The Way The New York Times Won Its Slack Back
Once a free-wheeling space for the newsroom to air its grievances, the paper has mounted a campaign to pacify its internal chat platform
The New York Times culture extends well beyond the bounds of their internal communication platforms, but a potential harbinger of how the company might intend to tackle its various inner tensions and fault lines is the way in which they’ve tamed their company Slack. While the periodic outrage cycles buffeting The Times newsroom have been varied, its Slack has been a recurring character. After The Times published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton in June 2020 calling for the use of the military against Black Lives Matter protesters, with rank-and-file internal dissension overflowing onto Twitter, a #newsroom-feedback channel was created. But that channel, open to newsroom, technology, and management employees, would itself become the source of viral tweetstorms. The following month, op-ed columnist Bari Weiss sent a resignation letter in which she complained, “My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in.” Comments about political reporter Maggie Haberman that technology reporter Taylor Lorenz posted to Slack that same summer would later feature large in gossip about the departure of Styles editor Choire Sicha. In October of that year, media columnist Ben Smith told podcast host Alex Kantrowitz, “The Times’ Slack is totally weird,” adding he had recused himself from it because he wants “to be able to report on The Times.” Don McNeil, a 45-year veteran reporter who was forced out at the paper following allegations of inappropriate comments while accompanying high school students on a trip to Peru, cited the messaging platform as part of his downfall last year: “Slack channels were aflame, which I didn’t know because I avoid Slack unless I’m forced to use it.”
The first big crackdown came on January 27, 2021, when a memo headlined “Communicating with one another” went to every Times employee. Signed by deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan and chief marketing officer David Rubin, it announced that the #newsroom-feedback channel would be archived and replaced with a set of read-only channels as well as an #ask-the-editors channel where staff could submit questions for the standards department to address. “It has not always been clear how to best raise concerns, ask questions or respond to others. This has created confusion, made some reluctant to speak up and allowed others to cross lines in disrespectful and unhelpful ways,” Ryan and Rubin wrote. “We’ve heard that broad Slack dialogues make it difficult for nuanced conversations about complex issues, and that sprawling, poorly defined channels don’t help.” They also extended an olive branch to #newsroom-feedback stalwarts. “We’ve learned a lot from this channel,” they wrote, adding that it “served an important initial purpose and helped guide the development of these new channels.”
Union leaders have called the all-newsroom replacement along with the all-company channel “one-way channels” and characterized them as forums for management to spread their positions on issues like the Wirecutter strike without allowing the sorts of responses from employees that leaked out of the #newsroom-feedback channel. “I imagine, from a management perspective, they didn’t love the idea that here was one place that a lot of people, hundreds, if not two thousand people, were in that had been a free-for-all space of, ‘Hey, here’s a critique I have of some aspect of the coverage.’ I think management was not really equipped to deal with that, and they didn’t want to,” said Kathy Zhang, a member of the paper’s analytics team and an organizer with the Times Tech Guild. “If the goal of management was to close down that more open feedback, I think they definitely did for a large swath of the company.”
Some senior reporters argue that most of the discontent in Slack comes from a relatively small and particularly vocal group, including Zhang, who tend to focus on Guild disputes more than the average member of the newsroom. They see the new channels as part of a more significant, long-delayed trend of making it clear to an influx of new employees who have joined the paper in the last few years that it’s time for them to get in line with older Timesian values. Part of that involves keeping internal disputes internal. But just as much it means understanding the organization enough to know their place, to restrain themselves as young engineers or newsroom staff from assuming they know more than the institution. And knowing enough to route their complaints directly to reporters or the standards team, rather than posting a screed in an open channel. They welcome the new channels, especially #ask-the-editors, because they see them as a formalized, bureaucratic way for those complaints to move through the system and be addressed.
The read-only all-company and all-newsroom channels have led employees to find more creative ways to respond to management. “When our unit went public,” Zhang said, “we uploaded a bunch of emojis into Slack that were just red backgrounds for different kinds of things, so sometimes we’ll use a bunch of the Guild emojis, but that’s a minor thing to show that we’re all still united. It’s mostly just a way to be a little snarky to management.” Last June, Bloomberg reported the Guild filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after “management ordered a group of product designers to stop using pro-union avatars and backgrounds.” Now, Zhang said, “emojis are basically the only ways that employees can interact” in the one-way channels. So when, as New York Magazine reported, an anti-Wirecutter strike post by David Perpich, head of standalone products, was flooded with dissenting emojis (✊ was the most popular), it wasn’t just because they were particularly fond of communicating with images, but also because verbal responses weren’t enabled in the channel.
Management defended the restrictions as being in line with the culture of The Times. “These changes were made after speaking to nearly 100 of our colleagues across the company at all levels, from the newsroom to the business side, as well as industry and external experts,” Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told Off the Record. “Many colleagues were frustrated by the unproductive dialogue that was taking place before the new channels were created.” Rhoades Ha also pointed to new, more structured forums where complaints could be handled. “We created new Slack channels with specific purposes where every question is answered. Some privately, some publicly if the questioner is willing to allow us to post it. We also host monthly all-company meetings, where people can ask questions anonymously if they prefer,” she wrote. “We want everyone who works at The Times to have the opportunity to speak up and be heard with respect and empathy.”
The Times has also made new hires to deal with the growing internal schisms. “A few months ago we decided to focus on communications at The Times,” wrote Rubin in a May announcement of the hiring of Cynara Charles-Pierre as a Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications. “We realized we needed a separate and specialized Culture and Communications team that would be dedicated to helping create the spaces for employees to feel connected to the entire company and foster the culture we want to build.” One of the qualifications Rubin cited while explaining why Charles-Pierre was suited for her new role was “her transformation of JetBlue’s intranet, HelloJetBlue, which revolutionized how employees communicate internally and engage with the airline.”
Even to the most vociferous rabble-rousers, the Times Slack isn’t all bad. “#Ask-the-editors is a lot more about demystifying what decisionmaking goes into the journalism. In that one, people are able to respond to threads, and I know that Mike Abrams [the director of journalism practices and principles at the Times] makes it a point to answer as many questions as he can. It’s not like all of the channels are bad or anything,” Zhang said. “Most people exclusively spend time in those Slack channels that they actually care about, rather than in any of the all-company read-only channels.” She mentioned fun channels where people discuss pop culture or tech and highlighted identity-based employee resource group channels as “spaces in which you can find a little bit more community,” fondly recalling when a channel for Asian employees organized a panel on Google Meet about the Netflix show Cowboy Bebop with its star John Cho.
Still, Zhang is wary of the greater control management has asserted over internal communications. “This company doesn’t want to be forthcoming about a lot of the ways that it operates,” she said. “People see a bit of that irony: We’re supposed to be covering all of the truth that’s happening in all these other powerful institutions, but then it’s really, really hard for employees to get any information about what’s happening internally at the company.”