On Mic.com and Minority Life in Startup Media

How unconscious bias erased my name from my hard work, and why none of us should put up with it.

photo by zharth

If you’re a media person, you’ve probably heard that the social-justice driven, millennial-leaning media startup Mic.com recently laid off 25 staff members as it pivots to video, a move that a bunch of other media startups have made recently. You might have also read Adrianne Jeffries’ extensively-reported feature from The Outline about what’s going on inside the company, the gist of which is that Mic’s co-founders Chris Altchek and Jake Horowitz did not fully believe in the social justice principles the site espouses and only took on that position to make money, then fired staffers who were committed to those principles once the company pivoted.

In response, Altchek recently defended Mic on Twitter:

In turn, former senior features editor Gabriel Arana (who, full disclosure, is a good friend and frequent editor), pointed out that employees couldn’t put their names with their quotes because they all had to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of their severance package. And when Altchek pointed to an award-winning interactive feature I wrote for Mic on trans-related violence called “Unerased: Counting Transgender Lives,” Arana responded with the following:

It’s true that even though I was the lead reporter for Unerased, I didn’t know that I had even been nominated for an award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists until reporter Mathew Rodriguez (who has since left Mic) posted a picture of himself on social media accepting the award when the piece won and was credited simply to “Mic Staff” (since corrected) despite the fact that I fundamentally conceived the feature and did the lion’s share of work for the project (Unerased has also received awards from GLAAD and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists’ Association, both of which credited me properly). This was the culmination of one specific higher-up within Mic repeatedly minimizing my work, for reasons that I can only attribute to severe unconscious bias.

At the time, I resolved the situation privately and decided to let it go since it’s just one of many I’ve had in my life as an intersectional minority who belongs to so many marginalized identities it’s kind of embarrassing to list — transgender, queer, Filipino, albino, first-generation immigrant, gender-nonconforming woman. But Arana bringing it up in the context of the Mic layoffs made me think that it might be beneficial to use this specific situation as a way to query how bias works among media startups in general, and why it’s such a huge problem that at the end of the day, liberal media is still controlled by white men because the people who fund that media are only willing to invest in white men. If what you’re about to read is a critique at all, it’s not really of Mic specifically, but media startup culture in general.

Unlike the employees interviewed for the Outline piece, I am not bound by a confidentiality agreement since I worked at Mic as a freelancer, even though I was physically in the office at least once a week for about three months, and have gotten to know a significant number of people there. This puts me in a good position to openly assess Mic’s problems, and by extension digital startup media, without having to be anonymous.

The funny thing is that while the journalism industry is in charge of exposing difficult truths, it actually does a generally poor job of revealing its own problems, because journalists depend on the companies that employ them for their livelihood, and they’re afraid to speak out for fear of becoming unemployable. This is deeply hypocritical given how often those same companies chase whistleblowers in other industries, but media isn’t known for being internally consistent. As a result, endemic problems in the journalism industry persist. But courageous people in other industries, notably Kaela Lusk and Ellen Pao detailing their nightmares at Uber and the venture capital world respectively, along with journalists like Lewis Wallace, Steven Thrasher, and Arana himself, inspire me to strive for greater transparency within journalism. So I’m taking the risk of telling my story, hoping that present and future employers would understand that I do so without malice to the specific people involved, but only in an effort to provide insights that would improve digital media for minorities, both in media and in society, which furthers the stated goals of many of these companies to strive broadly towards social justice.

Values vs. Profit

Before I tell my own story, I just want to weigh in on Jeffries’ article, and the central argument that Mic used social justice primarily for profit, as well as the idea that the site’s founders were out-of-touch with the mission that Mic is supposed to embody. I find both charges to have merit, yet also find myself puzzled over why Mic‘s case is presented as exceptional, given that the conditions there are also the conditions for so much of digital media. Critical pieces have been run on places like MTV News and Bustle based on a similar premise. But I myself haven’t been interested in targeting single media companies because it seems to me that the problems plaguing Mic are pretty standard across media, and seem traceable to the fact that the further you go up in the food chain, the likelihood of the folks being maler and whiter increases, with minorities in those positions often hampered or blocked by the white male majority.

I want to be clear that there are many good, well-meaning white folks in media. But I want to be equally clear that no amount of good intentions can replicate the lived experience and perspectives of minorities who are often shut out of those positions unless they’re willing to either maintain a status quo that’s driven by their white colleagues, or be tokenized such that they can be in a position to speak out, but only for the company to show that it tolerates minority dissent without admitting its fundamental problems. I’m intentionally speaking vaguely here because I am unwilling to call out minorities in media management positions, because the structural problems I’m pointing out are really not their fault, even though they often end up with the brunt of the blame when things go wrong.

So ultimately, what I was missing from Jeffries’ piece was an analysis of the degree to which Mic was the exception rather than the rule. Sure, it was not the greatest move for Altchek and Horowitz to only demonstrate undue concern when white journalists were killed, by sending pizza and advising people to take the day off if they feel traumatized, while they made no such move to comfort minority reporters as black people have been repeatedly killed by police. And sure, Mic may have only been willing to stand for social justice as long as those stories fed its bottom line. But is this really a surprise? Regardless of how woke any cis straight rich white man is, the fact is that he will have severe blind spots if he lives in America because his experiences are so fundamentally different from minorities. Maybe it’s time to consider that a management team heavily dominated by white men would make situations like the ones Jeffries describes nearly inevitable, and that the solution would ultimately be not only to hire more minorities, but encourage a culture where they can speak freely, then actually and consistently listen to them.

When I write social-justice driven work for these startups, I don’t operate under the illusion or expectation that their motives are unsullied. I understand that given our market-driven world, the work that I do — regardless of how much social justice impact it’s projected to have — must also fulfill the company’s other strategic goals. In Mic’s case, I was aware that Mic was striving for credibility both among its audience but also within the digital media industry, and a project as ambitious as Unerased stood to do that when I began to work on it. I also believe that everyone involved with the project, including Altchek and Horowitz, sincerely hoped that it would make an impact beyond the company’s strategic goals, even if they may not be as deeply committed to trans rights as me or others within the company. I don’t think we can fault companies for trying to make themselves prestigious and profitable unless we acknowledge that those same conditions exist for the industry as a whole.

So from a pragmatic perspective, I can’t really blame Mic’s management team and publisher Cory Haik for making a shift to video when their existing model wasn’t working. For what it’s worth, I find Haik’s arguments about the beginnings of a video revolution in media largely persuasive, as I do Haik herself, who was the highest person in command that directly oversaw Unerased and whose ideas I’ve always found astute. While I prefer to absorb information via text, I’m aware that a large proportion especially of Mic’s demographic doesn’t conform to my habits, and I’m fine with that, especially for breaking, quick-hit pieces. I’m also on-board with constantly pushing the inherent qualities of digital media to their limit, which was why I found not only writing the feature but conceiving the visualizations, working on the interactive database, and doing a bunch of photography and video for Unerased so exciting. Rather than making an unexamined switch to video to follow Facebook’s algorithm tweaks, Haik has made a persuasive case for how video can not only be more profitable, but a better experience for Mic’s demographic.

Of course, the problem with this is that a pivot to video also requires a reapportionment of skills across Mic’s newsroom, which I imagine was the reason why people got laid off, as they did in other organizations. I empathize with those employees, and wish that they could have been given a chance to re-train or demonstrate their skills prior to getting the axe. But I also know that the cut-throat world of digital startups makes it very hard to invest in training for employees — who often don’t have time to get trained to begin with — so it’s easier to just hire people who already have the skills companies need. That’s also an industrywide problem, and I don’t have enough experience to evaluate the degree to which unions can help, though I imagine that those employees would be in a better position had Mic been unionized.

In short, I think Mic’s pivot broadly makes sense and I don’t think a company that espouses social justice should somehow be prevented from laying off employees if it plans to survive in a tough startup market. Though I also disapprove of some specific practices detailed in Jeffries’ article assuming they’re true, such as folks being assured there would be no layoffs as little as a week prior to the layoffs actually happening. At the same time, I also want to reiterate that the priorities of a company’s management will always diverge to some extent from those of its employees, so the Mic situation speaks to the necessity for said employees to organize and advocate for themselves, whether formally through a union or informally by meeting regularly and looking out for each other.

My Sordid Tale of Unconscious Bias

Now let’s talk about my story specifically. My experience working on Unerased was overwhelmingly positive, and I found myself deeply impressed with everyone I worked with there. This was hugely aided by the fact that I had Gabriel Arana as my direct editor, whose queer minority perspective, along with the fact that we’ve worked on many pieces prior, meant that I had unconditional support and trust during the conception and creation phases of the project. This is something I rarely experience and am often frustrated by in media, the fact that I write on trans issues but have never had an editor who is also trans, so all of my work has to be filtered through their cisgender lens. As a result, I often need to extensively justify my work when other colleagues don’t have to, since they work with editors whose knowledge and experience are closer to theirs. But Gabe and I have such a long history that he was happy to give me the reins, and only step in when necessary. Other Mic staffers took Gabe’s lead and Cory Haik gave astute feedback while also giving the team that created the project significant latitude.

Near the completion of the project, Mic hired a new executive news director, Kerry Lauerman, who made a decision I found perplexing, about a project that was already in mid-flight. He directed Arana to cut my feature down from an agreed-upon 4,500 words to 2,500, which would have essentially undone several months of work, literally days before the project went live. Arana refused and cut the feature down to 3,500 words, which still resulted in needing to cut out a number of key interviews and at least one substantial section, but at least preserved the heart of what has turned out to be a multiple award-winning feature, which I’m certain would not have been nearly as praised had the in-depth investigation I wrote been turned into essentially a series of captions for interactive visualizations (which I conceived by the way; more on that later).

Mind you, I’d only interacted with Lauerman for a few hours when this decision was made, so at that point, I just thought of it as a misguided move by a new hire itching to exert his influence, which my editor pushed back on and was more-or-less resolved. But as the piece was about to go live, Lauerman did something else I found really puzzling: he started consistently praising one aspect of the piece while diminishing another. If you look at Unerased, you’ll see that the package is conceived as an interactive feature with an accompanying database of trans victims lost to violence, designed to function in tandem and both of which I did extensive work on. At a meeting on the eve of the project going live, he praised the database as the truly innovative aspect of the project. At a post-mortem I couldn’t make because I was out of the country, but for which Mic Senior Product Director Marcus Moretti took notes, he praised my editor but not me for the feature, and then reiterated: “The database is what people were most interested in reporting on this. In total it’s the most powerful part of the package.” The first assertion is objectively untrue, given that GLAAD emphasized (and eventually gave me an award) for my reporting, as did WNYC, which interviewed me on the radio, as well as outlets like LGBTQ Nation and OUT. The second is Lauerman’s judgment, which was contradicted not just by these outlets but by the multiple awards the project has since garnered, including an “Innovation in Investigative Journalism” award that would be hard to attribute to a database.

It wasn’t hard to figure out that Lauerman was minimizing my efforts. The feature was the part of the project that had my byline, and the database was the part that other reporters and designers chiefly worked on, especially the biographies of trans women lost to violence in 2017. It seemed that even though he was present at meetings where I talked about the database at length and with authority, as every other member of the team turned to me to make decisions about it, Lauerman didn’t really get that I was the one who did the research and set up the data parameters for the database backend, and I was also the person who made most of the key decisions about how the database should run, with the design and product teams involved taking their cues from my concepts, while none of the other reporters on the project had any input at all on the database design. So as Lauerman continued to minimize my efforts concerning the project and didn’t acknowledge my work, he was unwittingly praising work that I actually did but he wasn’t giving me credit for.

I guess Lauerman might not have examined my résumé and learned that prior to journalism, I had worked as a technical assistant at MIT, and one of my major functions was designing data-driven figures and visualizations. I can’t read his mind of course, but one of my common experiences since gender transition has been that while people were much more likely to trust my smarts and expertise implicitly when I presented as a man, I have to work a lot harder as a woman for people to both credit me for my work or trust my judgment. At the same time, there’s a lot more pressure on me as a woman to be a cooperative team player and not be perceived as arrogant or boastful, so properly being acknowledged for my work has been a lot harder since I also couldn’t trumpet my credentials too loudly. While I was able to successfully perform this balancing act with my other team members at Mic, it seemed that I didn’t do enough qualification and authority-signaling for Lauerman to get the memo.

I would have probably addressed this problem and clarified the extent of the work I did with Lauerman had I been a regular employee at Mic, but it soon became clear that despite the praise for the project, he wasn’t inclined to work with me again and I moved on, thankful that I have the ability to do that as a freelancer who has good relationships with other editors. It’s not the first or last time my work has been minimized and I didn’t want to get mired in office politics. Arana had his own struggles with Lauerman and eventually left Mic as well, so I no longer had a strong connection to the company, even though I enjoyed working with people there and still consider many of them to be friends.

This all happened in December 2016. Flash forward to May 2017, a couple of weeks after I received a GLAAD Media Award for Unerased. I was randomly scrolling through my Twitter feed and came upon this tweet from Mic reporter Mathew Rodriguez, who was one of the secondary reporters for Unerased:

Apparently, Unerased just won an award from the New York chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists. I had no idea we were nominated. And apparently, my name as lead reporter was no longer associated with the project, but just “Mic Staff,” and by receiving the award on the project’s behalf, Rodriguez effectively implied that he was primarily responsible for the project, which, mind you, was all about highlighting the lives of trans people, especially trans women of color. As a trans woman of color myself, the irony of being erased from my own project called Unerased was not lost on me.

When Rodriguez messaged me on Facebook fifteen minutes later informing me of the award, I wrote this:

I intended this as a private communication to Rodriguez, a fellow queer minority reporter who I consider a friend, but he apparently talked to Lauerman about it, who I got an e-mail from the next morning. He said that not inviting me was just an oversight in a busy office, that there was “no disrespect intended here,” and that he wished I “could’ve collected the award with Mathew.” Mind you, this is a project for which I did all of the reporting for the main feature, conceived the interactive visualizations, did all of the original photography (and sourced many of the social media photographs), and collected at least 85% of the data, while needing to re-do much of the rest of the data other people had collected because they didn’t have database design experience. And if we calculate credit based on ideas rather than effort, I would argue that I deserved even more credit, given that the ideas that made the project distinct from work on trans violence that came before it, from the move to track multiple case outcomes over a seven-year period, to the conception of the visualizations and database design, all came from me, and were implemented not primarily with the help of other reporters, but with programmers, designers, and my editor. So I feel like in a more typical situation (e.g. if a white man was the project’s lead reporter), the reporting award should have either been given solely to me for the feature, or credited as “Meredith Talusan with” the other reporters. At best, it should not have been me collecting the award with Mathew, it should have been Mathew collecting the award with me.

Now, even as I’m writing these words, I’m aware that some people would interpret me as a diva, or that I’m being nitpicky about credit. And to those people, consider how for white men, assuming the credit for which they’re rightly due is seen simply as them asking for what they deserve, if they even end up in a position where they’re overlooked and have to argue for credit that’s due to them. This difference in the way minorities are treated actually plays into the dynamics of this whole affair, as I’ve learned over time to be generous with credit and not overemphasize my role in projects too much, for fear of being seen as haughty or arrogant. But apparently, this led to Mic’s news director and a fellow reporter to neglect the outsized role I played in the project, so that both of those people as well as Mic’s communication team entirely forgot that I should have been invited to an award ceremony for which my project was nominated, and instead neglected to even inform me about the nomination.

Lessons

Look, it’s just an award. I wasn’t an employee so I wasn’t fired. I’d been given indications that Mic wanted to have an ongoing relationship with me, and even gave me a Contributing Editor title, but that didn’t pan out once Lauerman took on his role, despite the multiple awards and praise Unerased has received (the project got a third award in August, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award). I have enough of a track record that other editors continue to be happy working with me, as I have since been writing a regular column for VICE, published features for Backchannel at WIRED, as well as pieces for other places and forthcoming book contributions. In the grand scheme of things, what happened to me at Mic wasn’t terrible, but I’m also a good test case because I can talk about the effects of the experience relatively dispassionately and without the accusations of bitterness that usually come with accounts by people who’ve been fired from jobs. And based on this experience, a number of things stand out to me:

It only takes one person in a position of power to entirely undermine someone’s work, and in startup media, that person is usually a white man. As I mentioned, I had cordial relationships with pretty much everyone I worked with at Mic before this incident. But it only took one white male supervisor with severe unconscious bias for my work to end up being minimized and eventually unacknowledged. Given the number of white male supervisors in media, and the ability of those folks’ unconscious biases to affect how they judge employee contributions, is it any wonder that minorities become more and more scarce the higher up one goes in the media food chain, not even accounting for the fact that minorities are underrepresented in journalism to begin with? Let’s also not forget that even minority managers exist in a social environment that discredits minorities and often have unconscious biases of their own, so having a minority manager doesn’t guarantee that a minority, especially an intersectional minority, would get equal treatment relative to their white male counterparts.

I’ve harped on Kerry Lauerman in this article but I actually don’t bear him ill-will as a person, in part because I’ve learned from experience not to expect too much from people in his position. Knowing that we live in a racist, misogynist, transphobic society, I’ve learned that the only way I can prove my worth is to be measurably and indubitably better than my counterparts, which requires me not to spend too much time and energy agonizing over people who don’t recognize my skills or talents. Given the many stories I heard from minorities in multiple media organizations, I don’t think Lauerman is unique.

Because the contributions of women and other minorities are often overlooked, while they are also discouraged from claiming full credit for their work, their contributions tend to be consistently minimized. Again, this is a conclusion that’s unsurprising but always worth repeating. The one additional contribution I can make to this point is that being trans, I am viscerally aware of the difference between how I was treated when I presented as a man versus now. I’m aware of how people trusted my technical expertise, how they didn’t question the validity of my work, and how they even attributed credit to me when it more properly belonged to other people. And when it comes time for promotions or, in Mic’s case, difficult layoff decisions, it makes me wonder how many of the minorities who were laid off would have been seen as contributing more than they did or been given more opportunities, had they only been white men.

As a result, white men are more likely to be acknowledged, kept, and promoted over minorities with the same qualifications, unless those minorities are willing to toe the white-driven party line. Since Unerased, I have not been invited to continue writing for Mic, despite the fact that the project I conceived and did the lion’s share of work on has since received three significant awards, which to my knowledge have been the only awards a project on the site has received thus far (the site itself has won a Webby). I have no doubt that this would not be the case if I were a white man, given the acclaim for the award and how positively the people I worked with there felt about me when the project launched. But because my work was severely minimized through a white man’s unconscious bias, I haven’t been invited to work with a company for whom I’ve brought significant recognition. And now, there’s the additional reason not to work with me because I’ve criticized the company and am therefore “difficult,” despite the fact that I wouldn’t be in this position if I were given the credit I deserved in the first place.

This is how minorities end up getting pushed out of media opportunities. We don’t get our due credit for our work but we can’t complain about it, so instead other people are promoted before us. And when we do complain about it, we’re considered difficult and hard to work with so we end up not given opportunities either. Our only choice is to perform demonstrably better work and hope we have a sympathetic manager, usually white, who could somehow recognize our contributions for their actual merit. We also have to swallow any criticisms we have about minority conditions within our company, so that we wouldn’t be perceived as difficult. Then when we get promoted, the company can tout itself as having minorities in powerful positions even though those minorities are likely unable to improve conditions for other minorities within the company, for fear of repercussion.

Conclusions

I hope that by breaking down how this cycle of minority dynamics works, some people who have made it all the way down here, hopefully some of them managers who work in media or even other industries, can have a better sense of how unconscious bias has so many terrible effects, not even mentioning the fact that the whiteness of media doesn’t serve the general public. As more and more people share their accounts of bias, then perhaps more managers would recognize their own blind spots and notice the differences in their judgments of people’s work based on their backgrounds and identities. That way, we can move away from this simplistic and tokenist way of hiring and keeping minorities, and come to a greater recognition that it’s possible to evaluate minorities not just by their identities but their actual talents, while people in positions of judgment also recognize that their perspectives are colored by our deeply-biased society.

And hopefully, if we continue in that direction, more and more minorities will rise to positions of power within their companies, and even be in a position to get VC money so that media startups don’t have to be so dominated by white-dude CEO’s and founders. So maybe someday, a media startup led by a group of co-founders from various minority identities can gain as much prominence as the ones we have now. When that happens, minority journalists like me can finally work with a startup media company without worrying that a single person who is unconsciously biased against us would end up minimizing the many grueling hours of work on a project like Unerased: Counting Transgender Lives, before erasing my own name, attached to my own transgender life, from an award for which I deserved credit.


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