Journalist/developer. Storytelling developer @ USA Today Network. Builder of @HomicideWatch. Sinophile for fun. Past: @frontlinepbs @WBUR, @NPR, @NewsHour.
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The Endangered Languages of New York

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chrisamico
6 days ago
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VICE Ran Out of Money (For Everyone Except Its Executives) - Hell Gate

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I worked at VICE for roughly three and a half years—from September 2019 until February 2023—which is three years longer than I expected to be there. By the time I arrived, the company was notorious for layoffs dressed up as "reorganizations," and the ax dangling above our heads was palpable the entire time I worked there. I spent the last eight or so months that I worked at VICE heavily involved in the union's organizing committee, which meant I spent a lot of time talking to my coworkers about why we didn't have any fucking money—at various times, there was no money to pay cast and crew members on time, or money to reimburse full-time employees for expenses they accrued while reporting, or money to pay for subscriptions to other publications or for tools like transcription services or FOIA submissions or LexisNexis or working laptops. We stopped printing our magazine because we stopped paying the printers. Our video teams had to scramble to rent gear because overdue bills made the company name all but worthless at most of the equipment rental facilities we used in Brooklyn. We stopped using Slack because VICE stopped paying for it. Snacks disappeared from the mostly vacant office, except for coffee and an inexplicably—believe me, we asked, and they did not explain it—large amount of milk.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of editorial layoffs chugged on, while VICE lost other employees—including, eventually, me—to gigs that didn't involve begging a company allegedly worth millions of dollars for the basic resources required to do our jobs. I watched three different friends get laid off, one days after giving birth, another while they were in the process of finding out whether they had cancer, and the third while they were in the middle of cancer treatment. Last November, I watched my ex get laid off, along with almost everyone else left on the tiny team that comprised <a href="http://VICE.com" rel="nofollow">VICE.com</a>, when we were both on vacation the day before his childhood friend's wedding. The HR representative who conducted my exit interview three months later revealed they were on their way out, too, and that the cash flow issues extended far beyond editorial—every department was bleeding workers. 

But there's one area VICE's financial crisis doesn't seem to have touched: executive salaries. Newly public documents from VICE's May 15 bankruptcy filing lay out exactly how much money VICE's leadership made the year before the filing, the same period in which employees had to hassle their managers for basic newsroom resources. These documents show that the company's executives received mind-boggling retention bonuses along with biweekly paychecks for tens of thousands of dollars. This was all done in the midst of layoffs and as VICE's more lowly employees scrambled to produce work for a clearly sinking ship. As a former VICE employee and a born hater, these documents make for a fascinating read.

For instance, the company's Chief Operating Officer Cory Haik, who came to VICE by way of Mic, took home $726,068 between May 2022 and May 15, 2023, the date of VICE's bankruptcy filing. Folded into that sum was a $45,000 bonus on April 28, a little more than two weeks before VICE declared bankruptcy.

Chief People Officer Daisy Auger-Dominguez, who wrote a book on the workplace "inclusion revolution" but refused to give workers Indigenous Peoples Day off after Juneteenth made it onto the official company calendar for the first time, was paid $748,583 over the same time period, which included a $99,000 retention bonus which she received the same day as Haik. (The day before VICE's bankruptcy filing went public, Auger-Dominguez posted poolside while on a vacation in Playa del Carmen. "Room service for one on Mother’s Day is everything," she wrote in a caption for a photo of a pristine piece of avocado toast, a fruit salad, and a green beverage.)

Then there's Chief Marketing Officer Najda Bellan-White, who received $834,931 between May 2022 and May 2023, including a $128,700 bonus on April 28, 2023, even as employees who worked directly with her described her to me as deeply disconnected from the people and projects she supposedly managed. (In fact, say the word "mismanagement" three times in the mirror and you'll summon a current or former VICE employee who has a terrible story about someone who is listed in the filing as making hundreds of thousands of dollars.) 

Adding insult to injury, the last round of layoffs, which primarily hit Executive Vice President of News and Global Head of Programming and Documentary Subrata De's department (take-home pay: $779,365, including a $201,467 retention bonus), coincided with VICE's bankruptcy filing—a lucky coincidence for the company, as it allowed VICE to wiggle out of paying out the severance spelled out in the union contract. Former and current VICE union members had to set up a GoFundMe, which raised $32,531, to keep their former colleagues afloat while they wait an indeterminate amount of time for the money they are contractually owed from their employer.

I reached out to Jonathan Bing, VICE's chief communications officer, who took home $640,267 from May 2022-23 including a $53,455 retention bonus, for comment on this story; he declined on behalf of the company.

While the particulars of this story are specific to VICE—and I'm specifically mad about them—I could be writing this blog about pretty much any major digital media company. The impact this kind of mismanagement has on the journalism industry as a whole is hard to understate. Right now, so many journalists—smart, sharp, passionate people—are perpetually in search of our next professional life-raft, not for the sake of career advancement but out of ugly necessity. And the people I know who still work at VICE, or at any of these companies hobbled by the people at their helm, remain committed to doing their jobs, in spite of numerous inscrutable obstacles placed in their way by people whose jobs seem to consist largely of writing verbose emails.

Almost a year ago, a few union committee members and I met with then-CEO Nancy Dubuc, whose salary was not disclosed in the latest documents and who announced her exit from VICE a week after I left. During that meeting, we asked her what the company was doing to prevent further layoffs and what we could expect from the future of VICE. She seemed about as uncertain as we were. As the conversation drew to a close, she asked us a question: What did we think, and what did the whole unit think, should be done to cut costs and save jobs at the company? Her door was always open, she told us, and she was ready to hear suggestions. 

If we knew then what we know now—and what she obviously knew at the time—about how much money the C-suite was raking in off our backs, we would have had a few more ideas for her.

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chrisamico
7 days ago
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WAMU shuts down local news site DCist, will lay off reporters

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The Washington, D.C.-area NPR affiliate WAMU shut down local news site DCist on Friday morning, immediately following an all-staff meeting where employees were informed that layoffs are imminent.

Station general manager Erika Pulley-Hayes made the announcement during a roughly 10-minute meeting, during which no questions were taken. She told staffers that the shift was part of a new strategy to focus more on audio products, rather than the written journalism that WAMU hoped to bolster when it acquired DCist six years ago.

She cited a “ripple effect across media consumption habits” created by the pandemic, a declining advertising market and a difficult philanthropic climate.

Pulley-Hayes did not detail in the meeting how many staffers would be laid off, but she spoke to Axios, which reported 15 staffers would be cut while 10 others added, mostly in audio-production roles.

In a statement, WAMU’s employee union called those employees “the lifeblood of our journalism,” adding that, “our hearts are broken. We can’t believe we are losing our colleagues and friends.”

Staffers learned of the meeting a day earlier from an ominous email announcing that WAMU offices would be closed and access to internal computer systems would be temporarily frozen on Friday as executives laid out a new strategic plan.

There was no local programming on WAMU’s airwaves Friday morning.

WAMU acquired DCist in 2018, calling it a “beloved local news site,” after a parent network of urban news sites shut it down. Initially launched in 2004, DCist had grown into one of the most prominent digital outlets focused exclusively on local Washington news and lifestyle coverage, delivered in the casual voice popularized by the early-2000s rise of blogs.

Since the merger of the WAMU and DCist newsrooms, many reporters have written stories for DCist as well as recorded them for broadcast on WAMU.

But over the past year, a wave of journalists have departed the station, including DCist’s top editor who left just a few weeks ago. One newsroom staffer said that, prior to Friday’s layoffs, the station was down to seven journalists out of 14 reporter positions.

Pulley-Hayes told staffers on Friday that the “we remain committed to sharing stories about what makes our region unique to what our audience has told us. They want local politics, arts, culture and food.” She also said they will continue to develop new local radio programming while staying committed to their existing programs.

She said that staff will continue to have access to DCist’s archives — a privilege frequently denied other journalists when a digital media site closes, leaving them with no proof of their past work.

But for the public, DCist is effectively gone now. Its website address now redirects it to WAMU after a brief explanation that “as of February 23, the site will no longer publish new content.”

This is a breaking story that will be updated.

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chrisamico
7 days ago
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An Heirloom Finds Its Way Home: Return of the Worcester Mammoth Bean — Edible Boston

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Photos by Michael Piazza

Jen Burt is reviving a long-forgotten Worcester heirloom, and it’s a big deal. Dare we say “mammoth”?

The Worcester Mammoth Horticulture Bean is large compared to other local bean varieties, and is said to be known for its resilience and high yield. The bean plant itself produces long green vines and bean pods that are typically over five inches in length and marbled with deep pink hues when ready to be picked and dried. The plant is striking, flaunting itself in any garden it inhabits.

So how had Burt never heard of the bean that took its name not only from its size, but from the city she has lived in for over 20 years?

Burt, the farm manager of 11 years at Dismas Family Farm in Oakham, MA, is an avid lover of history, agriculture and beans—so much so that she is one of three editors of a small local newspaper called Happiness Pony, where she is able to indulge in her passion of sharing local history and stories.

It was while doing research in 2021 for Happiness Pony that Burt first discovered the Worcester Mammoth Horticulture Bean when her partner and co-editor discovered an old seed catalog from the Ross Brothers Seed Co., a company that operated in Worcester up until the 1950s.

“I was reading this catalog and a lot of it was very standard stuff that I’ve heard of before, but then there’s this bean and I was, like, ‘What is this?’” Burt says. “It’s named after Worcester. I’ve never heard of it, I’ve never seen it. I felt like if someone were growing it I would’ve at least known about it.”

From the seed catalog, Burt gathered that the company had obtained the bean variety from a local Worcester gardener and cultivated it for sale. Besides that, there was no telling when the bean was last commercially available, or when it was last grown in Worcester.

“There was all of this very dramatic writing about it—that ‘it’s so mammoth, it’s so productive, it’s the best bean ever and you’ll never need another bean!’ Which seemed ridiculous to me,” Burt says. But her curiosity lingered—she needed to know more and see it for herself. If the bean was really that great, if it was really that resilient, if it was really that mammoth, then she wanted to reintroduce it back to the Worcester community, and with it its story. And so, the search ensued.

The first course of action was to run an ad in Happiness Pony that read, “Seeking the Worcester Mammoth Horticultural Bean and the history of its production in Worcester.” Next was to reach out to local seed banks, where farmers often find seeds and varieties that aren’t commercially available.

But it wasn’t until Burt discovered a digitized seed catalog from John Withee, an avid seed collector who had compiled hundreds of heirloom bean varieties in the ’60s and ’70s, that she found her first lead. As it turns out, he had donated his collection to the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.

The only problem, according to Burt, was that Withee’s collection was donated in the ’80s, and although the Iowa Seed Savers Exchange has a catalog, it’s only a fraction of what they have available. So she leapt— emailing them to ask if they still had the Worcester Mammoth Horticulture Bean seeds available.

Before long, she received an email confirming that they do indeed have the seeds—and would she like them? Their only condition being that Burt would eventually send seeds back to replenish their collection.

And so, the Seed Savers Exchange sent Burt 100 Worcester Mammoth Horticulture Bean seeds that arrived in February 2022. Leading up to spring, Burt continued to research the beans and how best to grow them, feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with handling a lost heirloom variety.

“I’ve grown beans before but usually just green beans, and I felt so much pressure, because as far as I could tell, no one had grown them in Worcester County in several decades,” she says.

Far from her normal farming routine—which might include planting on the earlier side of the season, gambling on hopes for an earlier harvest—Burt waited for the perfect planting conditions of early June for the Worcester Mammoth. She took extra care to plant each one individually and precisely.

And her patience paid off. After only a month, nearly all of the 100 seeds she had sowed had germinated. And in the fall of 2022, Burt’s harvest yielded 1,216 beans (after sorting through the ones that weren’t up to par)—despite a historic drought that year.

“I was blown away,” she said. “This bean knew it was back where it should be.”

Per her deal with the Seed Savers Exchange, Burt sent back 100 seeds to replenish their collection. With about 1,100 beans left over, Burt set out to accomplish her original intention of reviving this Worcester heirloom bean variety: sharing it with the Worcester community by way of a bean party.

Burt felt she had not grown enough beans to have a bean supper, a historic New England tradition of community meals centered around bean-based dishes. So although there would be no tasting of the bean, Burt wanted to reconnect to the bean supper tradition by holding a space to discuss the Worcester Mammoth Horticulture Bean—and handing out seeds to other bean, history and bean-history enthusiasts.

“The first year that we did it, which was last winter, I had the beans that I had grown but I didn’t have enough for a bean supper,” Burt says. “But we still wanted to have a party where we can talk about beans and bean seeds and a little bit about that history.”

For the bean party venue, Burt chose Wooden Bar—a beloved Worcester restaurant known for its creativity, compassionate ownership and staff and weekly changing menu inspired by New England ingredients.

“I’ve been selling my produce there since they started,” Burt says. “It is really a joy to work with them.”

The bean party was a success. Over 40 people gathered at Wooden Bar to enjoy their usual menu of delightful food and cocktails, and scurried to the back corner table where Burt and the two other editors of Happiness Pony, Ali Reid and Mike Benedetti, sat with custom-made seed packets glued to copies of a previous edition of Pony that detailed the story of the lost Worcester Mammoth Horticulture Bean.

Really, it’s all about the story and how it connects to the community for Burt. She wants people to feel inspired by and excited about this Worcester heirloom.

“If I ever stop growing it, I hope that other people will carry it on now because they have a connection to it,” she says. “It’s also so fun! It’s so colorful! It is mammoth— they weren’t kidding!”

Burt plans on hosting her next bean party at Wooden Bar in November. This time around, she hopes that others will share their experiences growing the bean, and give newcomers tips and tricks for the next planting season.

More than anything, Burt hopes that this year’s harvest is grand enough that Wooden Bar can create an exciting dish centered around the bean she’s put so much care into reviving, and everyone, including herself, can finally taste it for the first time.

Maybe a proper bean supper will be in order after all.

This story appeared in the Winter 2024 issue.

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chrisamico
8 days ago
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Manzanar UpClose In-Depth | Stamen

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chrisamico
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Why does being a parent have to involve so much paperwork?

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There are many parts of parenting for which it’s impossible to prepare, be it the first late-night trip to urgent care with a miserable, feverish toddler or a big question about sex or death asked at an inopportune moment. But perhaps the most mundanely irritating of these surprises is the vast amount of paperwork that follows children, like Pigpen’s unrelenting cloud of dust.

At minimum, this secretarial work levies a time and emotional tax on parents. At worst, paperwork can become an obstacle to getting financial help, medical insurance, aid for college or even an elementary school education. Lightening the bureaucratic load on parents would give them back time when they need it most and help ensure they don’t miss out on important experiences or resources to let their families thrive.

These drifts of paperwork begin accumulating even before babies arrive in the world, when working parents figure out how to cover time off with a newborn. Those lucky enough to have access to paid leave have to document their eligibility and figure out how employer benefits interact with state offerings.

When researchers at the policy consultancy New Practice Lab explored New Jersey’s paid family leave program in 2019, they found that the applications were worded so confusingly that families had to guess how to respond. One participant said she relied on a Facebook moms group to navigate the process, since neither state workers nor her own human resources department knew how to help. As backlogs developed, leave benefits became a gamble. Some new parents went back to work earlier than they might have liked, sacrificing bonding and healing time to financial security. “If we knew I wasn’t going to get approved, I would have gone back to work. I had to put things on credit cards while we were waiting,” one new parent told the researchers.

Immediately after having a baby, it’s on parents to request vital documents such as birth certificates. As my news-side colleague Ellie Silverman recently reported, families who give birth in nontraditional settings might find themselves literally unable to document their children’s existence. She followed a Black couple who chose to have their second child at home without the help of a midwife or doula, and couldn’t get him into his pediatrician for weeks, only to find themselves unable to meet D.C.’s requirements to get the little boy his birth certificate. There are good public health reasons to encourage new parents to maintain contact with the medical system, but there seems little rationale — or mercy — in leaving families to such legal purgatory.

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“I can’t physically show that my son belongs to me because I have no document. And I might now have to go to court to prove my fathership to my child,” the baby’s father told Silverman.

New life stages bring new paperwork. While reporting an Associated Press series on chronic absenteeism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Bianca Vázquez Toness discovered that some families were stymied by the task of assembling the documents to re-enroll students in school. Those schools typically require health and dental forms to be filled out by doctors and returned on deadline for each child — and some offices have taken to charging for those forms. Those fees are a pain even for well-heeled parents, and a real obstacle for those less well off, for whom losing a single document can be a barrier to receiving all kinds of services.

Sometimes paperwork can almost seem to be an intentional barrier. Take the purging of Medicaid rolls as the covid-19 public health emergency came to an end. Joan Alker, the executive director of Georgetown University’s children and families center, estimates that as many as 71 percent of the people who have lost coverage so far have done so because of trouble navigating the re-enrollment process. While millions of children have lost Medicaid coverage, Alker and her colleagues found that as of December, fewer than 200,000 of them — or just 8 percent — had found their way to their states’ Children’s Health Insurance Programs.

The problem affects kids even into their college years. After the federal government introduced a new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form this past year, the number of submissions fell by more than half. Glitches and delays are now slowing aid offers to students. Unless schools push back their deadlines, some families might have to make enrollment decisions without knowing what schools intend to charge them.

Certainly, our American educational, medical and government benefits systems are too large and complicated to run simply on trust. And paperwork sometimes plays a bigger role than mere record-keeping: requiring parents to submit their children’s vaccination records to schools, for instance, keeps kids on track with their shots.

But there are ways to make paperwork easier both on parents and processors.

Some solutions are rooted in simple design architecture. Make applications available online. Optimize them for cellphones, since not all families have computers at home. Automatically save responses. Eliminate unnecessary and redundant questions.

Consolidating information can also help. Programs serving families can be clustered under the same agency or website, so parents don’t have to go from department to department to seek out similar kinds of aid. In 2022, for example, South Carolina rolled out a single form to determine eligibility for more than 40 different initiatives, even though not all those programs have the same funding stream.

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chrisamico
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