Exit Interviews: Moiz Syed

Journalists are encouraged to hold the powerful accountable, but never to proclaim the larger moral lessons of their work.”

Moiz Syed at SRCCON 2017, with Dolly Li (left) and Steph Yiu. (Erik Westra photo)

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.

Moiz Syed began his journalism career at The Intercept as a data journalist and designer. He later joined Propublica as a news applications developer, working on projects covering the Trump administration, law enforcement, and the coronavirus pandemic. He co-created and maintains The Journalists of Color Resource Guide. In July 2021, he joined Mozilla as a product designer working on Pocket.

What drew you into journalism in the first place?

I went to college for design and computer science, and was always looking for work in the public interest that reflected what was going on in the world. During my high school years in Canada, some of my earliest graphic design projects were reflections on the post–9/11 world and the so-called war on terror. In college I became interested in data visualization, because it combined both of my interests in design and computer science. A few years later I discovered data journalism, and it felt like I had found my calling.

I was also influenced by the career of my then-girlfriend (now wife), who is also a data journalist. Watching her work on meaningful data and visual journalism projects gave me a new appreciation for how important that was for me too. I was working at the Wikimedia Foundation as a product designer at the time, and also noticing there how important good journalism was to the editors who do the hard work of writing Wikipedia articles. All this, plus the rise of Trump, made it feel like journalism was the right work for me.

What did you love most about working in journalism?

As a journalist you have to continuously be in dialogue with what is happening in the world, and I love that. This includes learning about the consequences of events happening in real-time, digging in deeper about history, or getting to interview experts who have devoted their lives to working on fascinating issues. It always felt like magic to me when I would reach out to an expert I’d never talked to before, tell them that I was reporting on a story, and they would get back to me eager to talk about it.

This was all working in sync when I was researching a story last year about Trump’s judicial appointments. Journalism gives you an outlet to be curious about topics you are fascinated by, and that’s what I did for months as I explored my interest in the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. The original plan was to cover the federal judges appointed by President Trump, but once Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, the focus of the story shifted to the ages of Trump’s appointed judges. In particular, we found that as a group, his judges were younger and would consequently serve longer terms. The story was particularly special to me because it was my first solo byline.

Where were the hard parts for you in this work? What did your organizations have the hardest time getting right?

I want to highlight two experiences, one each from my time at The Intercept and ProPublica, and what they taught me about changes I think industry leaders need to make.

March 2019: I had been working at The Intercept for almost three years. During that time, we unionized and carried out a successful bargaining process. The Intercept, even though it is funded by one of the richest people in the world, then laid off the entire research team, including my role, citing financial hardship.

The events that led up to those layoffs and what followed profoundly changed my perception of non-profit journalism. I saw firsthand that managers—many of whom earned double the salaries of those being terminated—showed little empathy toward staff members losing their jobs. My own manager, after spending a few minutes delivering the news to me in a room with HR, said that “this was all very hard for [him] to handle,” and promptly left. The head of HR asked if I had any more questions, and I said I did, but that my manager had already left the meeting. Luckily, because we had bargained a decent union contract, we received severance.

So, what management got wrong: failing to look beyond themselves to have empathy for their employees. In particular, they should have looked for possible alternatives to the layoffs. What The Intercept staff got right: unionizing.

August 2019: A few months later I joined ProPublica as a news applications developer. One of my earliest memories there was walking into the office wearing a T-shirt with an illustration and the words “Abolish ICE. Soon, several of my colleagues were telling me that I would likely get a talking-to from management. I was a little anxious for the rest of the day, but mostly, I just found the idea of management’s concern about my T-shirt funny given ProPublica’s tagline of “Not Shutting Up”. Just as I was exhaling at 5pm, one of the higher-ups came to my desk and said I could not wear this T-shirt at work. I asked him why, but he did not want to discuss it further, other than mumbling that this might have been fine at The Intercept, but not here. My colleagues at their desks listened silently to the conversation. I don’t blame them for not speaking up. ProPublica never felt like a workplace where such conversation would be safe.

I wonder what was it about a T-shirt that said “Abolish ICE” that almost everyone in the newsroom other than me knew would not be tolerated. Of course, when I talk about this incident with my journalist friends, the topic of objectivity comes up, including the idea that publicly proclaiming “Abolish ICE” makes you unfit for journalism. I think that’s bullshit. American journalism has a long tradition of upholding the status quo, whether that’s supporting slavery or the so-called war on terror or the police—which is not objectivity, but simply a different subjectivity.

To me, this little T-shirt incident felt like a newsroom continuing to support the status quo, and being applauded as “objective.” What is most disappointing to me is that I think ProPublica, as a young digital newsroom, has a real opportunity to be different.

I suspect this would have played out the same way in most other newsrooms. What makes me sad is that “Abolish ICE” should be an easy moral call to make—but, bound by the straightjacket of objectivity, newsroom managers don’t want to put themselves on either side of such an issue. This presents special challenges to reporters who joined such workplaces because they believed they would speak up on issues like this.

Newsroom leaders and editors overwhelmingly don’t look like the people hounded by ICE agents, and I think that gives them the privilege of being able to remain “objective.” And this happening at ProPublica, a newsroom that publishes some of the most incisive immigration reporting in the country, emphasizes the point that journalists are encouraged to hold the powerful accountable, but never to proclaim the larger moral lessons of their work.

Also, I was just wearing a T-shirt—it’s not going to take down journalism.

How did you decide it was time to leave the newsroom? What did that process look like for you?

When you work in journalism, especially as a data journalist with design or other technical skills, you make a bargain with yourself. You take a pay cut in return for feeling good about the work you’re doing. Traditional reporters often make the same bargain, and get paid even less.

I think many of us ask ourselves whether this burden has become too heavy. Maybe we feel that the job doesn’t pay enough, or that it isn’t affording enough opportunities to learn and grow, or that the work-life balance is off, or that management keeps making the same mistakes over and over. In my case, I felt that the bargain I was making had become too costly.

Luckily for data journalists, many of the skills we have are in high demand outside of journalism, whether that’s design, coding, data analysis, etc. I feel blessed to have some of those skills valued across other fields.

Can you envision yourself returning to journalism full-time?

Absolutely! The journalism industry will keep evolving, and could look very different in coming years. I also believe that journalism happens in many different ways outside of what is traditionally understood as the journalism industry. If journalism’s purpose is to provide people with the best information about their communities and societies, then a lot of organizations outside of the industry are also pursuing those goals.

One example comes to mind: The Wikipedia community is made up of thousands of volunteers working hard to maintain a repository of knowledge that serves more readers than any newspaper in the world. Another: Mozilla Rally collects donated user data in an effort to understand the ways tech companies are affecting consumers. This project shares many qualities with some of the best data journalism projects I’ve seen, and it’s at a much larger scale.

I’m looking forward to possibly finding myself back in journalism, with fresh ideas after spending a few years doing other things.

If you could snap your fingers and raise one conversation in every newsroom, what would we be talking about tomorrow?

With so many systemic problems in journalism, it’s hard to choose just one change that the field needs to make. Lack of diversity, unequal pay, limited transparency, and uneven power dynamics in newsrooms are all major issues that the industry must contend with. I will focus here on what I’ll call the journalism-awards-industrial complex.

In journalism, money and recognition are so tied to awards that it sometimes feels like newsrooms spend more energy chasing medals than they do working for true community impact. Pouring funding, research, data, design, and development resources into projects that cater to prestige ceremonies takes those resources away from other stories that may be less flashy, but are nevertheless crucially important and useful to the audience.

Not all organizations have equal resources to support such awards efforts. And when they do, the projects chosen to receive significant resources become the most likely to make a splash in awards season—which, in some cases, superifically justifies the investment in those projects.

The problem is even more serious for non-profits, where award wins play a critical role in convincing wealthy funders to donate. I saw this firsthand while working at ProPublica. Focus on accolades diverts newsrooms from their rightful goals, which should revolve around honest service to their communities and audiences.


  • Moiz Syed

    Moiz Syed began his journalism career at The Intercept as a data journalist and designer. He later joined Propublica as a news applications developer, working on projects covering the Trump administration, law enforcement, and the coronavirus pandemic. He co-created and maintains The Journalists of Color Resource Guide. In July 2021, he joined Mozilla as a product designer working on Pocket.


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