How to survive the news industry
Q&A with Kati Kokal, Florida education reporter and mutual aid organizer
Today in the newsletter I have an interview with Kati Kokal, a talented education reporter at the Palm Beach Post who just survived her second round of layoffs this year. In her spare time, with the help of her union, Kati has been organizing mutual aid for fellow journalists across the country who just lost their jobs.
(If you’d like to contribute money, career connections, or other aid to the laid-off journalists, you can fill out this community aid intake form.)
The Post is part of Gannett, the largest remaining newspaper chain in the United States, which includes USA Today and more than 200 daily newspapers. In August, Gannett laid off 400 people and eliminated 400 open positions. In October, Gannett announced a round of buyouts, a hiring freeze, a week of unpaid leave over the holidays, and a suspension of company contributions to 401(k) retirement accounts, according to Poynter.
On Dec. 1, Gannett announced it would reduce its remaining news staff of 3,440 by 6%, or about 200 people.
Gannett reported losing a combined $108 million during its last two quarters. Meanwhile the company pays its CEO a salary of $8 million, awarded a $1.2 million bonus to its CFO this year, used PPP loans to authorize a $100 million stock buyback, and blows an untold fortune on union-busting law firms.
During the first round of layoffs in August, Kati started coordinating aid for her colleagues. She did it herself at first, making the connections between those who could give and those who needed help. Since then, Gannett news workers from across the country have joined her effort.
Kati and I briefly crossed paths in South Carolina when I was an education reporter at the Charleston Post and Courier and she was working at the Hilton Head Island Packet. In 2020 the combined newsroom of the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette successfully formed the first local news workers’ union in South Carolina. I interviewed two of Kati’s colleagues about their victory for the podcast.
These are grim times for the local news industry, and they’ve been grim since before Kati or I set foot in a newsroom. Talking to Kati gave me hope. You can follow her on Twitter at @katikokal and, again, pitch in via the community aid form. If you are a Gannett worker who was affected by the layoffs, you can fill out the layoff reporting form to request aid.
If you are a journalist interested in unionizing your newsroom, check out newsguild.org.
This interview took place on Monday. I edited it for length.
You shared a pretty stunning statistic earlier today on Twitter, that Gannett had laid off employees with a combined experience of at least 286 years last week. I thought that was a profound way of expressing the impact of these layoffs, especially in the news business where institutional memory matters a lot. What does that loss mean for these newsrooms?
One of the things that stuns me, both times we’ve done this layoff aid, is people who’ve spent decades — I mean 4 decades in some cases — working here, and learning and re-learning systems, and training others and mentoring others, and then to have them gone. In this round of layoffs, we also had people who’d been here for less than a year, some of whom are straight out of college, so it’s like you come out of college, welcome to the world of journalism, this is great— and you’re laid off within a year. What a horrible way to start what should be a promising career in journalism.
So what does this mean for newsrooms? Our digital teams are really heavily impacted. These are people who are at the forefront of this sector of journalism that didn’t exist 20, 30 years ago. Not only have they spent … years pushing the envelope on things like search engine optimization, push alerts, mobile app pushes, share text on social media — this is how the majority of American consumers get their news, and by laying off the people who do that, Gannett is sending a message that their experience doesn’t matter and that their work doesn’t matter as much as other people in the company. And that is downright false because these are people who connect people with news that makes their lives different.
Tell me about the mutual aid effort among Gannett employees and how you’re helping each other out during this.
In August we got about 2 weeks’ advance notice, just like we did this time, that people would be laid off. It actually happened to coincide with when all of the unionized newsrooms did a lunch-out in August, and someone on that call said something like, “We need to make sure that no matter what happens tomorrow when we get news of the layoffs, that we’re able to help people and we’re able to connect them.” I was inspired by the Sun Sentinel, which is a paper just south of me in Fort Lauderdale, which had some layoffs over the summer, and the way that people in the newsroom or even people who were alumni of the Sun Sentinel were signal boosting posts by the people who had been laid off.
What happened the next day, though, was truly chaotic. I made a layoff reporting form and I put out on social media, if you’re laid off, let me know and we’ll get it together. What I did not anticipate was that hundreds of people would be in my DMs asking how they could help. That was a true oversight on my part, so we created a second form where people could donate aid. But really, it came down to taking the needs that people had and matching them with the people who could give it, because journalists, many of whom had been laid off by Gannett in the past, really wanted to help.
In August, we had 35 of the 400 people who were laid off who said they needed aid. We already have more than that this time who have said they would like aid. So then we had volunteers, and we called ourselves the Community Mutual Aid Team, and we divided by need. So we have a financial aid team, moral support team, a jobs team which is only focused on jobs boards and job fairs, we have a professional networking team that put together a networking database, and then we have an all-encompassing “other needs” team. They’re people who help with reviewing insurance options, getting a legal review of severance agreements, researching childcare options, researching housing options, and even people who are like, “Here’s where I live, I will drive someone. If they need to go to a doctor’s appointment, if they don’t have a car, I will drive people.” As it kind of shook out and it’s shaking out now again, the biggest thing people wanted were professional resources and jobs.
I know that we were not nearly as organized, but when I lost my news job a few years ago, my coworkers and long-ago ex-coworkers raised money in a GoFundMe, and on top of that they did some networking for me. They gave me recommendations and tried to help me land somewhere else. And that was huge. As the recipient of that kind of aid, I see how much it means. I’m really glad you’re doing that.
I’m so glad that this comes off as organized to you. [laughs] That made my day, because in my brain, it’s just all of these spreadsheets. Our first team meeting is tonight, and I’m just trying to go through all of the things I need to put in front of everyone else, so I’m glad it comes off as organized. It started out really chaotic in August, and this time is easier, but it’s just devastating that we have to do this again 4 months later.
For you personally, you started in 2018, so you’ve been in this industry now about 4 years, but you’ve been through a lot. How does it feel to live and work through all of this? How is it affecting you, and how are you trying to protect yourself emotionally and career-wise?
I was in journalism school when Donald Trump was elected, so coming of journalist age if you put that point in college, we were dealing with external pressures. And this industry has always dealt with external pressures — pressures politically, pressures emotionally, pressures financially. Now, in my first 4 or 5 years in this industry, I’m just stunned by the amount of internal pressure that we continually face. Every time we have an announcement of layoffs, that they’re coming down, it’s so hard to work. You can’t focus on anything else.
I was at [the Poynter Institute] last week for a weeklong summit for this fellowship I have, and in this place that is talking about the future of local journalism and the promise of local journalism and energizing me to do this work. Meanwhile I’m getting emails from people who were just laid off from doing this work. Personally, I would be nervous to get into a newsroom that is not unionized. I don’t want to say I don’t see a future in a non-unionized newsroom, but for me it is very important that the newsrooms I work in are unionized, because I’ve seen the protections that they offer.
The way that I square all of this is that I hope I’m never laid off, but I, from the moment I graduated from journalism school, have always expected that this career would include at some point a layoff of some sort. And I hope that this type of process or support network or team is there to help me when that happens.
I also really try to find a work-life chemistry that helps me disconnect from these things. I like to run in my free time, I like to spend time with my dog. Those things are very important to me, and they don’t go away when it’s a stressful day at work.
If we could go back to November 4, there was a one-day walkout by 200 journalists from 14 Gannett papers across the U.S. There was one picture that stood out for me that day from the Austin NewsGuild in Texas. It was a group of Austin Statesman staff, and they were picketing, and one of them was holding a sign that said, “I cover a community I can’t afford.” That line was way too familiar from my time working here in Charleston. I assume that’s the case in a lot of communities, that the wages people make as journalists are not enough for them to live in the city that they cover. Looking back at that one-day action, what was the message it sent, and how effective do you feel it was?
We in the Gannett caucus are just trying to recognize how much power we have when we move together. That has been really cool to witness. Gannett journalists have always been outspoken about some of the things this company does, but in the last year that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a marked increase in wanting to do these national attention-getting, double-take-garnering actions. We do them because we are more alike than we are different. When we talk about issues that we’re seeing at the bargaining table, in our newsrooms, in our communities, they’re much more alike than they are separated or siloed.
When things really culminated with the walkout in November, it was this ask that we do not go silently into the night, that we do not deal with these ongoing layoffs and these buyouts and furloughs at the holidays, and that people understand what’s going on. The amount of support that we received from people was amazing. Some of those people were former journalists who themselves had been laid off by Gannett. Getting to the point where we as a caucus are moving together has been inspiring and life-giving.
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