Laid-off IBT journalists make news of their own in Twitter protest

A group of former IBT Media employees had the hashtag “IBTWTF” trending on Twitter Thursday as they protested the terms of their separation from the company. IBT laid off more than 30 editorial staff members on June 30. Employees say the company gave them no notice, offered them meager severance packages (in some cases none at all), and refused to pay accrued PTO to some employees.

This isn’t the first time layoffs at the struggling digital media company that owns International Business Times and Newsweek have resulted in severance packages that left employees wanting. In March, the company dismissed more than 15 staffers in an earlier round of layoffs, some of whom wrote a group letter to IBT requesting more favorable terms, which the company later offered.

Those subject to the latest cuts did not secure a similar result. Ex-staffers sent a group letter to IBT on July 22 requesting, among other things, more severance pay and payment of accrued time off. On Wednesday, management rejected the requests. IBT staffers were at-will employees, without contracts, so the former employees felt they had no choice but to go public with their grievances.

“I think a lot of times with journalists the inclination is to keep yourself out of the story, but I do think that the way people there were treated is a story,” Erica Pishdadian, a former IBT news editor, told CJR. Pishdadian joined IBT in May 2015 and was offered a severance package of one week’s salary since she had been there for more than a year.

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Brendan James, who also spoke with CJR, was one of a number of employees who was offered nothing because he was just days short of working a full year.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Greig, IBT’s world editor who works abroad, told CJR the neither she nor any of IBT’s international team, which she headed, had received their June paychecks.

Staff were unhappy not only with management’s severance offer, but also with what they described as a one-sided non-disclosure agreement they were asked to sign as a condition of severance.

IBT Media officials could not be reached for comment. 

Hundreds of Tweets from aggrieved IBT employees and their supporters also addressed a litany of ongoing issues with the company’s work practices.

Pishdadian and James are unsure whether making their issues public will inspire IBT to come around to their demands, but both agreed it is better to speak up than remain silent.

“My goal with it was that if there is any chance that anything I can do can possibly get my coworkers better terms, then it’s worth trying,” said Pishdadian, adding, “These are people with families, these are people with mortgages.”

It was an unusual approach for journalists who are more accustomed to reporting the news than inserting themselves into the news cycle. The protest generated a handful of stories, mostly sympathetic, while some on Twitter tried to inject levity into the situation.

The fact the group’s only leverage was to publicly shame IBT highlights many digital newsrooms’ lack of union protections. Vice and Gawker employees both negotiated better salaries and employee agreements for themselves this year as part of a unionizing process and, as one ex-Vice staffer pointed out on Twitter Thursday, cases like this further the argument for unions in digital newsrooms.

This story has been updated.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.