monday’s 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 organization’s mission, Smith’s leadership created a workplace that encouraged some managers to treat staff—especially female employees—callously. “None of the female reporters felt safe approaching [the top editors] to discuss even everyday work issues, let alone problems in the workplace,” 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 murder of George Floyd by police. 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 Trace—small, mission-driven, and in The Appeal’s case, focused on exposing the law enforcement agencies overzealously putting people behind bars.

But over the past several years, frustrations have grown among the organization’s 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. She’d singled out Smith and another editor at The Appeal, Ethan Brown, whom she said told her during a heated dispute that she “didn’t have critical thinking skills.” 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.

“He fostered an environment in which it was not just acceptable but rewarded for people to be cruel and inappropriate,” she said of Smith. “He told me once that he didn't want to hear anything about what I thought, he just wanted me to do what he wanted.”

Others ran into similar issues when they made more formal filed complaints.

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Daniel 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,” Denvir told The Daily Beast. “And 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 site’s editor-in-chief Matt Ferner he would become “aggressive and angry,” which she said made her “scared to speak out.”

In 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 Appeal’s deeper integration with TJC. The email sparked a blowup from Ferner.

“Though 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,” she said in an email to human resources. “He then went on to cancel the meeting by sending out an email threatening our jobs if we raised further concerns.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, The Appeal did not respond to individual incidents, but said that “any claim of abuse, harassment, or discrimination in our workplace would be escalated to Tides Advocacy and its HR team,” and that there has “never been any finding or determination of abusive behavior toward staff.”

Still, the organization said it was seeking an independent review of its workplace policies and practices.

“As 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.”

The 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 organization’s 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 “every source of funding for TJC and for The Appeal,” and expressed concern that donors may be “participating in editorial processes and decisions,” and “some editorial staff at The Appeal may personally be controlling the distribution of donations for work related to The Appeal.”

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“Just 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,” staff wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Daily Beast. “Currently, our website and overall procedures do not make this distinction clear.”

The 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 organization’s advocates to add expert voices and context to The Appeal’s journalism. In leadership’s eyes, journalists joining The Appeal knew that they were being hired by an explicitly ideological outfit that was directly related to the organization’s work crafting progressive criminal legal policy and working to elect local officials who hewed closer to those goals.

But the organization’s 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 “run” by TJC. The line set off Ferner, who described the Chronicle story as “some bullshit.”

“The Justice Collaborative does not ‘run’ The Appeal,” he wrote. “The Appeal is editorially independent from TJC. The staff of the award-winning Appeal "runs" The Appeal, ffs.”

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But Ferner’s 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 “25% of our content should be content we decide to accept from cross-TJC pitches.” And when asked about the relationship between the two earlier this year, Ferner said in a statement to The Daily Beast that the organization’s “porous boundaries were a feature, not a bug.”

“We 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,” Ferner said in a statement. “We reject the notion of ‘objective’ 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 that’s okay, but we are deeply proud of it.”

Still, 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 Appeal’s 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 publication’s website.

“With 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 readers’ understanding of how those crises are harming everyday people,” The Appeal’s then-president Josie Duffy Rice said in a release. “We’re excited for what we have in store for the coming months.”

But that transition hasn’t gone smoothly.

The Appeal’s 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 Appeal’s 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,” lawmakers, advocates, or others, in order to solicit around two dozens weekly “citations,” 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 organization’s 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 organization’s 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 organization’s 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-ed’s publication also influenced the organization’s president Josie Duffy Rice’s 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 organization’s future is uncertain.

The Appeal’s staffers are hoping the unionization effort brings employees increased power in the newsroom. In a statement, the organization said it “supports unions” and was “working with our fiscal sponsor Tides Center towards recognizing the effort announced today.” Many of the organization’s leaders including Smith are also stepping back for the first time in the publication’s history, an opportunity that some on staff hope will change the organization’s culture.

“The place is a dumpster fire,” another staffer said. “We are squandering a collection of unbelievably talented and dedicated people.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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