Exit Interviews: Charlie Johnson
“Those who labor behind the scenes—who often handle jobs of enormous consequence—their work goes literally unremarked upon.”
About this occasional series: These exit interviews offer honest critique for journalism as an industry, through observations from news nerds who have recently left the field and still love it. For more insight on why people—particularly journalists of color—exit journalism, check out Carla Murphy’s “Leavers” Survey.
Charlie Johnson spent most of the last 10 years at the Chicago Tribune, working first as a digital producer for national/world news and then as a homepage editor and highly unofficial Twitter bureau chief. He also wrote stories on Chicago history, live-blogged major news events, and later worked as a reporter on the Metro desk. He co-led the paper’s union drive in 2017–2018. In May, he started classes as an Honors Scholar at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
What drew you into journalism in the first place?
The notion of working in journalism was always in my periphery growing up. My first byline was writing for my 5th grade class newsletter. I’m pretty sure I demanded the byline.
The biggest reason for that is there was always a Tribune on the kitchen table. I remember skimming stories about “Girl X” or the Balkans before I could really understand what was going on. As I got older, I remember being blown away by the investigative and foreign reporting in particular and just thinking, “man, that would be such a cool job.”
It’s saccharine, but working at the Chicago Tribune was literally a childhood dream. Leaving it, if I’m being honest, has felt a bit like giving up on a deeply rooted ambition.
What’s the project that you’re proudest of?
The editorial staff organized a labor union here in 2017–18, led by me and several others. We were sort of on the upswing of this boom in organizing media-worker unions.
It might sound a bit counterintuitive, but I think I’m most proud of negotiating a furlough deal with Tribune Publishing last summer during the early months of the pandemic. The company wanted to permanently cut wages by several percentage points, which it did unilaterally for non-union staff. We fought them. Bear in mind, this is after the board kicked out more than $60 million in dividends the previous year while not raising pay or substantively investing in newsgathering.
The bargaining committee—of which I was only one member—showed furloughs were actually a better option for short-term cash savings, and with the enhanced COVID unemployment some members would be made whole or nearly so. Management didn’t care; they wanted to cut pay using the crisis as cover. “Profiteering,” as our bargaining chief called it.
The company said layoffs were on the table, but we called that bluff and inked a deal with three weeks of furloughs, all to be completed during the enhanced unemployment period.
Maybe it’s dark commentary that my proud moment was negotiating a crisis concession, but it saved people’s wages, which would still be slashed right now if the union hadn’t existed and fought. And now, with Alden in charge, staff is protected against layoffs until a final full contract can be negotiated. It’s paying dividends in that respect: The recent round of voluntary buyouts might have been firings without the union effort years ago.
A labor union is not a panacea to this industry’s issues. But it’s the most powerful tool, guaranteed by law, employees have available to them.
Where were the hard parts for YOU in this work? What did your organizations have the hardest time getting right?
On an individual level, it was hard to work in a legacy newsroom as a young “digital journalist.” I edited the homepage, wrote headlines/tweets/alerts, selected and punched up wire copy and handled the audience aspects of big projects. Because so few senior staff (virtually none) have ever done these relatively new jobs, some didn’t understand or respect the work we did. That disrespect was sometimes palpable. That certainly wasn’t true of everyone and it definitely got better over time, but it was a regular frustration over the years.
There don’t seem to be many paths for advancement in newsrooms from audience-oriented roles, which I think is misguided, and maybe changing. When I moved into a Metro reporting job, it was really valuable to understand how readers find and interact with our work.
Newsroom leaders did try to “de-silo” the audience roles, but for some it remained a bit opaque. I got a lot of “oh, I didn’t know you guys did that….” when talking about what I was working on.
More broadly, the paper has gone through a long period of truly ghastly ownership that has not invested (or invested ineptly) in making the legacy newspaper into a contemporary news organization. The staff has never had an honest shot at trying to make the paper strong and viable for the long term, not even close. We moved into new offices (since closed) that didn’t have an audio studio, though it was suggested we could use the room with a high ceiling and glass walls. You can’t make that up.
Even when it would have no impact whatsoever on the bottom line, the company often chose to not do the right thing. An example: After the furloughs, Tribune Publishing sent out a phishing test in poor taste, designed to look like an errant email announcing bonuses for executives for cutting costs. Newsroom leaders immediately told us it was a phishing test and apologized. Many people clicked the link after that out of morbid curiosity.
We raised an objection to the disrespectful, borderline-painful ploy at the bargaining table, and TPub eventually apologized, agreeing it was a bad idea. But when we asked that those who clicked the link be excused from the remedial cybersecurity training (again, many did after leadership told us what it was), they repeatedly said no. It would have cost them $0 to do the right thing.
How did you decide it was time to leave the newsroom? What did that process look like for you?
It took a long time, years. I would imagine anyone reading this knows how much Being A Journalist burrows itself into your identity and sense of self-worth. It’s double-edged. Passion for your work is a rare and valuable commodity. But it’s also unhealthy if it keeps you intellectually stagnant, poorly paid and closes off other avenues that could be rewarding.
Over time, I started to feel the latter was outweighing the former and I was unhappy staying in an audience editor track. I’d long thought about law school, but never identified an area of practice I knew I would enjoy. My time organizing the union exposed me to a number of issues within labor/employment law and the federal administrative state, so I started to think more deeply about going back to school.
I used those furlough weeks to study for the LSAT. I applied and got some very generous scholarship offers (and a number of rejections). By the time you do all that, well, you’re kind of emotionally out the door already?
There was a moment during that process when I very nearly quit on the spot. The audience team at the Tribune was responsible for covering the 2020 presidential election, liveblogging and working with AP. We were a very experienced team and we handled the entire long, nerve-inducing week very well, including working overnight shifts. When AP called it on Saturday, it was just me working. One person to handle updates, alerts, headlines, story selection, tweets, redesign for the election of an American president. My colleagues hopped on early to help (again, we had a great team).
A few days later, an email went out congratulating a columnist on winning an award of some sort, I don’t remember which. We never got any newsroom-wide acknowledgment, no “atta-boy” emails (again, free) even though we’d handled coverage of the biggest story in the world for a week straight.
It’s not that the columnist didn’t deserve plaudits, but it’s instructive about how the industry thinks about what’s valuable, and highlights what rewards are available to which workers. People put in high-profile roles with lots of resources are in a position to win awards and earn higher pay. It’s somewhat self-selecting. Those who labor behind the scenes—who often handle jobs of enormous consequence — their work goes literally unremarked upon.
I doubt readers noticed the award, or cared. They damn sure cared about the election.
When I moved to the reporting staff, before I left for my summer class, I found my passion re-invigorated some. I was learning new skills, sharpening some I’d put away for a while and writing every day. It was harder to leave, I really agonized. But, with Alden at the reins, it really felt like I would only be there for as long as it took to get a job elsewhere … which could be years.
It’s worth noting here that if I wasn’t a scion of the upper middle class—if I had major debt or parents whose retirement was not secure—I probably would have left for something more lucrative and secure a long time ago. It’s not like my folks were putting money in my account, but the fact I could stretch a modest salary without worrying about being destitute if something catastrophic happened is a big part of why I felt I could “afford” to work at the Chicago Tribune. I know there are others in the industry who are less fortunate and really struggling as they start to look at the longer arc of their lives. And plenty of others with trust funds and boarding school pedigrees for whom a $15,000 raise is irrelevant, rather than life-altering. I was somewhere in between.
Can you envision yourself returning to journalism full-time?
Yes. I thought about a Substack, but does the world really need more takes? The market seems flooded at the moment. I’m really encouraged by the rise of the podcast, which allows for a longer, nuanced, more human take on news, complete with the timbre of human voices. I had a radio show in college and I would really like to be involved in a podcast project.
I’m putting journalism on the shelf for now. If I ever take it down again… we’ll see. Certainly, I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to talk.
If you could snap your fingers and raise one conversation in every newsroom, what would we be talking about tomorrow?
People get into journalism because they’re interested in politics or policy, or want to have a positive impact on the world. The “no cheering in the press box” rule exists not because journalists are naturally unbiased, but because otherwise people would be cheering. People who cover beats extensively become “mini experts” on them.
I once overheard a reporter on the phone refuse to tell a source their opinion on the subject they were discussing. “Oh, well what I think doesn’t matter, I’m just a reporter trying to get information.” I’m sure that’s what he was taught (it’s what I was told), but it always left a sour taste in my mouth. You’re asking someone to have a forthright conversation with you, possibly against their own best interest, and you won’t be honest with them, answer their questions? It’s phony, and kind of disrespectful. Would you buy that if you were on the other end of the line?
What stories we pick or pass on, how and what we challenge in copy, and how we dedicate resources reflect obvious value judgements, a bias. We just pretend they don’t.
I recently started listening to VICE correspondent Michael Moynihan’s “Fifth Column” podcast, which is three libertarians doing commentary on current events. I think highly of Michael’s work, and knowing his background ideology hasn’t discredited anything I’ve seen him do on television. If anything, it gives it some depth of character and some transparency. When reporters become columnists, does it retroactively discredit their work when we learn how they process the world?
I would say we can’t risk losing the public’s trust by being more transparent, but it seems like we’ve already lost it. Maybe being direct—literally explaining how and why we did stories, and who the people are who are doing them—is a way to get some of that trust back.
If you could do the same and change one journalism practice overnight, what would that be?
Seemingly every reporter on their way out the door thanks the copy desk for numerous times it saved them embarrassment. They thank the editors who tightened and focused their work, fed them tips or helped guide the reporting process. But we really don’t offer effective public credit for that work, short of the masthead. Why?
Conversely, errors or improper framing often aren’t solely the responsibility of the reporter—how many times have writers had to tell sources (or Twitter) “well, I didn’t write that headline….” It’s an accountability issue as well.
Editors and audience staff deserve some measure of reader-facing credit for their role in shaping stories and getting them in front of readers. Reuters has long offered detailed editing and research credits at the end of their stories, called “sign-offs,” so it’s not like there isn’t a useful model. There’s a reason why there are credits at the start and at the end of movies!
That the byline model is insufficient seems like a pretty widely held sentiment, so I’m not sure why it persists. Ego? Inertia? Powerful forces, both.
Charlie Johnson spent most of the last 10 years at the Chicago Tribune, working first as a digital producer for national/world news and then as a Tribune homepage editor and highly unofficial Twitter bureau chief. He also wrote stories on Chicago and Tribune history, live-blogged major news events, including presidential elections, and later worked as a reporter on the Metro desk. He co-led the paper’s union drive in 2017-2018. In May, he started classes as an Honors Scholar at Chicago-Kent College of Law.