We can do better: On leaving the paper and what I hope we can improve for future generations of writers
Consider this a kind of love letter to myself, the community, and the next generation of writers.
I have for many years been the kind of person who stays in abusive relationships. Things that don’t make me feel good get to take up an inordinate amount of space in my life. People, and institutions, that mistreat me eat up years that don’t easily regrow.
Learning to leave is one of the hardest thing any young person can do, and teaching other people to leave and supporting them leaving abusive situations is our community responsibility. This time I’m leaving. I’m listening to that voice inside that tells me when I’m in danger. And I need your help to lift that voice and teach other people to listen to their own.
This week, I left the paper I worked at for 15 months, the Portland Observer. The small minority-owned paper had but one reporter, me, working 30 hours a week for $13 an hour as a contractor, never getting sick days, but also being forced to clock in, like an employee would. Employees in the United States enjoy a few benefits, like accumulated sick time, dedicated lunches and breaks, unemployment insurance, and jobs that are paying into their social security. Contractors enjoy other kinds of benefits, as writers — they can write from home, follow their own beat, and set up office hours that make sense for them. I did not really enjoy either of those, because I was forced to clock in every single hour of my contractor time with a time clock, and when I tried to total up my hours, my editor and boss would remind me lunches were not included. I was tied to my desk, and unable to put in much of a say in the stories headlines. “Black Lives Matter” quickly turned into “All Lives Matter” under my editor’s hands one day. I felt sick, but I had no other choice. He was unresponsive when I urged him to never do that again.
I believe writers, and all workers, deserve to work in legal, legitimized working conditions. And I am concerned about how the paper treated me and how they will treat their next workers. I had been concerned for a long time. I asked for a contract numerous times, and wondered if there was some kind of employee description I could look to so that I could understand what was expected from my position in writing. If I met the conditions of my job, it would eliminate confusion perhaps about what kind of job I was doing and how I should expect to be paid. Was I being paid for hours, or content? If I didn’t finish x amount of work in so many hours, I was shouted at, but if I completed the work quickly I would never be allowed to leave early. The work and the labor weren’t matching up for me. And being the only reporter, there was no one else to ask.
I had other concerns, like the fact that my editor and I were copyediting the entire paper alone, and that it had fallen to me to upload all the stories to the site and manage all our paper’s social media. In yes, that’s right, 30 hours a week. Find stories and get sources and photos, write a paper, copy edit a paper, upload the paper and manage the paper’s social media in 30 hours, no sick days.
There were other people at the paper who should have been editing it or helping us — namely the publisher, who admitted on several occasions he did not read the paper. The editor urged me to take a pay cut if I wanted to ask to be treated like an employee. “Maybe if he pays you less, he won’t be upset he has to pay the other employment taxes,” he urged, when I asked him how to correct my misclassification as a contractor.
That was not just unacceptable to me, it was untenable for me. I cannot live on $12/hour in Portland. I cannot afford a bus pass, the student debt that I took on to earn the skills I needed to write more effectively, my health insurance, my rent, my utilities, nearly anything, on a part time job that works me to the bone. Maybe it might have been tempting to if the paper had felt like a team, but the boss wasn’t really there, not in his heart. The paper wasn’t important to him, because his employees weren’t important to him, and community engagement had gone by the way side. While similar papers were hosting breakfasts and had non-profit branches, our paper was all about ad revenue. And with a hostile working environment, an unfriendly face of the paper, and few connections they were making on their own, they struggled to get the ads they wanted.
I made the mistake of asking my editor for an annual review so I could ask for a 10 cent raise on the dollar a few weeks ago. He said there was no such thing as a review at the paper, but invited the boss to tell me I wasn’t doing everything I could do, that I wasn’t worth an extra 10 cents to keep for them. When I confronted them about a lack of a contract yet again, and the illegality of having a time clock but refusing to pay into social security insurance for their employees, the boss began shouting at me and threatening me. My editor raised his voice and began shaking, saying he thought I was going to “just do what I was told.”
I was scared and didn’t say anything after that. I quietly wrote a resignation letter over the weekend and did not return. I offered them a two week closing period with a written promise of my wages at the end of that period, but they did not respond. My editor’s last statement was that he was sending my resignation letter to Mark Washington, the boss, but knowing his struggles writing emails or responding in written form to almost anything, I did not hear from him again. I asked for my wages if they did not want a two week closing period, but a week later I have nothing.
For me the greatest indignity was finally seeing how the editor treated my last delivered pieces to him. The paper came out Wednesday like it does every week, with my front page story leading. The local news was also my story, but in print I wasn’t credited. And online, my piece was credited to my white male editor, Mike Leighton. He had lifted my byline. He failed to even upload my front page piece to the website, perhaps out of spite or laziness. Every other piece, much less labor intensive pieces, was uploaded to the site. But he had failed to upload my front page piece.
I went into some private Facebook groups for women and other marginalized writers. I shared what my editor had done and proof of me submitting my piece a week earlier, which I’ve included below:
Obviously I wasn’t going to make a ton of money off this very simple piece. It was not about the money. It was about me telling my editor repeatedly I wanted to maintain some kind of professional relationship with him and assist the paper in getting into compliance for themselves even after I left, and having the response be to lift my byline.
The community shared my feelings of indignity, quickly responding and asking the editor to correctly attribute my byline:
Today, the story had been taken down offline. I don’t understand why the editor would choose to misattribute the piece to himself, then decide to remove all attribution for a day, before deleting the piece in its entirety.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to watch someone take credit for your work. My mind wandered to the last Friday I was in the office, calling our source to get a quote from him on the article. He had sent us a press release and my editor had said it would be best to speak to him to “make the story our own.” I listened to him speak on the racism of our criminal justice system and thanked him for his statement and started writing. I added a lead. I looked up some statistics. I turned the story in. I waited. This was going to be the last thing I turned in for the paper. My editor wrote back “Thank you” and I tried to look as unintentional as possible lightly cleaning my desk and leaving to catch the bus. I did not want a confrontation or anyone to know I would not be coming back. I was scared.
When I saw the misattributed piece, I wrote my editor right away. He never responded.
I am so grateful to the community that has followed my stories for so long. And I don’t want to seem ungrateful for what the paper has offered me. But I think we as a community must not let this be the standard for how we let workers be treated. It’s not only illegal, it’s unethical, and unfair. We can and must do better.
We deserve ethically sourced writing and creative labor. We deserve to learn about race in a humane way that does not perpetuate racism — does not leave our writers in unhealthy, illegal working conditions. And this is not just for me. I have a huge community to protect me. I have other work to move onto, other bylines to write, and stories to share. But not every young writer is in the same position. Who is the next emerging writer that will be taken advantage of? Who will never see a contract, or have their bylines removed in favor of a white male editor’s? Who will be too afraid to speak out because of the economic repercussions? Who will protect them or feed them or employ them when they share what this paper or the next does something so cruel to them?
We cannot simply move on with our lives and climb up. Our duty is make sure the door to success and writing and creative work stays open behind us, open enough to ensure the next generation of writers isn’t left behind or cut entirely out of the picture because of their race, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. We need Black writers. We need women writers. We need queer writers. We need Latino writers. We need writers who grew up poor. We need writers who couldn’t afford an exclusive education. We need writers from all kind of backgrounds to get a complete idea of the world around us.
I hope that by sharing my story, this will not happen to someone else. We have a lot of work to do. This cannot be the new norm. It cannot be acceptable. It is simply not tolerable. We can do better. We can love ourselves a little bit more.