After pledging “accountability,” Reveal laid off all Black unionized staff 

Staffers of color say the investigative journalism nonprofit undervalues non-white reporters and is resistant to changing its ways.
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This piece is part of “Reclaiming Democracy,” a project of The Objective taking a critical look at how democracy and journalism co-exist in the U.S.

Editor’s note: Two weeks after publication, Center for Investigative Reporting CEO Robert Rosenthal reached out disputing several allegations attributed to sources in the story and requesting specific corrections. The Objective stands by its reporting, but nonetheless incorporated additional comments from Reveal’s management where appropriate.

In late-2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the so-called “racial reckoning” in media that ensued, Reveal issued a public mea culpa.

“Today, we are in the midst of a long-overdue reckoning with racial inequality in this country, in many of our most established institutions and in the journalism profession,” the then-leaders of the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet wrote in an unsigned post. “This has opened up a deeper and more honest conversation inside our own organization, along with a push for a far greater sense of urgency and accountability, as we work to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for all.”

The attached “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Work Plan” detailed steps the organization would take to address DEI matters in the workplace — improving diversity in hiring, instituting equitable salary structures, implementing cultural competency training and building support systems for existing staffers of color.

During a bout of financial instability nearly three years later, however, Reveal parted ways with six people of color from its staff of roughly 50 workers, including every single Black employee working on the editorial side of the company except the radio program’s host, Al Letson. 

Those layoffs — the second such staff cutback in a period of nine months — meant that “The number of Black union members will drop from three to zero,” Reveal-CIR Guild, the outlet’s newly-recognized union, shared in an April statement. “We are deeply concerned that diversity, equity and inclusion were not adequately prioritized during these layoffs… By not taking better efforts to protect our BIPOC members, the organization is perpetuating White supremacy and reversing progress made in recent years toward diversity in our newsroom.” 

Reached by The Objective, representatives for the union declined to comment further. But current and former Reveal staffers say the issues pertaining to DEI go far beyond this round of layoffs. Instead, conversations with close to half a dozen sources with ties to the outlet paint a picture of an organization that fundamentally undervalues the contributions of non-white reporters and rebuffs staffers’ efforts to address such concerns — a problem sources say has been endemic to the organization since its founding almost 50 years ago.

“This instability is kind of just like a product of that kind of original sin that goes back to the fucking 70s. Its culture is like white men, Cold War,” one employee, granted anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive matters, told The Objective. “And I think in the context of 2023, that’s really challenging.”

Promises made

In a lengthy statement to The Objective, acting Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) CEO Robert Rosenthal — known as “Rosey” to those at company — confirmed the details the union shared, acknowledging it was “true” that the layoffs impacted “six members of staff who identify as people of color,” though he argued that “CIR has been deeply committed to creating a more diverse staff, and will continue to do so.” Rosenthal stressed that of the eight individuals who left as a part of the company’s reorganization, five did so on a voluntary basis, with three involuntarily laid off.

Experts on race and journalism, meanwhile, say the situation at Reveal is emblematic of a broader trend in media companies, whereby news outlets that postured a pro-diversity stance in recent years have failed to deliver on such promises.

“People who will say that they’re committed to DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging] will say, ‘Oh, we’re doing a great job on this. We hired all of these people,’” said Dr. Meredith Clark, an associate professor at Northeastern University whose research focuses on race and media and who previously ran the News Leaders Association’s annual diversity survey

“Hiring is just one part of this process. We’re doing work that takes years, if not decades, if not generations,” Clark continued. “You have to also create a culture in which people who are otherwise marginalized are actually included, can see themselves having influence over editorial decisions and being able to have some autonomy within the organization.”  

In this instance, the union’s statement on the layoffs was met by management not with a recognition of the complicated racial dynamics at play nor any concrete plans to rectify the issue, individuals involved said, but with anger and fear about what it might mean for the organization’s fundraising efforts. 

After the statement went out, union members and a Newsguild lawyer were asked to join a call with CIR’s general counsel Victoria Baranetsky, according to multiple sources, during which time Baranetsky argued the letter was defamatory and issued what a number of staff interpreted as a threat of legal action against its signatories. 

Reveal leaders dispute that staffers were threatened with legal action, and said no such measures were taken. 

“Ms. Baranetsky noted that even though the letter could be seen as defamatory, she hoped the organization could move forward with grace, transparency and open communication – a far cry from threatening litigation,” Rosenthal said in a statement to The Objective.

“So much of the work that we do at Reveal is about figuring out who’s being harmed and who is accountable for that,” an individual familiar with the situation told The Objective

“The fact that this statement was taken as a personal affront… I can’t make sense of it.” 

Turbulence and turnover hamper DEI efforts

Reveal is no stranger to personnel-related controversy. 

In recent years, the audio journalism outlet has “cycled through CEOs,” in the words of one former reporter, contributing to a “bubbling frustration” within the staff about the organization’s long-term stability — and specifically its treatment of non-white employees.

Reveal is housed under the Center for Investigative Reporting, which bills itself as the nation’s first nonprofit investigative newsroom. Since its founding in 1977, CIR has amassed an impressive record of public accountability reporting and a fair share of journalism awards to boot. 

The Reveal brand was launched in 2013 after CIR’s merger with another California-based nonprofit investigative outlet, and soon found success as the organization’s first news product to bring its reporting directly to consumers, rather than relying on partnerships with other media organizations. Through a co-production with Public Radio Exchange, Reveal’s titular radio program reaches over 580 stations nationwide and many more online, and CIR initially relied on a team of nearly 20 investigative reporters along with many more producers and technical staff.

But maintaining such a journalistic footprint is pricey, and CIR’s annual operating expenses reached a peak of over $13 million in 2017, tax records show. Around that time, then-CEO Joaquin Alvarado left the organization, in part due to an alleged souring of his relationship with the board of directors over ballooning expenses.

Since then, no fewer than four different individuals have served as CEO, and an equal number as editor-in-chief. DEI issues have remained omnipresent throughout the leadership turnover.

Christa Scharfenberg was elevated to the CEO position and ran the organization for the longest consecutive period after Alvarado, beginning in 2018. But after working at CIR for 18 years, she left the company around May of 2021 — reportedly about a month before she was scheduled to depart — in part due to an internal staff revolt over the organization’s messaging around diversity.

Scharfenberg was quoted extensively in a glowing case study published by the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) about how Reveal “overhauled” its practices to promote a “more inclusive workplace” — part of a broader look at nonprofit media companies in the post–George Floyd era.

But staffers in Reveal’s BIPOC affinity group took issue with what they described as the piece’s “prematurely congratulatory” tone, formally documenting their concerns in a note to leadership and the INN writer behind the story. One source involved alleged that staffers of color outside of management weren’t consulted for the piece, nor were they asked permission if their photos could be used, even though it was floated at one point to run an image of Reveal’s “diverse” workforce alongside the INN report. 

Scharfenberg, who per tax records remained on company payroll through September of that year, did not respond to an inquiry about her time at CIR or staffers’ DEI concerns.

After Scharfenberg’s departure, Annie Chabel briefly served as CEO in an interim capacity until former Disney executive Kaizar Campwala was appointed to the role in 2022. Just six months into the job, however, Campwala — citing financial concerns — cut 10 staff positions, setting off a tumultuous period of rapid turnover.

Barely a month after the announcement of the layoffs, two top CIR executives quit: Chabel, who’d returned to her post as chief operating officer upon Campwala’s appointment, and ​​Sumi Aggarwal, a former “60 Minutes” producer who was hired as interim editor-in-chief in 2021 and named permanent EIC in conjunction with Campwala’s appointment. 

Aggarwal, a woman of color whose minority status was touted in the diversity case study, wrote in a memo announcing her departure that “I no longer feel that I can lead this newsroom in a way that is true to my values,” Insider reported at the time.

She later opened up about her decision to leave CIR in a conversation about “Building a Diverse Investigative Newsroom,” hosted by the National Press Foundation. 

“There is an instant credibility that is given to, to be really blunt about it, a white male reporter in investigative journalism,” Aggarwal said. “At CIR, and pretty much every other newsroom that I’ve been in, I was one of the very, very few women of color, and especially in a leadership position. That brings its own specific challenges.”

The layoffs, Aggarwal added, were “not what I had sort of been there for, and I really felt like the CEO and the board were not necessarily carrying their fair share of the weight in terms of doing the fundraising.” 

Concerns about the organization’s fundraising capabilities repeatedly plagued employees and leadership, interviews and documents show. After Aggerwal and Chabel’s resignations, staffers sent the CIR board a letter of no confidence regarding Campwala’s tenure — pointing to specific concerns about his ability to raise enough revenue to prevent future job cuts. He resigned in August after just eight months on the job, who’d previously served as executive director, prompting Rosenthal to assume the CEO position he still holds today.

That constant turnover “cut off every part of the machine that keeps the money turning,” argued a former employee. “All those basically white people on the top rung of the org leave… and the donors and relationships also leave. It’s a big part of what happened with the recent layoffs.” 

In his statement, Rosenthal seemed to confirm that such concerns about financial sustainability persist, noting the April layoffs came in response to CIR’s “serious financial difficulty.” Roughly two months since the layoffs, Rosenthal wrote, the organization’s leadership is “still focused on stabilizing our financial circumstances.” 

And the public controversy over the layoffs’ impact on Black employees is, according to multiple sources, being monitored by some of the outlet’s major funders. 

“While we are not involved in the day-to-day management and staffing of grantee organizations, we understand that many nonprofits are experiencing financial challenges that are impacting their operations,” a representative for the Ford Foundation, a top CIR funder, told The Objective in a statement. 

“We equally prioritize equal employment opportunity standards and the need for employees, across industries, to be treated equitably and with respect,” the spokesperson added. 

Structural problems persist

Current and former employees acknowledge that Reveal in recent years has tried to address problems with race and representation in the newsroom. But many argue such efforts have fallen flat, highlighting specific concerns about management’s response — or lack thereof — to the critiques of employees of color. 

Since late-2020, CIR has appointed more non-white individuals to the organization’s board of directors and engaged an executive hiring firm called “Diversified Search Group” to help bring in diverse candidates for management positions. 

The organization also retained the “the DEI strategy and racial equity” firm Dorianne St. Fleur Consulting to lead cultural competency and implicit bias trainings with employees, though such workshops — the vast majority of which were conducted over Zoom — earned mixed feedback.

“[The trainings] were useless,” one participant told The Objective. Rather than a recognition that CIR is “deeply entrenched in white supremacy,” the person argued, “the response was like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get a consultant.’”

The trainings “felt laborious and like a waste of my fucking time,” echoed another employee of color who participated. “I’d rather do curricula for people and recommend classes to take at the university. Like, why are we sitting here? Let’s just make a fucking syllabus, you know.”

St. Fleur did not respond to multiple inquiries about her firm’s work with CIR. 

As for the makeup of the newsroom, the organization has made small progress in improving racial diversity. The proportion of “racially or ethnically nonwhite” staff increased from 42% in 2020 to 47% today, according to CIR’s publicly-reported data. After this most recent round of layoffs, CIR employed 45 individuals, Rosenthal said, 23 who “identify as BIPOC” and 25 who “identify as women, transgender or non-gender conforming.”

But retaining non-white employees has proved difficult for the organization; 30 employees left CIR in the year between April of 2022 and the most recent layoffs, according to a document tracking such departures independently seen by The Objective. According to the document, 20 of those staffers who left during that time were people of color.

And even before, the organization was bleeding non-white staff. One former employee spoke about their decision to leave the organization after they said they were repeatedly “sidelined and disrespected” by managers, enduring “incredibly disrespectful and incredibly racist” comments from other staff, specifically about their reporting on Latin America. 

Hired to help expand and diversify Reveal’s listeners — to, in their words, ensure the outlet wasn’t solely reporting “poverty porn for a white public radio audience” — the individual instead said they found their role to be “tokenizing.”

“As a Spanish speaker, we’re so much more valued by these organizations because we bring in, we have access to that Latino audience and demographic and those sources,” the person said. “You brought me in to share my perspective, you brought me in to give my voice. But then when I actually do it, it’s still a threat to the institution in some way.”

Today, the proportion of BIPOC employees at CIR remains above the national average for American newsrooms. But the recent layoffs have left the outlet without a single Black rank-and-file reporter.

“The tendency for reporters from structurally marginalized groups to be the ones who bear the brunt of layoffs is something that’s been pretty consistent,” noted Clark, the media researcher. 

Those who spoke to The Objective pointed to confusion and mixed messages from management around the recent layoffs, including a lack of clarity about the decision-making that went into who was let go. Some believe leaders stuck to a “last in, first out” policy whereby the most recently-hired journalists were first on the chopping block, while others said the decisions felt more ad-hoc. Bosses refused to answer questions about who made the final decisions, sources added, instead sticking to “legalese” such that there were “seven layers of separation from a human person saying human things.”

Regardless of the reasoning, the impact of the cuts was clear: of the eight individuals whose positions were eliminated, six were people of color. Moreover, though five individuals left through voluntary buyouts or negotiated agreements, the two who were forcibly cut were both Black reporters, something which “agitated and energized and pissed off staff,” said one source.

Rosenthal declined multiple times to elaborate on the reasoning behind who was let go, whether seniority impacted such decisions and if leaders considered the layoffs’ impact on staff diversity, noting only the cuts were made “carefully and consciously” and with “strict adherence to employment law.” Asked whether he was responsive to the union’s concerns, he subsequently wrote that “I did, in my opinion, respectfully acknowledge and honor the concerns in staff meetings. This was a painful and difficult process for all involved.”

But some say Rosenthal — and CIR leadership more broadly — have failed to recognize the structural problems built into the newsroom, instead clinging to an antiquated view of racism as a personal failing rather than an institutional agenda. 

Four current and former employees, for example, pointed to instances whereby white reporters received favorable treatment over their nonwhite peers, particularly when it comes to pitches and story assignments.

“In order to have a successful pitch, you do have to attach yourself to a white reporter,” one person said. 

If a pitch was “attached to a white colleague’s work, great,” another told The Objective. “Alone, it would’ve gotten much more scrutiny.”

Rosenthal’s approach, that person added, has been that “‘people do racism, not that organizations have systems and structures that reinforce and elevate white people over Black people.”

‘There is no solid plan’

Rosenthal’s statement to The Objective defending the layoffs concluded with language awfully similar of the organization’s DEI message three years ago:

“We recognize that CIR has lost leadership of color in the past few years and in an industry that has been structurally dominated by one race – we have much farther to go,” he wrote in a June 20 email. 

“We know that a diversity of perspectives is necessary for great journalism and we will continue to aim for that goal… My intention is to work together with staff to address these DEI issues which are a priority.”

Asked repeatedly to elaborate on any specific plans or changes to be made, Rosenthal demurred.

Some remaining staff, meanwhile, say such plans don’t exist.

“To my knowledge, there is no solid plan in terms of DEI except for lip service,” one person put it bluntly. 

Since the April layoffs and the union’s subsequent statement, bargaining unit leaders and rank-and-file reporters alike have tried and failed to speak with management about the issues raised in their statement, people involved say.

“They just ghosted us,” one individual claimed. 

Their concerns aren’t just about the lack of diversity among the reporting staff, but also the homogeneity of editorial leadership. Right now, managers hold the belief that “an editor is like an all-knowing kind of God that can just, with his red pen, edit any story,” one employee mused. “Who’s paying me for educating you to then help me?”

As for Rosenthal’s “intentions” to address DEI issues, employees aren’t holding their breath.

“Intention is never going to matter as much as an actual practice,” one source argued, pointing to the fact that staff recently had the option to take Juneteenth off as a “flex” holiday as an example of the kinds of symbolic gestures managers prioritize over concrete action.

“What does Juneteenth even mean in an organization that doesn’t have Black reporters?” the person asked.

And employees of color who’ve left, voluntarily or by layoff, were quick to highlight disparities in their trajectories versus their white colleagues.

“It was so clear that the people of color left out of exhaustion and [were] just looking for another opportunity where they would feel that their work was more valued,” a former employee said. “And all the white folks left for the New York Times.” 

In an Aug. 8 email to The Objective, Reveal leaders wrote that “In the past six years, three people have gone to the New York Times, two of whom were journalists of color.”

Others who stayed are more concerned about the long term, and how the cuts will impact the stories Reveal covers. Overall, they say, there’s a “lack of a strategic vision.” 

“When you have an organization that just can’t figure out, like, basic Google-able things — ‘DEI 101’ — and you have workers who are trying to hold the organization accountable, it’s tough,” one source said with a sigh. “We still want the funding to be able to do our work, but we also have to recognize that a lot of our leadership is just not up to the task.”

Experts say they’re concerned, too.

“Journalism positions itself as a first draft of history, but if you do not have an inclusive workforce, if you do not reflect the reality of the country, what you actually have is the first draft of historical fiction,” Clark said.

Update, Aug. 9, 1:20 p.m. PT: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Robert Rosenthal as “acting” CEO, rather than just CEO. It also stated Juneteenth is a company holiday when in fact it is an optional, “flex” holiday. The Objective regrets the error.

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