Why Are So Many Journalists Leaving the Arizona Republic?

The Arizona Republic.
The Arizona Republic. Tom Carlson
Things are not well at the Arizona Republic.

Staff at the daily newspaper, the largest in Arizona, are quitting left and right. An estimated 21 employees left the paper between May 2020 and April 2021. And every passing week seems to bring a new, grim announcement on social media that another long-time journalist is leaving the paper.

Just this week, Maria Polletta, a veteran of the paper who most recently worked as a state government reporter, disclosed on Twitter that she is departing. And back on April 8, Uriel J. García, an award-winning public safety reporter, walked away from the paper.

Observers are left to wonder: Why are so many journalists jumping ship at a flagship newspaper in a major metropolitan area like Phoenix?

The answer, according to some current and former staffers, is multi-faceted. Some employees have moved on to jobs at other media outlets, including top-tier publications: reporter Angel Mendoza is now a social media editor for the Washington Post, for example, and education reporter Lily Altavena went to the Detroit Free Press. Why others left the paper isn't as clear. Insiders cite factors such as low pay, burnout, a toxic work environment created by the paper's executive editor, Greg Burton, gender and race-based pay disparities, and management's allegedly superficial commitment to diversifying its staff and supporting women and people of color in the newsroom.

The "management style" of Burton was a factor for many former journalists at the paper, according to Dianna M. Náñez, a 48-year-old reporter who left the paper by taking a buyout last December after working there since 2006. Náñez, who previously served as a board member for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and worked on diversity and equity initiatives at Gannett, said Burton is creating "a toxic newsroom and a hostile work environment for too many people, particularly women, journalists of color and especially outspoken female journalists of color."

"The pressure to cover all of the things we can, on top of not feeling like you’re paid fairly, on top of dealing with certain management and leadership that doesn't act very supportive ... I don’t feel like there’s really a feeling of authentic support and respect from management," said one current employee at the Arizona Republic, who declined to be named due to fear of retaliation. "It’s sort of a perfect storm of really difficult things to deal with, and people are just sort of at their end."

Low Pay

Reporters at the Republic make less than industry standards in an industry that's notoriously low-paying. Before the employees at the Republic voted to unionize in 2019, the starting salary was around $33,000, according to current and former employees at the paper. The minimum starting pay was raised to around $37,000 just before the union vote, when staffers were candidly sharing their salaries with one another. Insiders said they think the boost was an attempt by the company to appease employees and nullify support for the union before the election.

A recent pay-equity study of the Arizona Republic and 13 other Gannett newsrooms that was produced by the NewsGuild-CWA, the labor union that represents journalists at the paper, found stark pay disparities in gender and race. The study, which used salary data that Gannett gave the union at its request, found that while the Republic was the most diverse newsroom in the analysis, it had the largest gender and racial pay disparities. Women make an estimated $30,000 less in median wages than men, while people of color earned roughly $25,000 less in median wages than white employees. Critics of management at the Republic also point to the fact that an estimated 16 of the 21 employees who left over the past year were women, people of color, or LGBT.

Greg Burton did not respond to New Times' questions. In an email, Chrissy Terrell, a spokesperson for Gannett, broadly dismissed the study's findings as "misleading" and stated the Republic is "more diverse today than any time in its history." She also cited recent diversity-minded initiatives, such as starting "newsroom discussions with Black and Latino audiences" to build "knowledge, trust, and empathy," as well as creating six new reporting and editing positions focused on "equity, solutions and underrepresented communities."

“The NewsGuild-CWA issued a misleading document based on outdated data alleging pay inequities on a small subset of Gannett’s more than 250 newsrooms. We strongly disagree with its methodology and its findings," Terrell wrote. "While we have also had departures over the past year, it has almost always been because those journalists were promoted within our company to other locations or landed promotions at other companies. We remain steadfast in our hiring and retention goals."

Rebekah Sanders, a reporter at the Republic and chair of the Arizona Republic Guild, the union at the paper, criticized management for the recent turnover in a statement provided to New Times.

"Hiring is only one part of the equation. Retention is another. The recent exodus of employees points to a crisis of confidence in our newsroom," said Sanders, who came up with the estimate of 21 people leaving from the editorial department in the past 12 months. "A healthy workplace requires fair pay, fair benefits, fair promotions and leaders who show respect and honesty to every employee."

Uriel J. García, the former public safety reporter at the Republic, said his decision to leave was due to being subjected to such low pay. García, who grew up in south Phoenix and Maryvale but was born in Mexico, worked at the Santa Fe New Mexican for four years before getting a job offer to work at the Republic. At the time, the opportunity of working for his hometown paper was exhilarating. He previously made $40,000 at the New Mexico paper and expected that he would make even more at the Republic.

"In conversations with three different editors before I came here, they asked me what my salary expectation was, and I told them anywhere from $40,000 up to $50,000," he said. "They started laughing. They said something like, 'You’re not going to make that much money,' or 'There’s not that much money here.'"

García ended up taking the job for a salary of $33,000 — a $7,000 pay cut. Three months later, that was bumped up to around $35,000. The salary floor for the entire newsroom was later raised, moving him to $40,000. Then the pandemic hit, and the company ordered temporary furloughs for some employees. García's pay was effectively dropped to $38,000.

Several months ago, García asked his direct supervisor for a raise. He said he was told that because of the ongoing contract negotiations with the union, no one was getting a raise. García argued that some of his colleagues had been promoted and received raises recently. He was referred to Greg Burton, who denied him a raise.

"That conversation [with Burton] ended with something like, 'If I can't get on a better salary here, I need to find economic opportunity elsewhere.' And he told me, 'I understand. It would be a shame if you left. You got to do what you got to do,'" García said. "I couldn't do this anymore because I felt like I was being disrespected, particularly because the company has been hiring people straight out of college that are making more money than I was."

After he left, management hosted a social event at Eastlake Park where staffers were offered tacos and T-shirts with the famous Ida B. Wells quote, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." The decision to hand out T-shirts featuring that quote seemed especially ironic to some staffers who don't think that management is seriously interested in righting wrongs in the newsroom.

García's experience wasn't unique, current and former staffers say.

"I have heard people say, 'I don't understand why I haven't been promoted. I'm a female journalist of color, and I don't understand why I haven't been promoted and paid equitably compared to my white colleagues,'" Náñez said.

"At the Republic, there’s this mentality of 'Look, we’re the Republic. We’re the paper of the state.' There is this certain level of prestige of, 'How dare you ask for more money? You should be honored to do this job,'" said Bree Burkitt, a 28-year-old former reporter and editor at the Republic. She left the paper shortly after the November 2020 election due to burnout to take a job at the Copper Courier, a Democratic Party-aligned media outlet. "You are stuck. You’re never going to get any more money. You’re never going to do anything else. You constantly feel like you’re drowning."

After the union publicized the Gannett pay study, current and former staffers at the Republic took to social media to vent about low and disparate pay in the newsroom.

Burkitt said that she originally tried to quit her job at the Republic in March 2020 but received a counter-offer from management to take on a hybrid reporter-editor role that bumped her salary up to $50,000. At the time, she didn't know that Shondiin Silversmith, another reporter who is from the Navajo Nation and had previously been working a similar job while also serving as an Indigenous affairs reporter, was earning roughly $10,000 less. Silversmith holds a master's in journalism from Northeastern University.

"There’s no reason I should have been paid more in that position," she said. "There’s no explaining away a $10,000 discrepancy."

"I didn't get offered a pay raise," Silversmith said. "I wasn't told there wouldn't be a pay raise until I got a company-wide pay raise. That’s the only way I got a pay raise even though I asked for one."

'Toxic' Work Environment

Burton's management style has been a factor in lowering newsroom morale, sources said.

"A lot of people have had very upsetting interactions with Greg, either before they decided to leave, or maybe that prompted them to leave," said the current staffer at the Republic.

Burton has allegedly acted in a hostile way toward certain staff members — interactions that have, at times, resulted in staffers leaving meetings with him in tears.

An incident that stands out in many people's minds is a newsroom meeting that was called by Burton back in the summer of 2019 before the union vote. It quickly became apparent to attendees that the purpose of the meeting was to talk about why it would be bad if the newsroom unionized; one former staffer described it as the company's first "union-busting meeting." During the meeting, Burton opened the floor to questions from staff. Náñez began asking a question regarding a recent round of layoffs and how they had impacted the staff.

"While I was asking my question he got really angry, he started to say, 'Get to your question, get to your question,' raising his voice at me," she said. "As I continued to speak he lunged toward me and said, 'Get to your question, get to your question.'"

Current and former staffers who were there said they were disturbed at how Burton interacted with Náñez, a leader in advocating for diversity-related initiatives. They also say that a white employee who was critical of the union was allowed to talk at length at the meeting without interruption. The next day, Náñez filed a complaint with human resources. The company eventually concluded that Burton was an "introvert" who had communication problems and that he was going to receive training, Náñez said.

In a separate incident, last summer, the Republic's internal diversity committee presented a list of recommendations to promote diversity in the newsroom to management — things like expanding recruitment efforts for journalists of color, fairly enforcing social media rules across the newsroom, and promoting diversity in promotions. Lorraine Longhi, a 28-year-old reporter at the Copper Courier who left her job at the Republic last December after working there for around six years, was the chair of the newsroom's internal diversity committee at the time. She said that members received blowback for the letter before it was even made public in a meeting with Burton and other managers.

"I was chastised, was told that they weren't getting enough credit for what work had been done. I was told not to exacerbate the divide in the newsroom," she said. "There was a lot of interrogating speech at that meeting: 'Where did this come from? Who wrote this? Is this a union-backed thing?'"

One of the committee's requests was that Burton write a column reaffirming the paper's commitment to diversity and racial equity. But Burton allegedly said during the meeting that a similar piece was already in the works and that it would look like he was "capitulating" to the committee.

On April 20, Burton penned a column in the Republic touting the paper's work to further diversify its newsroom and expand recruitment efforts to communities of color. He wrote that it is a "priority" for the paper to "not only to hire journalists of color but to retain them."

But for current and former staffers who have witnessed the recent turnover and turmoil at the paper, it seemed "out of touch."

"With what we’ve experienced," one current staffer said, "you can’t tell me that there are no issues with diversity and that we’re handling all these issues with diversity but then you watched all of these people walk out the door."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety