What we learned from a year of Exit Interviews
This series was written by community members who left journalism, but it’s for people who are still in the work
We weren’t quite sure, in early 2021, how it would feel to run a series like Exit Interviews. Our community is full of journalists. Why would we publish essays about people leaving the newsroom?
OpenNews events and programs have always welcomed honest talk about careers, identity, and our sense of belonging in an industry that often isn’t kind to workers. Carla Murphy’s research has collected stories and data about how poor conditions and poor leadership affect journalists of color in particular. This series was another way to convene a community-wide conversation about our newsrooms and what it would take to make them better. Exit Interviews were written by community members who left journalism, but it’s a series for people who are still in the work.
In starting to imagine a better future, a couple of goals felt really important:
We want to name problems many journalists don’t feel safe talking about. You can’t fix what you don’t measure, and you can’t measure what you don’t name. And sometimes it just feels good to finally see something said out loud. But it’s more than that, too—personal stories remind us that we aren’t alone, and give us all language for talking about change.
So this series gave writers time to reflect—something too rarely offered to journalists on the job—and say things in a way that lots of folks in this community can’t. Looking back on how their essay helped them work through their own feelings about leaving, one writer put it this way: “I’m in this position of privilege where I could talk about these things without seeing any retaliation against me in any way.”
Feedback from readers said the same thing: I’m so glad you wrote this. I feel it too, but I don’t feel safe saying it.
We want to give people cover for raising difficult conversations. This goes hand in hand with our first goal, because ultimately we have to speak up and act collectively to create a future for journalism that we want to be a part of. But what if speaking up is an invitation for retaliation? Here’s another place where having some distance is helpful—it’s easier to point out our own problems when someone else is describing them. Not everyone can walk into a meeting and say “we’re really screwing up, and here’s how.” But sharing an article, or asking “hey, how are we doing with this stuff?” … that’s something that more of us might feel like we can do.
I think this series was able to do both of those things thanks to the bravery of all the writers. They’ve helped the rest of us have so many meaningful conversations, and writing such honest stories and insights was not easy. Many were still untangling the way their identities were tied up in the job, and every essay touched on memories that I know still feel raw. And still they helped us imagine a future for our industry that’s better than what they experienced themselves.
This series has asked a lot from readers, too. It’s full of critique, but the best kind, the kind that can only come from deep love of this community and belief in its work. What we do at OpenNews is always rooted in care, in making connections and resources more accessible—and that includes language and opportunities to hold our own organizations accountable.
What that critique asks for is a response. In a traditional exit interview, it’s up to the company to decide how serious they are about change, whether they’re really going to act on what they hear. In this series, the feedback was for an industry, so it invites reflection across organizations, newsrooms, and teams. Together, these are places where we have collective power, and it’s up to us to decide to act.
Conversations we’re carrying into this year
We’re still thinking about the themes that tied this group of Exit Interviews together, and looking for ways to carry them into conversation with you this year. Here are just some of the reflections we don’t want to lose sight of:
- Uncoupling our identities from our profession. It’s so hard, though! This, in particular, was something that many Exit Interview writers were still wrestling with, weeks and months after leaving newsroom jobs. Phoebe Gavin had such a helpful way to reframe what many of us think of as the “calling”: “A calling isn’t a job or an industry. It’s an activity or an impact. When you can identify your calling in these terms, you can start to imagine many ways for it to exist in your life.”
- The extra burdens—of work and representation—carried by journalists of color. “There’s a reason why when you think about what a ‘data journalist’ looks like, you don’t think of someone who looks like me.” Aaron Williams wrote this in our first Exit Interview more than a year ago now. Journalists of color carry extra weight and take on so much unsung work in a profession regularly organized around the needs of white people. On top of all that, many feel responsible for representing a future for younger workers.
- We’re missing out on expertise that’s already in our newsrooms. Even as someone with a seat at decision-making tables, Phoebe wrote, “my recommendations were almost always met with polite acknowledgements that never turned into action. When I gave notice, I was surprised how many people urgently sought memos, training recordings, wikis, and strategy sessions on audience principles. I have never felt more heard in the newsroom than I did in those weeks.” I bet that felt like instant recognition for so many of us, because newsrooms are notorious for ignoring internal expertise. (Pay a consultant to tell you the same thing, though, and now we’re talking change!) How many resources do we waste, how much resentment do we build, because we won’t listen to the experience of the people we already work with?
- Taking off the “straightjacket of objectivity.” Moiz Syed gave a new, evocative name to the view from nowhere. Nausheen Husain wrote that “the longer you work in a newsroom, the more you can see the tools and strategies both reporters and editors have to prioritize some stories and issues over others.” Charlie Johnson wrote about how the “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.” This is a lie our newsrooms have told themselves for decades and—alongside identity vs. profession—was one of the clearest themes that writers called out in their Exit Interviews. Leaders who buy into it are ruining relationships with journalists and communities who never see their lives represented in our work.
- Naming all the people, not just the reporters, behind the work. Charlie also wrote about the way credit is distributed unevenly in newsrooms. We’re great at celebrating awards, but the team that keeps the website running on, say, election night … that work’s harder to understand and it can feel invisible. It hides responsibility, too, when the editors who shape stories, projects, and strategies go unnamed. “Those who labor behind the scenes—who often handle jobs of enormous consequence—their work goes literally unremarked upon.”
- We need to slow down and ask practical questions about even the most obvious projects. Sometimes the absolute urgency of a story makes us skip important decisions. From Sara Simon: “How can we humanize these statistics? Do we fully understand how these numbers are being compiled …? More practically, too: Are we willing to staff this project appropriately on evenings, weekends, and holidays?” The pace of our newsrooms doesn’t generally give us time for reflection when a project is over, much less before it gets started. What do we need to wind down to make room for something new? If it feels annoying to raise a question like that, imagine how much worse it feels to harm your readers and burn out your colleagues.
Those are some of the themes we keep thinking about—how about you? Which of these conversations could you commit to having in your newsroom this year?
Commitments have been another theme on Source recently: using whatever type of power and influence we have to start making changes, even if they’re small at first. The community members who wrote Commitments, Not Predictions had no idea we were thinking about a piece like this one here, but wow have there been great connections between the two series:
- Julia B. Chan on taking off the straightjacket of objectivity
- Annemarie Dooling on peer learning and listening to the expertise in the room
- Robert Hernandez on equity and opportunities for journalists of color
If you’re reading the Exit Interviews series and wondering what you can do to help make journalism a better place, think about making a commitment. It could be a public statement like these. It could be finding an accountability partner and making steady progress toward a goal you pick together. It could even be as simple as a shoutout: lifting up someone in your newsroom who you already see taking steps to make it better. (Listening to the expertise in the room probably starts with more of us singing about unsung heroes!)
Actions like these are ways we can speak up and actually experience some of the future we want to build for journalism. Maybe the more time we spend there, the harder it’ll be to go back.
Ryan Pitts is a developer and journalist in Spokane, WA. He’s the director of network development for OpenNews, a nonprofit organization that helps newsroom developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate on technology and support each other as a community. (OpenNews also publishes this website.) Ryan is a board member and developer at Census Reporter, and was the senior editor for digital media at The Spokesman-Review.