‘Good stories don’t come from the top down,’ says worker-led media project in the US


The Appeal was a media organisation covering mass incarceration, policing, housing and homelessness in the US. But after its owners shut it down at the end of June, its workers began a campaign to restart it as a worker-led outlet.

Phoenix Media Co-op asked The Appeal Union about the workers’ plan to relaunch.

Unionisation, and the story behind the closure

The Appeal Union described the weeks leading up to the closure of the website:

On May 10, The Appeal workers informed management we had formed a union and made a public announcement explaining our reasons for unionizing. We took action because our leadership had cultivated what they termed a ‘low-democracy’ workplace, where we had little say over news coverage and other aspects of our work. The problems that stemmed from this approach led to extremely high turnover, especially for people of color and women. By unionizing, we aimed to create a high-democracy workplace, where we could prioritize issues like racial and gender equity and transparent decision-making.

Then, it said:

A few minutes after our announcement, we received an email from management telling us there would be leadership changes and layoffs. We fought back against the layoffs and, thanks to an outpouring of public support, we got management to voluntarily recognize the union and halt the layoffs.

About two weeks later, Rob Smith, The Appeal’s executive director, notified the union that management and our fiscal sponsor, Tides Advocacy, were closing the organization and laying off all employees by June 30, citing financial concerns.

“Organizing is one the few tools workers can use to level the playing field”

The union continued by saying:

We began negotiations to secure a fair severance package for all workers at The Appeal. During negotiations, the bargaining committee approached management and Tides about staff’s desire to keep The Appeal going. Representatives from both entities agreed to work to transfer The Appeal’s intellectual property to the transition team, provided we can establish a new entity and raise new funding.

We have a lot of work ahead, but what we’ve accomplished so far has proven one thing: collective action works. We would be in a far worse position if we hadn’t organized. The solidarity we experienced throughout this process — from each other, from the public, from other media unions, and from our representative at Pacific Media Workers Guild — has been invaluable. Not only did our union win recognition from management, but it also gave us the power to fight for our financial security and for the future of The Appeal. In a media industry increasingly plagued by endemic job insecurity, constantly shifting editorial priorities, and voracious corporate takeovers, organizing is one the few tools workers can use to level the playing field.

The new Appeal…

Explaining how the website would change going forwards, the union added:

We intend to relaunch The Appeal as a worker-directed nonprofit, dedicated to exposing how the U.S. criminal legal system fails to keep people safe and, instead, perpetuates harm. We will produce fact-based reporting and analysis that shows the human costs of our expansive carceral system, equips people with the tools to make change, and elevates solutions that seek to create a safer society without clinging to punitive responses.

In some ways, that mission mirrors the prior iteration of The Appeal. But being worker-directed means that all employees will have a say in how this work is done. Under previous leadership, The Appeal operated in a top-down fashion. That structure made it harder for us to produce high-quality reporting. Good stories don’t come from the top down. They rely on the specialized knowledge of our reporters and editors: relationships with sources and freelancers, experience from working a beat, exclusive access to documents, and diverse life experiences.

We want all workers to play a role in generating stories, refining pitches, and cultivating sources, as well as in bigger-picture decisions, like setting editorial priorities and defining our organizational structure and culture.

Because The Appeal is a nonprofit, workers won’t have ownership stakes in the organization itself, but our plan is to create internal governance structures and procedures that will enable our staff to democratically direct the strategy, policies, and practices of The Appeal.

We believe that building an organization around a commitment to transparency and equity can only strengthen the quality of our reporting and analysis.

“We are all workers”

The union also clarified why they refer to ‘workers’ rather than just ‘journalists’ or ’employees’, stressing:

We feel that the term ‘worker’ best encapsulates our shared contributions toward creating a new version of The Appeal. Also, just technically speaking, we do not currently have an employer, so we are not actually ’employees’. And while many of the workers involved in our transition are indeed journalists, other members of our team — graphics designers, video production experts, communications specialists, etc. — are not. We come from different backgrounds and bring a variety of experiences to the table, but we are all workers.

Main article image via The Appeal Union (supplied)

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