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May 10, 2021, 2:51 p.m.

Staffers at The Appeal announced they had formed a union. Five minutes later, management announced layoffs.

The nonprofit news site focused on criminal justice reform has a vision for “an America where stability and dignity are within everyone’s reach.” Some of its employees say you wouldn’t know that from its management.

This morning, staffers at The Appeal — a nonprofit news site focused primarily on issues of criminal justice — made the sort of announcement that’s become remarkably commonplace over the past couple of years: They were forming a union. And honestly, these days, that move is as much about a tweet as a filing with the NLRB.

There was one paragraph in the announcement that stood out as a sign of something deeper going on (emphasis mine):

Over the last year, management has repeatedly shifted our structure and goals as an organization, including one major restructuring. Talented journalists, legal experts, researchers, communications workers, and audience engagement staff have been laid off or have felt that they were being pushed out. In the last year, 38 people have left. The Appeal typically has a staff of around 50. The majority of those who left were people of color, and more than two-thirds were women. This high turnover rate isn’t an aberration; it’s part of a years-long trend. In the last four and a half years, at least 70 people have left the organization.

That is…a lot of turnover.

But the nascent Appeal Union didn’t have long to enjoy that initial wash of likes and RTs, because five minutes later, The Appeal announced layoffs and restructuring.

Some highlights from executive director Rob Smith (I’ll paste the full memo, along with the union’s announcement, below):

  • The Appeal is leaving Tides Advocacy and the Tides Center to become an independent nonprofit organization. “This process has started and expect it will be complete in the coming months and The Appeal will be an independent organization later this summer.”

    Tides serves as fiscal sponsor for a lot of young nonprofit organizations, most of them generally on the left, until they obtain 501(c)3 or other nonprofit tax status. It also provides operational support. The Appeal was initially a project of The Justice Collaborative, which was fiscally sponsored by Tides.

    But back in January, Smith announced that The Justice Collaborative’s staff was being folded into The Appeal’s. The news site was initially focused on the criminal justice system, but it had since “expanded to include housing and homelessness, economic stability, climate change, and other policies affecting our most vulnerable communities.”

  • “We have made the difficult decision to significantly reduce the size of our team…to better align our organization with our mission and protect the longterm stability of The Appeal amidst volatility in the funding landscape and an anticipated loss to our budget.”
  • Smith calls The Appeal a “top heavy organization” and announced the departure of himself as executive director, Jake Sussman as COO/general counsel, and Alex Bassos as chief of products. (All three will remain in part-time advising or consulting roles.) Editor-in-chief Matt Ferner will run The Appeal day to day.

    According to its most recent 990 filing, Smith, Sussman, and Bassos took home salaries of $229,713, $170,416, and $170,159, respectively, in 2019.

  • The Appeal is eliminating its audience team, as well as several editor and fact-checker positions: “The Appeal has more people on its audience team than it has reporters, a holdover structure from The Justice Collaborative. That is not sustainable. Similarly, The Appeal has more editors and fact checkers than reporters, which is not sustainable especially with the smaller team that we will have going forward.”

(Smith also says that he plans “to be OOO for two weeks starting this Wednesday.” Whatever “out of the office” means these days.)

The leadership of The Appeal is thick with lawyers — Smith was a law prof at UNC, Bassos is a former public defender, Sussman practiced civil rights law — so I assume they’re at least broadly aware of Section 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, which makes taking action against employees because of their support of a union illegal. And what could scream “retaliation” more than announcing layoffs five minutes after a union is announced?

Questionable labor practices would seem particularly dangerous for an outfit like The Appeal, which writes extensively about matters of justice and the law and which is intertwined with a larger network of progressive organizations, foundations, funders, and outlets.

On the flip side, a large share of The Appeal’s funding has come from the tech world — an industry known for mixing progressive views on some issues with, shall we say, less than enthusiastic feelings about organized labor. The Appeal has received grants of more than $1 million each from the foundations of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, as well as a donor-advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

I will also note, though, that from looking at The Appeal’s 49-person staff list, calling it a top-heavy editorial operation seems…pretty accurate. It lists 22 people with “editor” job titles (including an editor-in-chief, three editorial directors, seven managing editors, and six senior editors) versus 4 with “reporter” titles. The Appeal stories I’ve read have been high quality, but their publishing frequency isn’t high for an operation of its size; its RSS feed shows 31 stories published in the 40 days since the start of April. (They also publish some other types of content, like a podcast and live video interviews.)

The staff page only lists two audience staffers, though — both of them women of color — which wouldn’t be “more people on its audience team than it has reporters.” Of course, job titles can be squishy, some editors do a lot of writing, YMMV. And, most importantly, even a legitimate need to restructure wouldn’t justify retaliating against unionization.

A year ago, The Appeal only listed a smaller subset of its staff on its masthead, but of the 22 people posted there then, 9 are no longer listed as staffers. A number of past Appeal employees tweeted out support for their former colleagues.

A couple of weeks ago, Appeal president Josie Duffy Rice announced she would be stepping down “in early May.” This morning, she expressed support for the new union and offered support to laid-off staffer Ethan Corey.

We’ll see where this goes next. But until then, it’s pretty clear The Appeal has been subject to some muddled leadership — and today’s response from management lengthens the odds of an improved relationship with its workers.

Here’s the initial union announcement:

As staff from all departments of The Appeal, we are proud of the work we do every day to produce powerful reporting, live interviews, research, and analysis. We are glad to be part of a mission-driven media organization that exposes injustices, holds those in power accountable, and uplifts ideas that can transform our country’s harmful systems.

The Appeal began as part of a start-up organization, The Justice Collaborative, several years ago with a mission to correct injustices in the criminal legal system and has since broadened its scope. Now, The Appeal strives to help create a society where stability and dignity are within everyone’s reach. We are committed to this vision. It’s why we all wanted to work here in the first place.

But we have urgent concerns that The Appeal is straying from this mission.

Over the last year, management has repeatedly shifted our structure and goals as an organization, including one major restructuring. Talented journalists, legal experts, researchers, communications workers, and audience engagement staff have been laid off or have felt that they were being pushed out. In the last year, 38 people have left. The Appeal typically has a staff of around 50. The majority of those who left were people of color, and more than two-thirds were women. This high turnover rate isn’t an aberration; it’s part of a years-long trend. In the last four and a half years, at least 70 people have left the organization.

Those who remain are left to deal with the fallout from repeatedly losing fellow team members and the institutional knowledge that goes with them. Some staff members have been repeatedly reassigned to multiple teams and jobs, sometimes in areas they know little about. 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 the very reasons they were hired. More and more of our day-to-day workflow and assignments are dictated from above, with little input from the people responsible for carrying them out and little transparency around these decisions. Some staffers have even experienced demeaning treatment by management. To justify all of this, management’s refrain has been that The Appeal is a “low democracy” workplace.

It is our goal to create a high democracy workplace — one where the staff has a seat at the table when it comes to working conditions, job security, and decision-making. That is why we have formed a union with the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents legacy media like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Thomson Reuters, along with mission-driven publications like The Nation, Daily Kos, and Jacobin.

This union is in the best interest of The Appeal’s staff, management, and audience. We want to create a workplace where we can offer feedback without fear of retaliation, and where exceptionally high rates of turnover are no longer the norm. We know that The Appeal can be a place that is stable, compassionate, just, and transparent, where racial and gender equity are priorities, not buzzwords, and where we all have a say in the direction of the organization.

We ask that The Appeal’s management commit to a collaborative, good-faith relationship by voluntarily recognizing our union and respecting our right to organize.

Signed,

Seanniece Bamiro, Bilal Baydoun, Molly Bernstein, Rachel Brody, Sarah Clements, Ethan Corey, Chris Gelardi, Molly Greene, Alon Gur, Jerry Lannelli, Brandi McNeil, Meg O’Connor, Sam Schuyler, Erik Shute, Sarah Silins, Anna Simonton, Joshua Vaughn, Malecia Walker, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, Nick Wing, Emily Wonder, and the rest of the The Appeal Union

And here’s the memo from Rob Smith:

Hi Team:

I have some news to share that will impact the future of our work and The Appeal. Like many organizations, we have had to adapt over the years to meet the emerging needs of the communities we serve while staying viable as an organization to do our job: provide news and analysis that public officials, journalists, advocates, and scholars use to solve the problems that keep everyday people up at night.

In assessing the funding landscape, our mission, and our structure, I, along with the leadership team, have made the decision to spin The Appeal away from Tides Advocacy and Tides Center to become an independent nonprofit organization. This process has started and expect it will be complete in the coming months and The Appeal will be an independent organization later this summer.

As part of this restructuring, we have made the difficult decision to significantly reduce the size of our team. We need to do this to better align our organization with our mission and protect the longterm stability of The Appeal amidst volatility in the funding landscape and an anticipated loss to our budget.

We have become a top heavy organization, and so the cuts start at the top. Accordingly, I am stepping back as Executive Director, and taking on a part-time role as Founder & Senior Advisor. Jake Sussman and Alex Bassos are leaving their full-time roles at the organization, as well. Both will consult with The Appeal on legal, operations, and programmatic needs. Sara Yousuf is also leaving to pursue a local criminal justice opportunity. Whether or when to replace or restructure any of these roles will be assessed on an ongoing basis

Matt Ferner, as Editor-in-Chief, is the right person to lead the day-to-day operations of The Appeal into its next chapter as a standalone organization. Keisha Hudson will remain at the organization as managing director, working closely with Matt on content and Jessica Murphy on operations, with Rachel Marcuse advising on people..

With our budget outlook in mind, the additional reductions to the team are driven by our mission and ensuring we have the right roles and the right staffing levels to make sure The Appeal continues to have the biggest impact possible.

That starts with restructuring The Appeal around its core mission: providing impactful reporting and analysis. To do that, we are creating a more traditional newsroom communications structure by eliminating the audience team. The Appeal has more people on its audience team than it has reporters, a holdover structure from The Justice Collaborative. That is not sustainable. Similarly, The Appeal has more editors and fact checkers than reporters, which is not sustainable especially with the smaller team that we will have going forward. So, we are eliminating several editor positions and placing fact-checking responsibilities with senior editors.

While these changes are being made to ensure the important work The Appeal does will continue, they also mean some of us will be leaving or shifting roles. The people who are leaving The Appeal helped us build this organization, and, more than that, they are our colleagues and our friends. We’ve reached out directly with every person whose role is implicated, and we are offering severance packages that align with our commitment to ensuring every person is treated fairly within resources we have as a non-profit organization.

Moving forward, with these significant changes, The Appeal’s budget is stable not only for this year, but for multiple years, which provides a solid foundation moving into the future. Our work, and the way we do it, remains the same. I’m so proud of what we’ve all built together, and it’s been incredible to see the team work together over these past few months since we ended TJC and relaunched The Appeal. These steps will allow the organization to continue to produce reporting and analysis that leaders use to solve problems for everyday people, and to do so in a way that is sustainable. While Matt takes over the day-to-day leadership of The Appeal, will continue to support him and the organization with everything I’ve got.

People across the leadership team will be reaching out to staff today and in the coming days to answer any questions. We will also be having follow-up conversations with team members as we get closer to the official departure date from Tides to talk logistics of the employment transition.

I plan to be OOO for two weeks starting this Wednesday but will be available to talk at anytime, so please don’t hesitate to reach out.

With my deepest gratitude, Rob

POSTED     May 10, 2021, 2:51 p.m.
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