Q&A: Alan Henry

The author of “Seen, Heard, & Paid” talks about his experience at the New York Times and what others can learn from it.

Alan Henry’s career as a journalist has so far focused on making technology easier to use for people on a daily basis – finding new ways to be productive and make the best of your time. Henry, the former editor-in-chief of Lifehacker and the former Smarter Living editor at the New York Times, is now an author, too.

But his book Seen, Heard, and Paid, released this month, does not center on how to navigate technology – instead, it centers on navigating journalism (and any workspace) as a person marginalized by the norms and people in that workplace. 

Henry, now the senior editor for service at WIRED, interviews experts and dwells on his own career at the New York Times, from start to finish, to paint a picture of how you might go about trying to exist in your workplace at best and, at worst, how to leave.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.


You start the book by describing a very specific experience you had with a coworker at the New York Times. They came in late and proceeded to take credit for your work and say that they were your boss. Why did you start the book with that example?

It was just such a poignant story. To be blunt, it was also cathartic for me to be able to write about something that happened to me and still sticks in my mind. It’s something that I feel happens to a lot of marginalized people. And when I say marginalized, you know, I mean people of color, but I also mean women in majority male workspaces. I wanted to open with a story that was kind of relatable that said, “Hey, all of this stuff that we’re about to start talking about, I’ve been there. And I want to kind of not just tell you how to get out of it, but also I wanna share exactly how infuriating it is with you.”

I didn’t specifically want to write a book exclusively for people of color because marginalization is for everybody. It’s for people of color, of course, but it’s also for LGBTQ folks. It’s also for disabled folks in any workplace. So I wanted to start with an anecdote that was very emotional and special for me, but also I wanted to be like, “Hey, you will see yourself in my stories as we go through this book.”

You write about how, if newsrooms can’t support their staff well when they’re supposed to be shining a light onto instances of failure in other workspaces, then there’s clearly something wrong almost everywhere. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you’ve seen these failures play out in newsrooms at large?

When I started talking to people about the book after it came out, everybody was very like, “Oh my God, this is what happens at the New York Times.” A lot of my reaction to that is, “Well, yes, because this did happen to me at the New York Times, but there are other anecdotes in the book that happened at other places that people generally consider like progressive news organizations and work environments.”

I feel like a lot of times there is all the intent and all the desire on the part of newsroom leaders to do the right thing, but we have socially codified marginalization and discrimination and sidelining people and pushing them to the side and not respecting their abilities or expertise or where they come from or their socioeconomic background socially.

We codified that kind of discrimination as bad. So, on its face, a lot of people in newsrooms are like, “Oh yeah, of course it’s bad.” But it’s not bad when it’s applied to them? I feel like that shines through a lot of so-called objective news coverage as well where, for some reason, you can read a story and you can tell that if that same story happened to someone in their own lives, they would have a different perspective on it. But because it happened to someone else, because it happened far away, they don’t really contextualize it in terms of their own lived experience. 

When other people stand up in the same newsroom and say, “Hey, wait a minute. We should think about this differently,” they wind up running the risk of – I don’t want to say derailing their career, but definitely harming it, you know?

Newsrooms have employee resource groups [ERGs]. They have editors dedicated to training and building up new talent, seeking out new voices, and trying new things. But at the same time, those things are always integrated on top of what the newsroom already is. And it’s never really totally interwoven into the operations of the newsroom where it needs to be.

At the Times, I found the most resistance that I had didn’t come from the top. The masthead editors were generally people that I loved sitting down to have coffee with. But it was a lot of the rank and file editors who were very much like: 

“Well, you didn’t come from a news outlet that I personally respect, therefore your leadership experience is not the kind of experience I respect.”

“You didn’t go to this J School.”

“You didn’t come from an Ivy League college, so I don’t know who you are.”

“I don’t get you. I don’t respect you.”

“I don’t understand what you bring to the table. Why are you taking up space here?”

And of course, if I went to somebody and said, “Hey, this thing happened at the Washington Post. Isn’t that terrible?” They would absolutely agree. But if I turned it around and said, “Wait a minute, you did that exact same thing to me,” then suddenly they’d be like, “Oh, well that wasn’t my intention. I didn’t mean to do it,” and it would turn into a different kind of conversation. I feel like newsrooms are particularly bad at that because no one’s really forcing them to shine a light on their own behaviors or hold them accountable.

The book cover for "Seen, Heard, and Paid." Large bold font is overlaid on muted pastel yellow, orange, and teal.

SEEN, HEARD, & PAID: THE NEW WORK RULES FOR THE MARGINALIZED

by Alan Henry

Rodale Books, 288 pages

It’s interesting you say that the most resistance is from the sort of mid-level managers. I’ve listened to what Dean Baquet has said about the Times, and I’ve read a lot about what the incoming editor Joe Kahn said about the Times. I wonder, do you think that, considering the way that you discuss power dynamics and how marginalization can be broadly understood, diversity can shift the New York Times, or is something more needed? What sort of structural changes come to mind when you look at the New York Times or legacy newsrooms, in general?

I think that time will do the trick no matter what, right? The New York Times, for example, has been around for 150 years. The goal — I mean, they will never say this — but I feel like the role of a lot of legacy newsrooms and large newsrooms is to preserve the legacy of the institution. They don’t care so much about the backlash to their reporting, or even that the reporting may be problematic. Their goal is to make sure that these news organizations — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today — exist for another 150 years.

They’re gonna do as little as possible to make serious systemic changes because they don’t wanna risk losing what they have. 

I feel like on some level, time is going to pull it from them anyway. They’re going to continue to lose trust from the public and from their own subscribers, or they’re going to continue to be attacked and demonized by elements of media that are critical of them for both reasons, good or bad. I think the real kicker is going to be for leadership to understand that as they bring in new people, they’re bringing them in for a reason instead of saying to themselves, “We’re bringing in new talent in order to grow them, to foster them, to develop them into the kind of journalists that will shine here,” as opposed to understanding that a lot of these people are already journalists who can shine, they just need an opportunity to shine. 

That is one of the big lessons I learned working at the New York Times was that, when I brought in freelance writers, a lot of people would tell me, “Oh, I didn’t think my voice was good enough for the Times. I didn’t think my reporting was good enough for the Times.” And for about two or three months when I started at the New York Times, when I was still kind of finding my way and trying to figure out what we were gonna do as a team, I spent my days essentially reading the RSS feed for every single thing that went out. Every single thing that we published, I didn’t read everything in totality, but I would read most things.

And I learned very quickly that a lot of people have roles at legacy publications because they’ve always had them. They can still do great work, but they kind of sit back and they say, “You know, I’ve been a food columnist for 35 years. I don’t need to do ground reporting anymore. I can write about my opinions or I can write about this thing that I discovered that is useful to me.” 

Whereas a newcomer who may not have that columnist position, but may also have 20 years of experience writing about food, doesn’t have that same authority in the eyes of their peers. So they have to go hit the ground reporting, even though ostensibly, they have just as much experience or even more experience than the person who’s been sitting in the same role forever. 

I feel if you’re bringing in people to take serious editorial and reporting roles, you need to let them do the work that you hired them to do, rather than push them off to the side and say, “Well, once you’ve paid your dues, then we’ll pay attention to you.” 

I think you’re a lot more optimistic than I am. I wonder about the subscriber base when it comes to charging money for a publication like the Times. You remain optimistic that it’ll change with time and my concern is, when you have white, more affluent audiences that are the backbone of the publication in terms of who’s paying, you still think there will be a shift over time? 

I feel like you’re right about subscribers. I’m not innocent of this, right? I work at Wired, a Conde Nast publication. These are people who can afford these subscriptions. I’m thinking more in terms of the young journalists and the aggressive journalists of color who are coming up and demanding to be represented. I think that that’s not gonna stop. I mean, we’re going to keep pushing for a seat at the table, even if it’s not an empowered seat. If I’m optimistic about anything, I’m optimistic that at least a few of us are going to be able to stick around long enough to have positions of power, where we can influence the organization in small ways and in big ways.

However, I completely recognize what you’re saying because, at the end of the day, if I were still at the Times and I were pressing for aggressive change or pressing for more marginalized voices in all the areas of the paper and our subscribers took issue with that…

We’ve seen a lot of both intended-as-good-faith campaigns and other outright bad faith campaigns by people who either say they’re subscribers or are not subscribers, against diversifying those voices. It’s easier to buckle to that pressure than it is to buckle to the pressure of people who are canceling their subscriptions because the New York Times hired Bret Stephens. 

Even after having been inside a large organization like the Times and seeing the kind of turmoil that comes internally, when those things happen, the mid-level managers (and even some senior-level managers) look at those kinds of controversies as, “They don’t get us, they don’t get journalism, it’ll blow over.”

The thing that I used to hear about the opinion desk when I was at the Times was, “Our columnists may have difficult stories, but [readers] don’t see all the good things we do, too.” It was kind of demoralizing for me because doing good things doesn’t undo really bad commentary or intellectually dishonest commentary (which is a strong label, but I feel that way about a lot of opinion pages). 

But I am optimistic about journalists and about journalism. I don’t know if I’m that optimistic about the eventual growth of legacy publications. I think that they feel like they have their role. They are very centrist and very difficult to move. And they think that like movement journalism, or even more direct journalism that reflects the reality of the people who are reading it, is somebody else’s business. And that does scare me.

As you talk about movement journalism and other forms of journalism not being allowed in the pages of these legacy publications, it’s fascinating to me to then look at what news analysis is for a lot of white reporters. 

Exactly. That’s a beautiful example. Granted, I came from Lifehacker, a Gawker media brand, so I was steeped in what we thought of as speaking as the role of journalism to speak truth to power – to write true things that make powerful people with privilege uncomfortable with the fact that they have that privilege and they’re using it to either punch down or using it to enrich themselves. And that was the kind of thing that was just part of our culture. 

When I got to the Times and I’m like, okay, I can’t express an opinion about, for example, Black Lives Matter, but a white journalist can write a news analysis piece that is essentially an op-ed that is published in the paper itself and not on the op-ed pages…

For example, I was sort of the liaison between Wirecutter and the newsroom, and that was a whole thing in and of itself. But, the privacy project was a huge thing on the opinion desk. And one of the biggest questions that a lot of us got afterward — because a lot of the Wirecutter security folks were involved in the privacy project — was, why is this in the op-ed section? Why is it not in the tech section where it should be? And the answer was, “Oh, because we’re making specific recommendations. We’re telling you that this is how internet privacy should be and this is how you should fight for it.” And when I was at Lifehacker, that wasn’t even a question. That’s not a question of opinion – that is an underscored fact of how the internet operates, where the data is going, and who has power over that data. So if you want power over your own data, which ostensibly belongs to you, this is what you should do.

Now at the Times, they perceive that as an opinion. And to me, that’s not an opinion. That’s a fact. So, I mean, obviously, we agree to disagree there.

Meanwhile, you can get a news analysis piece from someone who has been there or you can get a news analysis piece from like, and I don’t mean to kick Kevin Roose here because he’s a friend and we used to work together, but he could write something like that himself in the tech section, and no one would bat an eye because he’s a superstar. 

So I feel like that’s a kind of culture that we definitely need to do something about. And when I say we, what I really mean is white leaders in newsrooms. Because it is not the workers of color that are empowered to do something about that at all.

You talk a lot about affinity groups in the book. You also extend that to unions and labor groups. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you started thinking of unions in relation to affinity groups? 

I don’t particularly feel like unions, on the whole, are miraculous instruments of inclusion. Just being at Gawker Media, one of the first major unionized news organizations with the Writers Guild of America, and then again at the New York Times, where I wasn’t part of the union because my position was created specifically to not be part of the union (which I didn’t find out until after I signed the offer letter), I feel like unions offer ground-level and mid-level people an opportunity to come together and say, “We have concerns and our concerns are union concerns.” And that’s kind of how I approach even the Wired Union, which I’m involved in now. 

I find that it is a more productive way for individuals who are not empowered in a newsroom to get together and talk to each other about their actual concerns, and then decide, “What concerns do we want to bring to management to force them to change?” And I do mean force, right? Because unions do have some power. They can walk out, they can disrupt meetings, and they can challenge management. They can do these things in a way that you can’t when you are just like an individual sitting down with your boss or an individual or even a smaller ERG sitting down with a group of managers.

So, I feel like that’s one way that unions can make more productive changes, but I’m just hopeful that it will work that way because we haven’t seen anything else since, right? ERGs generally exist as a form of community, but not as a form to exercise institutional power. I mean, [email protected] was a great place for me to get together and meet other Black coworkers, but there were so few people in the newsroom in [email protected], a lot of the folks [email protected] were from product. They were from design. They were from art. They were from interactive. So it’s not like they have any say in the way that the paper covers news events. But of course the union, on the other hand, would.

Now, of course, unions have their own problems. In a lot of cases, I’ve found that many union organizers are young white people and not necessarily young journalists of color. And it sucks if — and it hasn’t happened to me, but I can certainly see it happening — workers of color come up to a union organizer and say, “Hey, the way that our organization covers race or crime is fundamentally flawed and needs better oversight or better judgment.” And they’ll say, “Well, that’s really important, but it’s not as great a priority as healthcare or raises.” And that would suck. But I mean, otherwise, we haven’t seen many other alternatives.

We’ve talked a lot about the sort of structural issues around journalism and a lot of this book is sort of how to insulate yourself and deal with these problems on an individual basis, knowing that these structural issues exist. So I wonder how you thought about that and your audience as you wrote this book? 

At the end of the day, it is not the responsibility of marginalized folks to fix the environments that they are marginalized in or excluded from. Even if I wanted to, even if we wanted to, we don’t have the power and those changes are only going to come with institutional power. So I didn’t wanna approach the book from the perspective of, “Here are the tools to make your workplace more friendly to marginalized people” or “Here’s how to ‘un-marginalize’ yourself,” because I realize that the marginalized person can’t do that. 

In every journalism job I’ve had, and even other jobs, I’ve been one of the people on the outside looking in. In some cases, I was just a person who wanted to do his best work and go home at the end of the day and do his own thing. 

I think that there are more people like that, who feel disempowered or even feel it and know it (and that combination makes them depressed), than people who are really out here with all the energy to be like, I’m going to burn this place down and I’m going to rebuild it in a more constructive and inclusive way.

I don’t think that there are many people who feel like they have the power, time, and energy to take that job on as well as the actual job that they were hired to do. So instead, the book is really more about advocating for yourself and trying to form some kind of protective wall that will keep you safe while you work there or while you work in an environment that may not be ideal, but also understand that there’s a difference between “not ideal” and “toxic and harmful.” And if it is toxic and harmful, just leave, because there are places that will accept you for who you are and let you bring your whole self to the table.

You also talk about working around the people that are marginalizing you and that’s something I definitely relate to. I wonder how you first came to start thinking about that?

Again, a lot of it was catharsis. I really only had one coworker at the New York Times who would actively steal my ideas or actively work to keep me marginalized. Like, someone who would actively go outta their way to make sure I wasn’t invited to a meeting.

I had a freelancer that I had worked with for a long time who came to me later and said, “So-and-so said not to work with you anymore because they would take care of everything and they didn’t want it to be confusing.” And I was just like, “That’s ridiculous.” 

The reason they told me was that they were a long-time friend and of course, I’m like, “Well, who else have they said that to? Who else has been working behind my back in small ways to make sure that either they could take credit for the work that I was doing or the people I brought to the table, but also make sure that I couldn’t do my job?”

I mean, I can’t stop that person. And even if I bring it up to seniors or to managers, which I did, what are they gonna do? In a just world that person would be held accountable for their actions, but we don’t live in a just world. We live in a world where if someone is doing work, but the bad things they’re doing are deniable or quiet or strategic in a way they don’t get fired. They don’t get transferred. They don’t get disciplined for their behavior. Their manager says, “Well, I don’t know what to do about that,” or, “Well, there’s not too much we can do about it.” Or, they may empathize with you and just say, “That sucks, but let me know if it gets worse,” 

At the end of the day, we can’t trust the leadership in any organization. I mean, in journalism specifically, but I think this is true across the board. We can’t trust our leaders to take action against people who are harming us in the workplace. I wish we could, but we can’t. So instead we just have to protect ourselves.

Shifting a bit here, but I wonder what criticisms of the book you anticipated or actually got?

One very good criticism I ran into this is with Bethany Brookshire. When I was on the Science for the People podcast, she pointed out that a lot of the tips are kind of contradictory, right? You should advocate for yourself, but not too much. You should find community, but be careful what you talk to. 

And that’s 100 percent fair, especially when it comes to a topic like this. Not every tip is going to be for everyone, right? So I can kind of duck out of it with that, but the real problem is I’m writing about something for which there is no actual solution. I can offer a lot of tips and tricks and workarounds but, at the end of the day, this book is not going to make workplaces more just. It’s not gonna make workplaces more inclusive. It’s not gonna make newsrooms more reflective on who they give a seat at the table to. 

One of my former editors, Adam Pash, who hired me at Life Hacker, said that sometimes there is a lot of value in writing something for people, even if the answer that you’re going to give them to their question is there is no answer. And that’s kind of the approach that I took with the book. I wanted to say, “Hey, I recognize I’ve been here. I recognize there’s no fix.” Because, at the end of the day, I left the New York Times. I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t carve out a space for myself there. And even though I had lots of people there that I liked and respected the environment, it just wasn’t one I could stay in without causing myself mental and emotional harm.

That’s another criticism I’ve gotten. Not everybody has the privilege to up and leave a job when they feel like they’re being discriminated against. And I hear that too. That’s also why I try to include some tips in the book that were focused on how to keep track of your own wins and your own work so you could make a case to leave when you’re ready to leave. But jobs are scarce in journalism. No one’s gonna tell you it’s easy to find a job anywhere. So yeah, I get that too. Some folks might read this and say, “I wish I could put these tips into practice.” And I feel for that person, I really do.

You have a whole chapter on when to leave. Something I’m often asked by newer journalists is how to balance disliking a job or dealing with discrimination, but thinking that they might have to be in that job to put it on their resume or to get the clips in order to get where they think they need to go. What advice do you have for those folks?

The one thing I would tell them is to never assume that there is a place you have to be. That is huge for me. At the New York Times I met a lot of people who said, “Oh my god, I wanna work at the Times someday, what should I do?” 

Don’t underestimate the value of the places that you’ve been. When I was editor-in-chief of Lifehacker, I thought my career peaked. I was like, this is it. And I get this opportunity to go work with the New York Times on a new desk, doing new things. And, despite how it all turned out, I really enjoyed the work that I did there and I’m very proud of it. And I’m proud of the people I met and the friends that I still have who work there. 

So I tell a lot of young journalists: Don’t discount other things and other places that may prove more nourishing to your spirit. 

But also, don’t be afraid to take chances and indulge your interests that are outside of journalism or fields that are traditionally associated with journalism, but not the same as journalism. Don’t plot your course too early, because then you cut yourself off from being able to take other roads that may lead you to more fulfilling things. 

We talk about “maybe you shouldn’t stay in journalism at all” or “maybe you should leave journalism,” but I don’t even mean that. I mean upstart publications or small publications that can make big impact. There’s room for that, too. And I feel like that’s not always the career path that a lot of journalists go into J school thinking they’re gonna have, or even get into journalism thinking they’re gonna have.

I really enjoyed the acknowledgment section at the end, but I’m curious: You thanked the Journalists of Color Slack group. Could you talk a bit about the Slack and why it’s an important space for you?

I landed in the Journalists of Color Slack because someone at the Times recommended it to me when I was at my lowest. I was working from home like four days a week. Sometimes it was more than that. I would only go in when I had meetings or when I felt like I wanted to have a nice lunch, so I’d go to the cafeteria. I just didn’t enjoy my time, my work, my life. At all. I felt like I was hamstrung and I didn’t know what to do. I was struggling with this notion of, “I’m at the New York Times – this is the pinnacle, right?” Like, “If I can’t make this work, what does this say about me?” Combined with the fact that my departure from Lifehacker was in the middle of an acquisition by Univision and we had a new CEO that wound up getting pushed out and all this other stuff. 

When I found the Journalist of Color Slack, I joined, and… like any good internet person, when you join a new community, the first thing you do is keep your mouth shut and lurk for a good long while to make sure you understand the vibe of the place. And immediately I saw people who had been through what I’d been through. And it was the first time that I had encountered people who felt the same way about their jobs that I felt. And they had complaints about their newsrooms that were similar to the complaints that I had about my newsroom.

They had coworkers that were pushing them to the side and managers who were sympathetic, so I would start to open up and share these experiences. And I think it was one time, I posted on one of the channels that I was thinking about leaving journalism entirely because I have a background in project management. I have an MBA, I have degrees in physics and astronomy. I could leave and do something else if I wanted to. And somebody said, “No. It sucks right now for you and I see it and I know it, but you are needed in this field and wherever you end up, you need to have faith that you will end up somewhere good. You will thrive.” 

It was the first time someone ever said that to me. I never thought that I needed I didn’t a mentor or somebody to kind of shepherd me through what I was going through. But somebody extending that hand of empathy to me meant so much that it made me wanna push through. And I pushed through. One day turned into a week and one week turned into a couple of months and then it turned into a year and then it turned into another year. 

And that was long enough for someone who I had worked with before to come to me and say something like, “Hey, I know I can’t poach you from the New York Times. That would be impossible.” 

And I’m like, “Oh boy, could you?” And I got that opportunity. And that’s when I left the Times. 

It helped so much to just have other people like me around to say, “No, no, no. What you’re going through is not just you. You are not alone.” Because that’s the point of being marginalized. To make you feel like you’re by yourself. It makes you feel like you’re all alone. You are the one with the problem. The environment is fine, but you are the one who has the issue. 

And it took somebody to tell me, “No, the issue is the environment. The issue is not you,” for me to turn that around. And this Slack was that place. I’ll never stop recommending it to other journalists of color. I know it technically doesn’t physically exist, but it’s such a home for me that even when I’ve been away for weeks or months, I can come back and read other people’s experiences and say, “Yeah, that’s me.” And in other cases, I can say, “Whoa, wait, I can help that person.” 

I can kind of pass it forward and share my experiences with them. And that just meant so much to me.

This piece was edited by Holly Rosewood and Curtis Yee.

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