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June 30, 2021, 2:44 p.m.

The Appeal is dead, long live The Appeal: Muddled management is shutting down the news site, but also handing it over to its staff

Management of the justice-and-policing-focused news org: “It became clear that The Appeal could not continue in its current form.” Staffers: “Today we are officially announcing the worker-led effort to relaunch The Appeal.”

The criminal justice reform site The Appeal has had several courtrooms’ worth of drama the past few months, and it appears the differences are officially irreconcilable. An unusual joint announcement today from the site’s management and staff said The Appeal is officially dead — but hoping to be reborn:

After years of groundbreaking reporting and analysis, The Appeal will sunset in its current form on June 30. Staff are working to relaunch in the near future.

We are saddened to share that The Appeal will be closing on June 30. However, we are excited to support the staff who are committed to relaunching The Appeal and carrying on our important work.

June 30 being…today. So not a lot of advance notice. (Though it appears the union knew where things were headed.) Here’s management’s take on this — management here being executive director and founder Rob Smith, The Appeal advisory board (Anne Irwin, Sophie Cull, and Zack Malitz), and fiscal agent Tides Center and Tides Advocacy.

After more than three years of providing groundbreaking reporting and analysis aimed at solving the problems of discrimination, inequity and injustice in our society, we have decided to sunset The Appeal in its current form at the end of June. This was a difficult decision but one we believe is most consistent with our mission and values, responsibly manages our existing funding, and provides some level of stability for the people who have given so much to The Appeal.

As we have evaluated the challenging funding landscape, a fiscal restructuring, and changes in the project leadership, it became clear that The Appeal could not continue in its current form. This decision comes after extensive engagement with The Appeal Union, funders, and other stakeholders, and the consideration of various alternative pathways forward.

Founded in 2018 as a mission-driven media organization covering the criminal legal system, The Appeal quickly grew into an influential outlet that produced rigorous reporting and analysis regularly cited by leading policymakers, journalists, scholars, and advocates. In addition to mass incarceration and policing, The Appeal’s coverage included housing and homelessness, economic stability, and other policies affecting our most vulnerable communities. We are extraordinarily proud of the work that The Appeal has produced and the impact it has had in the community.

This is not the outcome we had planned or hoped for The Appeal. There has been an incredible amount of time, energy, talent, and resources devoted to this organization, and we are grateful to all who contributed to it. We are especially grateful to the remarkable people who have worked here and their deep commitment to The Appeal’s mission.

We support the staff who are committed to relaunching The Appeal and are hopeful about what’s to come. We are in ongoing discussions with them about their plans to carry on the work of The Appeal.

And here’s “The Appeal Transition Team”:

Today we are officially announcing the worker-led effort to relaunch The Appeal.

The executive director of The Appeal, The Appeal Advisory Board, and our fiscal sponsor, Tides Advocacy, have decided to shut down The Appeal in its current form on June 30, despite our union’s best efforts.

But we, the workers, are not giving up on the mission that has made The Appeal a leading national voice on the harms and injustice of the U.S. criminal legal system.

On the heels of our union wins and the public’s overwhelming support of that effort, a majority of us have formed a transition team that is taking steps to ensure that we can continue our vital journalism.

For the time being, we will be working without pay to get this up and running. To support efforts to relaunch The Appeal, please make a monthly or one-time donation here. (Donations will be made to Scalawag, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit newsroom assisting the effort to relaunch.)

We are so proud of what we have accomplished so far. Our work has challenged prevailing narratives about crime and punishment and uplifted stories and voices that traditional media so often leaves behind. We have exposed injustices, sparked protests and grassroots activism, and inspired legislation that shrinks the footprint of policing and incarceration.

This is an incredible opportunity to write a new chapter for The Appeal that builds on our successes and improves our workplace. As we move forward, we will create an Appeal where racial and gender equity are priorities, and where we all have a say in the direction of the organization. Being worker-directed will help us achieve these goals and set us apart in a challenging media landscape.

The most significant sequence of events leading to this point came on May 10, when in a five-minute span, Appeal staffers announced they were forming a union and Appeal management announced layoffs. That exchange opened the lid on a litany of staff complaints, including very high rates of turnover (especially among women and people of color) and ever-shifting management priorities.

What management announced on May 10, beyond the layoffs, hasn’t all aged well. The Appeal was in the process of leaving Tides Center and Tides Advocacy to become an independent nonprofit organization, it said; given that Tides is cited here as part of the decision to shut down, that process apparently didn’t quite reach the finish line. (It might be worth noting that Tides has had three different CEOs since 2019.)

Rob Smith also announced then he was “stepping back as Executive Director” to become an advisor to The Appeal — but again, that transition apparently never happened, given today’s announcement. Day-to-day operations were being taken over by editor-in-chief Matt Ferner, Smith said, but Ferner reportedly resigned his job soon after. Management also announced other staffing changes at that time, but The Appeal took down its staff page at some point in recent weeks, so it’s hard to judge. (Here’s what it looked like a month ago.)

One thing I’ll note from today’s dueling press releases: Smith says he’s proud of the work The Appeal published on topics “in addition to mass incarceration and policing…included housing and homelessness, economic stability, and other policies affecting our most vulnerable communities.” The staff statement highlights “the harms and injustice of the U.S. criminal legal system” and having “challenged prevailing narratives about crime and punishment” and “inspired legislation that shrinks the footprint of policing and incarceration.”

The subject-matter expansion from criminal justice to, well, all facets of inequality in America was puzzling to me. (Today, “Justice” is listed as only one of the four major topics the site covers, alongside “Housing,” “Politics,” and “Economy.”) Not because that broader work is unworthy, of course — just because The Appeal already had a clear focus in place, and nonprofit news orgs tend to benefit from focus. I wouldn’t expect to see The Marshall Project expand into covering K-12 testing controversies, or Chalkbeat into mandatory minimums for multi-offense felons, or Kaiser Health News into public housing reform. That topical muddle could be a metaphor for much of The Appeal’s leadership, which seemed pulled in a lot of directions — each one potentially reasonable, incompatible as a unified whole.

The site’s union and staff are focused on looking forward — building a new, worker-led iteration of The Appeal. That’s thoroughly understandable, given both the size of the task ahead of them and the possibilities they must see for a news organization under their collective leadership. (The Appeal had a staff of around 50 people, so there’s a lot of money to be raised, no matter how much that number gets pared down for The Appeal 2.0.) Laura Wagner at Defector has some good details on the staffers’ plans, as well as the fact that Tides has agreed to transfer The Appeal’s intellectual property to them — so there shouldn’t even be a need to change the name.

But just for a moment, before you head off to donate, let’s look backwards and reflect on what a goddamn fiasco this all was. A nonprofit news site launches with millions in philanthropic funding, assembles a talented staff, and produces some very good journalism — and then has the incredible luck to be focused on policing and criminal justice reform at precisely the national moment when those subjects take center stage. This should be The Appeal’s shining moment! Instead, its leaders managed to build an organization troubled enough to drive off two-thirds of its staff in 12 months and prompt a union drive that it then tried clumsily to step on. (After all, what could be better for a left-of-center nonprofit than to be seen as anti-union, right?)

Just last month, they were saying “The Appeal’s budget is stable not only for this year, but for multiple years, which provides a solid foundation moving into the future.” And now they have to shut the whole place down, today, in part because of “the challenging funding landscape”? That takes a special kind of mismanagement.

POSTED     June 30, 2021, 2:44 p.m.
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