Former PublicSource reporters allege mistreatment from management

Written By Amanda Andrews

Journalist Brittany Hailer was in a Giant Eagle parking lot when she received a call from her former colleague at PublicSource, Mary Niederberger, who told her the news: she had been fired. This came shortly after fellow former colleague Tom Lisi had been fired in October of 2019, after another employee had walked from the publication in September of 2019, after Hailer herself had quit within 48 hours of that employee leaving. They all started talking together about their experiences at PublicSource in December of 2019. 

On September 9, 2020 four former employees at PublicSource—Brittany Hailer, Mary Niederberger, Tom Lisi and an anonymous reporter—published an article raising concerns about how they were treated while working at the non-profit Pittsburgh news outlet. PublicSource released a public statement saying it is listening to these complaints and is conducting an investigation, but the president of the PublicSource’s Board of Directors, Jim Crutchfield, said in an exclusive interview with The Globe that he doubts the veracity of some of these claims. 

In the article published to an online publishing platform, Medium, the former employees described PublicSource as a work environment that did not value the mental health, pay and general wellbeing of its employees. Some like Niederberger and the anonymous reporter also accused PublicSource of wavering in its dedication to investigative journalism and holding powerful figures accountable. 

The article included edited versions of letters the journalists had sent to PublicSource’s Board of Directors in July of 2020, which detailed specific anecdotes and examples of the alleged mistreatment. The one employee chose to stay anonymous due to settling into a new job and not wanting to face potential professional repercussions. 

The employees maintained that there were no written policies on sick leave, vacation time, compensation pay or overtime and that there was no Human Resources (HR) representative or office within PublicSource they could reach out to with concerns. Crutchfield denied the claim about the policies when asked, saying those were outlined in the 2018 Employee Handbook. 

A copy of the 2018 Employee Handbook was asked for but could not be provided by Crutchfield. 

He confirmed, though, that there was no official HR representative or office within PublicSource but that “few startups” like PublicSource have an HR director. Crutchfield added that “the executive director [at PublicSource] frequently consults someone on HR matters.”  

In her letter to the Board, 30-year-old Brittany Hailer of Swissvale said that she was so severely overworked and underpaid that her mental health deteriorated, and she suffered from panic attacks, nervous breakdowns and received a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which she attributed in large part to her workload and stress associated with her work. Hailer, who had joined Public Source in 2016, left her part-time position as a mental health reporter in September of 2019 after reaching what she called a “financial and mental break” in her letter. 

“…I wanted to be transparent about what it is like to work as an independent contractor and that workforce, and I don’t know if a lot of people understand how difficult it is to survive as a subcontractor,” Hailer said. “I don’t know if people understand that I worked for a year…with no paycheck [for The Fix series of articles].”

“I was generally paid after publication,” Crutchfield, 72, of Akron, Ohio, said of his experiences as a freelancer to publications prior to working at PublicSource. “That would be pretty normal, right? Certainly you would not want to pay before the work is reviewed.” 

Crutchfield added that the payscale for freelancers’ stories at PublicSource depends on the content they produce with consideration to how much research, data and interviews were involved.  

“I constantly gaslit myself. Again, that comes from my own trauma, but I was also young. I had just got out of grad school, I was 26 when I started writing for them, which I guess isn’t that young, but I mean it’s kind of young. I didn’t know any better, I believed in their mission,” Hailer said. “I look at the work they’re doing and was like ‘there’s no way it’s as ugly as I think it is.’ I didn’t want to believe that they were taking advantage of me. And everyone around me in my life was trying to get me to—it was like I was in a bad relationship.”

PublicSource’s mission, as stated on its website, is non-partisan “public service journalism,” intent on providing nuanced news stories and first person essays about life in Pittsburgh. 

“PublicSource does good work,” Crutchfield wrote in a statement. “We know it’s hard and not highly compensated work, but we care about our team and would do everything necessary to make sure the team has an overall positive and fulfilling experience working at PublicSource.”

According to Crutchfield, there are currently 14 full time employees at PublicSource, but he could not say how many part-time workers and freelancers were on staff. 

Mary Niederberger, 60, of Bethel Park said that the small staff was one of the reasons she also felt overworked while working at the publication. As a veteran journalist, she had worked for publications like The Pittsburgh Press and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which had more staff members. 

“I mean I knew it wasn’t right and I knew it wasn’t fair, but I didn’t want to be the person in the office who wasn’t pulling my share because we only had like I said a handful of reporters,” Niederberger said. “When you have a staff that small, if I’m not going to carry my load, that really impacts the other people. And I think we all felt that way. I think that’s why everybody worked the way we did.” 

In her letter, Niederberger accused management of belittling her for needing technological assistance, paying her less than a male colleague with less experience, expecting that she work over 40 hours per week and repeatedly making editorial decisions with her stories that she disagreed with, among a number of issues. 

After working with PublicSouce since 2016, Niederberger tried to submit her resignation in September of 2019 as she reached a point where she “broke down.” The PublicSource executive director did not accept her resignation, according to Niederberger, and asked her to stay on. She agreed to stay on with the publication but was ultimately let go in November of 2019 just before Thanksgiving and turned in a final story that was published in December of that year. 

Crutchfield did not remark on the Niederberger’s firing but did offer this on the status of the former employees:

“I can say that they are no longer employees. At least in one of the cases the person left another job.”

The employee who left for another position was the anonymous reporter, who will not be identified in this story out of respect for their new position and relative lack of job security. 

The anonymous reporter said in an interview that as a younger employee than most in the newsroom, they were one of the most active on social media. They said they had been asked a few times to take down certain posts and had compiled each time up until February of 2019, when they posted a tweet about a local politician. According to them and the photos they provided of a Slack conversation, management took issue with the wording they used in the tweet. 

On March 12, 2019, the anonymous reporter said that management called them to a coffeehouse in Allentown and presented a letter, which used the wording “written warning,” and listed conditions the reporter had to abide by if they were to continue at PublicSource. 

A photo of that letter with a timestamp was provided by the reporter. 

Among the clauses listed in the letter, the reporter had to provide notes to PublicSource whenever they had doctor appointments. The former employee said they attended therapy sessions at the Persad Center, an LGBTQ focused counseling center, while they were working at PublicSource. The former employee alleges they were the only one who had to submit notes for appointments in the newsroom, and they feel they were outed as being a part of the LGBTQ+ community to their direct employers by having to provide these notes. 

“I don’t believe it’s accurate,” Crutchfield said. “I don’t know, but I think if an employee is not at work, and they say they have a doctor’s appointment, it’s routine that you need a note.” 

“Where this crossed a line was that it was only me and that I had to give this my [direct] employer,” the anonymous reporter said. 

In her time at PublicSource, Niederberger said there were some instances in which she attended doctor appointments during work hours and said she “never had to bring notes in,” although she had to disclose that she was seeing specialists about a medical condition, something she said she felt uncomfortable about having to express to her direct employer and not an HR representative. 

Unlike his other former and fellow colleagues, 32-year-old reporter Tom Lisi of Beechview only described one experience in his letter to the PublicSource Board of Directors. Lisi said he had been hired at PublicSource in February of 2019, with a focus in economic development reporting. In October of 2019, Lisi said the landlord of the building where PublicSource’s newsroom was housed had left behind papers related to a private stakeholder meeting in the newsroom, which he had found. 

According to Lisi, he had tried to get in touch with an editor, and when he was unable to find one available, he made some calls to people based on the information in those papers. After talks with editors, Lisi said PublicSource fired him on October 3, 2019 for breaking their code of ethics, though he alleged he did not know nor did management clarify what specific measure he had violated. However, Lisi emphasized his belief that what his colleagues experienced was on “another level.” 

“So as each of the four of us were peeled off from Public Source, of course we stayed in touch, we were friends,” Niederberger said. “And we started to talk about some of our experiences, and some of us realized that we thought we were the only ones treated a certain way and as we talked to each other, we realized that there seemed to be…particular management strategies that were used but they were used in isolation on each person.” 

Niederberger said they all decided they should contact the Public Source Board of Directors with their concerns. Although the journalists had been ready to present their accounts to the Board in March, the pandemic hit, and they decided collectively to wait on contacting the Board.

Both the journalists and Crutchfield confirmed that the Board responded to the letters within a week’s time. In the reply to those letters, Crutchfield said the following: 

“…we take your complaints very seriously. We are investigating, and we will reach out to each of you as we proceed.” 

Hailer, Lisi, Niederberger and the anonymous reporter said they were expecting for a third party HR consultant to be hired to investigate their claims but were surprised when they were contacted by an attorney. PublicSource referred to the attorney as an “employment attorney,” while the reporters said based on her background, she is a “corporate defense attorney.” Neither the reporters nor PublicSource disclosed the attorney’s name.

The attorney contacted the former employees, according to the employees themselves and PublicSource, but they declined to be a part of the investigation, feeling it would not be a “fair and impartial investigation,” according to their written statement to the Board. 

Crutchfield said that he personally took issue with how PublicSource management was described in the former employees’ letters but that he would wait for the pending report from the attorney. According to Crutchfield, this report is expected to be completed soon and PublicSource will act on her recommendations. 

He added that the PublicSource Board of Directors chose the attorney based on her experience and that the employees did not specifically request an HR representative to investigate their complaints. Crutchfield could not say whether the findings from the attorney’s report will be made public or not. 

“I think PublicSource’s reputation will rise and fall on what it publishes. If it is fair and honest reporting, that is what PublicSource’s reputation should be,” he said. “What I know is the intentions of the PublicSource Board is to be a part of really good journalism, period. Part of what gets good journalism is to treat journalists well.” 

Although they are not participating in the investigation, the reporters felt the next step was to publish their letters for the public to see and purposefully chose the week of Labor Day to do so. According to all of the reporters, they will not seek legal recourse in regards to anything described in their complaints. 

“I hope the Board genuinely understands that we only want reform and a safer place for journalists to work and make Pittsburgh a better place,” Hailer said.