Former PublicSource Reporters Publish Open Letter Alleging Mistreatment

Sep 17, 2020

In a public letter published last week, four former PublicSource journalists described alleged mistreatment while they worked at the Pittsburgh news organization. 

That mistreatment, they say, shows mismanagement and poor editorial judgment, and asked for an independent investigation into the nonprofit. The claims range from human resources issues like unequal pay and requiring an employee to provide doctor’s notes that revealed personal information, to editorial decisions that were allegedly shaped by concerns over jeopardizing financial support.

The former employees sent letters to PublicSource's Board of Directors detailing their claims in July. Frustrated by the organization's response, the group published an open letter and posted versions of their individual letters to the Board publicly.

“We were harmed by the policies, people and culture at PublicSource, and if it is to continue in its reputation as a news outlet that makes the unheard heard, a publication that holds the powerful to account, it itself must be held accountable,” the former employees wrote.

For its part, PublicSource board chair Jim Crutchfield said the company could not discuss any individual personnel matters publicly, but that the board is taking the allegations seriously. He said that the organization is investigating the journalists' claims and that their open letter "reflects their point of view." Crutchfield emphasized that PublicSource is "committed to fostering and maintaining a fair and amicable work environment as we are to producing journalism that matters. We will take all steps necessary to make sure that kind of environment prevails at PublicSource."

The four reporters, Brittany Hailer, Mary Niederberger, Tom Lisi and a fourth employee (who remained anonymous for fear of retribution from a current employer) all left the news organization within weeks of each other in the fall of 2019.

“While much attention in Pittsburgh has been focused on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its mistreatment of the unionized workers there – an obviously important issue – PublicSource employees, just across town, regularly worked well beyond a 40-hour work week with no additional compensation,” they wrote in the open letter. “At PublicSource, there were no concrete policies on sick time, vacation time and no human resources representative.”

All four reporters said many of the issues at hand could have been resolved, or at least improved, if there had been a human resources representative or a clear set of company policies. The organization contracted things like retirement plans and payroll through a third-party provider.

PublicSource's Crutchfield said in a statement that the organization has had policies in place since 2011 and those policies were compiled in a 2018 employee handbook "which includes policies on editorial independence and expectations, disability accommodations, anti-harassment, social media, use of information technology assets and reporting ethical and legal violations." Crutchfield said that handbook was approved by the board of directors. PublicSource did not provide a copy when asked; none of the four reporters recall any sort of official company handbook.

PublicSource is a non-profit, online investigative news organization that was formed in 2011, and currently has 14 employees, according to its website.  

In one instance, the reporter who chose to remain anonymous, claims that he was required to share details about his personal and psychological health which led to his “unwelcome” outing as bisexual. According to his letter to the board, he was asked to provide doctor’s notes when he attended therapy sessions. He believed, after talking with other employees at the time, that he was the only person asked to provide medical notes. While those notes didn’t include personal details about what was discussed at those appointments, they did disclose details about his identity that he would not otherwise have shared. One of the therapists he saw was at the LGBT-focused Persad Center.

He wrote to the board that the requirement "was especially concerning because at the time I was being treated for severe anxiety and depression,” he wrote. “I felt like the policy forced me to a) share details about my mental health with my employer that I wasn’t comfortable with and b) out myself as LGBT to my employer, something I definitely wasn’t comfortable with. I was deeply uncomfortable having to reveal to my employer where I was seeking treatment and who was treating me, for fear of being terminated. I was ashamed and embarrassed that I was forced to out myself to them before I was ready.”

Two of the journalists described instances of women allegedly being paid far less than their male counterparts. Brittany Hailer, who was a longtime freelancer for PublicSource before being hired, wrote to the board that the most she was ever paid for a story was $600. But when she talked with other male freelancers, she learned the range at which they were paid was higher than hers – between $900-$1,500.

PublicSource said it has an established pay scale for freelancers, which considers the estimated time commitment, research and sourcing required to report the proposed story.

"We then share our offer to freelancers in alignment with those considerations and the pay scale that we consider equally for all freelancers we engage," wrote PublicSource Board of Directors President Jim Crutchfield, when asked about this claim.

Reporter Mary Niederberger came to PublicSource with decades of journalism experience, but wrote to the board that she was paid less than a male colleague with just a handful of years on the job.

She said that when she raised the issue with her supervisor, she “was immediately given a raise. This is the only raise I received in the three years I worked at PublicSource and it came about only because of a confrontation.”

The two other reporters who signed the letter alleged that investigative pieces were killed because of concerns about jeopardizing PublicSource's financial support. The claims run counter to PublicSource’s stated pledge to “maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.”

Reporter Tom Lisi, who covered economic development, described finding documents related to a local community organization on a coffee table where PublicSource shared a workspace.

“I discreetly made a few Xerox copies of some of the papers for reference, returned the papers to the coffee table where I found them, and made several calls to sources.”

Lisi said he called sources and was able to confirm the details of the meeting outlined in the documents. When he spoke with editors a few hours later, they said he should stop reporting the story because the owner of the papers could potentially figure out the story’s source. He agreed.

He wrote that he was told the next day that “situation could be very bad for the organization,” in that it could jeopardize relationships with funders. Lisi was fired later that day for allegedly breaking PublicSource’s ethics policy. He claims that he had never been given a policy nor told what policy he violated.

Reached for additional comment after this story was initially published, Crutchfield said, “No one has ever killed a story because of pressure from or fear of funders.”

The four employees sent their letters to the board of directors in July, and asked for an independent investigation into what happened. A week later, the board chair thanked them for sharing their experiences and said there would be a review of their claims.

“Instead, we received a message from an expensive defense attorney on behalf of PublicSource, who specializes in defending employers against discrimination claims and whistle blowers,” the reporters wrote. “We took that action as a clear sign that PublicSource’s leadership had no interest in taking a serious and impartial look at our concerns but to defend against them.”

But PublicSource said they hired the investigator precisely because they take such complaints seriously.

“We hired an experienced employment lawyer to both investigate the complaints and advise how we might improve,” Crutchfield wrote. He said PublicSource told the journalists "we take your complaints very seriously. We are investigating and we will reach out to each of you as we proceed."

“The investigator reviewed all of the paperwork provided by the former employees," Crutchfield wrote in his statement for this story. "She reviewed PublicSource’s policy and procedures documents and interviewed PublicSource’s executive director and managing editor. She contacted the former employees. The former employees said they needed to consult their lawyer, and they subsequently decided not to be interviewed because, they wrote, our investigator has represented organizations in employment cases.”

“We’ve heard the former employees, and while we cannot discuss these individual personnel matters publicly, we’re still willing to listen. We have urged current employees to share any concerns they have to the executive director or to the board so they can be addressed in a constructive way.”

A current employee at the organization has a different perspective. While he appreciates the stories they shared, reporter Oliver Morrison told WESA that he generally feels both personally and professionally supported at PublicSource. He said the board and editors have reached out to staff to identify areas for growth.

"The editors and staff are focused on the mission: finding ways of telling stories that will improve our community," Morrison wrote in an email. "Even when we make mistakes, I think this mission-focus guides the work of everyone at the organization. And it's why I feel pretty confident that this experience will cause us to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses, because I witness every day how we're all trying to get better at what we do."

WESA reached out to two other current PublicSource employees for comment; neither weighed in on the situation. The organization’s managing editor and executive director also did not comment, instead passing the inquiry along to Crutchfield.

The four reporters say they have no plans to file EEOC complaints or legal actions against the organization. None of them have been contacted again by the organization or an independent investigator. But Crutchfield wrote that he expects a completed report from the investigator soon. 

"I look forward to seeing her findings and particularly her recommendations," he wrote. "PublicSource is a small nonprofit. We only have 14 full-time employees, but we recognize there is always room for improvement, and we will be working on a plan to see improvements through."

This story was updated on Friday, September 18 at 8:08 p.m. to include additional comment from Jim Crutchfield and more information about PublicSource’s editorial independence policy.