Monday, October 20, 2014

Why is Science's Editor-in-Chief dissing her own news staff? [UPDATED]

As regular readers of this blog know (and many thousands of others), on October 6 I began a three month leave of absence from my position as Contributing Correspondent for Science, in protest of the abrupt and callous termination of four women from our art and production departments. I was also protesting the failure of the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, and its Editor-in-Chief to make any formal response to concerns raised by the overwhelming majority of our news staff in a communication to them on September 26.

A number of people have asked me if anything has happened since then. The answer is, yes, a lot, which I will report at some length here.

Before I do, however, I want to address the question of whether these matters should be made public in the first place. The AAAS CEO and Science's Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner, has made it clear to colleagues that he is very angry about my October 6 blog, and there are some colleagues (now a minority given subsequent events) who feel that these issues should have been kept in-house. However, as I have argued, the AAAS is a nonprofit, membership organization, with a Board that is democratically elected; it is also the largest general scientific body in the world. Thus it should be subject to the same scrutiny, including from the scientific community and the public at large, as any other large organization of its type. This seems a basic principle. And in my view, such public scrutiny is now necessary to avoid in the future the kinds of abuses of long-time employees that I described in my October 6 post, and which the news staff expressed its alarm about in its September 26 communication.

When Leshner first received this communication, he let it be known that he would be making no response to it other than a note he had sent earlier about the "transformation" AAAS is going through to a "digital first" strategy (see my Oct 6 post for more details on this.) We received no response from Science's Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt, which was a surprise to some; however we surmised that she had probably not been responsible for the terminations, which were primarily the work of our Chief Digital Media Officer, Rob Covey.

Then my blog post hit, which was viewed by about 3000 people the first day, 1300 the second day, and several hundred each day for about a week after that. Either that evening or first thing the next morning, I am not clear on which, Leshner relented and said that he would meet with anyone who wanted to in his office on the following Thursday, October 9. That meeting did take place in DC, where AAAS has its headquarters. I was not present, but from accounts of those who were there (more than 40 people from Science's news and editorial staffs attended), it is clear that many colleagues were quite outspoken in raising their concerns about how the terminations were handled. There were mixed reviews about how much Leshner took these concerns on board, however, and many left the meeting feeling that his responses were unsatisfactory.

Clearly we are not going to get the jobs of the four fired women back. However, I would like to think that the AAAS, its senior management, and its Human Resources department will think twice (or three times) about how such things are handled in the future.

I would like to think that, but I am not sure, based on other developments. The only public response to events came from the AAAS director of public programs, Ginger Pinholster, who often handles public relations for the organization when big issues are at stake. I have known Ginger for many years and always considered her a consummate professional, a person of honesty and integrity. However, her response, which appeared in an October 7 report on the situation by Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, was very disappointing. She simply stated that the terminations were carried out the same way they always had been at AAAS, and that they were a necessary part of the digital transformation. A number of AAAS colleagues challenged this assertion to me privately, but that was the only public response at that time.

In the past week, however, at least two members of AAAS have written to Leshner and McNutt, citing my blog post and expressing concerns about it. These two individuals are researchers familiar with me and my reporting for Science, and they assumed that my facts were accurate. Leshner apparently made no response to them, but McNutt did so. And what she said was appalling: She told them that most of my facts were wrong, and that "some" of the terminated colleagues were unhappy and/or embarrassed that their situations had been made public (this despite my disguising the identity of those colleagues who would have been particularly vulnerable.)

This of course got back to me, and I wrote Marcia challenging her assertions. I pointed out that the facts in my blog post were virtually the same as those in the September 26 communication from nearly all of Science's reporters and news editors, and that I and the rest of the news staff had evidence that the terminated colleagues were in fact not at all angry about my blog post--which, after all, had brought about the meeting with Leshner, as is nearly universally understood (as I have said to colleagues, the meeting came about as the result of the one-two punch of the September 26 communication and my public action; neither alone could have done the job.)

To make things even more bizarre, Marcia wrote me back and asked what September 26 communication I was talking about, claiming she had no knowledge of it. We are not sure what that means, but it seems quite possible that she never got it or never read it. So I resent it to her, and got this response on October 16:

Michael -

I already met with the editorial staff. Tim and Alan met with the News staff. I am not sure what more can be done. Some members of the News staff have come to see me personally and I have met with each of them.

There are many items in this letter that are incorrect. Good journalists usually verify their facts from several sources, and unfortunately with private personnel matters, you are only going on rumors and supposition. I'd like to end this conversation because I honestly don't find it productive. 


[Tim refers to Tim Appenzeller, Science's news editor]
[my repeated questions to Marcia about whether she had seen the communication before I resent it to her have gone unanswered.]

In other words, despite the careful reporting that the news staff did before it sent its September 26 communication, which was of course based on multiple sources, our own Editor-in-Chief is saying in effect that we are bad journalists who don't verify their facts.

I want to end this by saying that I don't think this sad situation can be blamed entirely on Marcia, not by a long shot. She has repeatedly asserted in other contexts that she had nothing to do with the terminations, and was not in the chain of command that made those decisions. As far as we know she is right; they were carried out primarily by Rob Covey, with Leshner's apparent full approval. So why is Marcia taking the fall for them? Was she asked to do this by other managers, did she decide to do this on her own?

Meanwhile I have written again to Marcia challenging her to back up her claims that "some" of the terminated colleagues were upset about my public post, which she downgraded to "at least one" in her last response to me ("at least one" would imply that she is only sure of one.) I have offered to apologize to those individuals publicly or privately as they prefer, and to publicly apologize to her for accusing her of making false statements.

I would call upon Marcia to stop fronting for the decisions and actions of senior management, which she had nothing to do with, and to back up her news staff and its concerns, which is the true job of an Editor-in-Chief over the best science news team in the world (no brag that, just fact.)

Watch this space for further developments.


There are some signs that Science's staff is finally being listened to by the people who matter. Reports are that Marcia McNutt met with the news staff this week, a meeting that was apparently productive; and so did Rob Covey, who clarified his plans for the future. Time will tell if the kinds of abrupt terminations that started this campaign will cease, but it seems clear that the efforts of the news and editorial staffs to firmly communicate their feelings might bear some fruit.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why I have taken a leave of absence from Science: to protest the abrupt firing of 4 colleagues

The following was sent to Science's news editor this morning:

6 October 2014


Dear Tim,

As you know, I have been writing continuously for Science for the past 24 years. I have been on the masthead of the journal for the past 21 years, serving in a variety of capacities ranging from staff writer to Contributing Correspondent (my current title.) I also spent 10 years as Science’s de facto Paris bureau chief. Thus it is particularly painful and sad for me to tell you that I will be taking a three-month leave of absence in protest of recent events at Science and within its publishing organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

I am taking this action to register my profound dismay about two related developments:

1.     The recent dismissal of four women in our art and production departments, with essentially no notice in three cases and very little notice in the fourth case.
2.     The failure of AAAS CEO and Science’s Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner, and Science’s Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt, to make any serious response to sincere and heartfelt concerns expressed to them, by the overwhelming majority of Science’s news staff, about the way these dismissals were handled.

As you know, the dismissals occurred during the week of September 22. Two colleagues from our art department, and two from production, were the victims. Although the termination of each was handled somewhat differently, a common feature was the brutality and insensitivity with which they were dealt with by AAAS senior management and by our Human Resources department. One colleague was summarily fired and escorted out of the building; when she was allowed to return a few days later to clear out her desk, she was not permitted to talk to any of her former colleagues. A second colleague, who had been at Science for 16 years, was offered a demotion, and when she declined to take it, given essentially one day to leave as well. Our print production director, a veteran of 23 years service to the organization, was told that her position was being eliminated, and given two weeks’ notice. The circumstances of the termination of a fourth colleague are not clear, because she apparently vanished without a trace. For various reasons, I am one of the few people in the news department who knew her; she was a highly competent and serious employee.

Amazingly, even though the news staff worked closely, on a daily basis, with three of these colleagues, no explanation was provided for their departure, and no acknowledgement of their contributions to the organization over many years was forthcoming—nor has it been as I write. I, along with most members of the news staff, had to assume that it was related to the digital media reorganization of AAAS and Science currently being spearheaded by Rob Covey. And by all indications Covey, who earlier this year was given the title Chief Digital Media Officer (more on this shortly), was directly involved in the dismissals of the four colleagues. Thus some of us expected him to make some explanations, if not about the individual dismissals, at least about how these actions fit into the reorganization now under way. When our art director was suddenly terminated last spring, for example, we were at least given a somewhat detailed explanation by Marcia McNutt. She described a staff a meeting that Alan Leshner and Rob Covey had with the art director—another veteran employee, who had graced Science’s cover with so many beautiful images--to explain why her position was being eliminated. Many of us were very disturbed at the insensitivity with which that matter was handled, but little was said at the time.

Yet in the case of the four women dismissed last month, no such explanation was made, nor even a formal announcement that they were gone. Instead, on September 25, Covey wrote a short email to Science staff telling us who the new contacts were for magazine makeup and magazine layout. No mention whatsoever was made of our terminated colleagues. As one fellow colleague expressed it to me: “Brr.”

So on September 26, the great majority of our news staff came together to communicate its shock and concern to Alan Leshner and Marcia McNutt about the way these dismissals had been handled. I am not authorized to reveal the contents of this very eloquent communication, but I know that you are familiar with it. Leshner apparently received this communication just at the time that he was drafting a short note to the staff, which he sent later that same evening. The note reminded us of the “strategic transformation” that AAAS is currently undergoing, to enhance its engagement with its members and to be in the forefront of the “multimedia landscape of the future.” Then, in reference to the dismissal of our four colleagues, Leshner stated: “Some of you may have heard that these changes this past week have negatively affected some of our colleagues. These changes, while very difficult decisions to be sure, were a necessary part of the strategic and organizational changes that we are undertaking.”

Other than a brief email to one of our editors, in response to the communication from news staff, stating that he could say nothing more, Leshner has made no other reply to the concerns expressed. Nor has Marcia McNutt, although it is unclear just what her involvement was in these decisions.

By way of background: I wrote my first article for Science in 1991, and was appointed as a Contributing Correspondent in 1993. I later spent several years as a member of staff. Although others have far outshined me in terms of production, I have nevertheless produced more than 350 news and feature articles since coming on board, and about 250 online stories. I have made Science my primary home as a journalist. Why? I can trace my turning point back to 1995, when Science and AAAS held a joint “retreat” in Washington, DC, and I met many of the colleagues I still know today. You, Tim, in your then role as features editor, were there if I recall correctly, and I also met the editor with whom I have worked for nearly 20 years, our anthropology editor Elizabeth Culotta. I remember so well how blown away I was by how smart, talented, and just plain nice all of my colleagues were, up and down the hierarchy of AAAS and Science. Never before or since have I encountered an atmosphere so creative, collegial, and supportive.

I think that this collegial atmosphere continued to dominate until earlier this year, when the changes that we are currently living through began in earnest. Rob Covey came on board at AAAS in September 2013, and at first many of us thought that he was serving mostly in an advisory capacity; after all, he had a reputation for helping media outlets achieve their design and digital goals, a role he had played at National Geographic, Discovery Communications, and elsewhere. I count myself among those who were happy about many of the changes he brought about, including the redesign of the magazine, the ramping up of our multimedia presence, etc. But somewhere along the way Covey began to take on more power and more authority for personnel decisions, an evolution that has generated increasing consternation among the staff in all of Science’s departments.

(In addition, according to all the information I have been able to gather about it, Covey was responsible for one of the most embarrassing recent episodes at Science, the July 11, 2014 cover of the special AIDS issue. This cover, for which Science has been widely excoriated, featured the bare legs [and no faces] of transgender sex workers in Jakarta, which many saw as a crass objectification and exploitation of these vulnerable individuals. Marcia McNutt was forced to publicly apologize for this cover, although she partly defended it as the result of “discussion by a large group.” In fact, my understanding, based on sources I consider reliable, is that a number of members of Science’s staff urged Covey not to use the cover, to no avail.)

In what seems like one short year, we have gone from a culture appropriate to a nonprofit, membership organization like the AAAS, to the culture more typical of a Manhattan publisher or a Wall Street corporation—a culture in which even long-time, loyal employees are expendable and can be let go with essentially no notice. While the U.S. economy appears to be recovering, the job market is still very tough; such policies and practices not only jeopardize the future livelihood of our colleagues (three of the four women dismissed are over 50), but they undermine their sense of self worth, a common side effect of being abruptly terminated by an organization they had regarded as a home. I wonder how many AAAS members would approve of such practices if they knew about them, especially since they have been endorsed by a CEO who himself earns just over $1 million/year (with the compensation for Science’s publisher at about $860,000/year according to the lastest available report to the IRS.)

And much as we grieve for our departed colleagues, we must now fear for our own jobs, as there is no reason to think that anyone at AAAS and Science is secure from similar treatment—including the news staff itself, even if we are not (apparently) threatened with immediate changes or reorganization.

Tim, I want to make absolutely clear that in my opinion none of this reflects on your leadership of the news team, to which you have brought the talent, insight, respect for writers, and vision that sent a major thrill through the staff when we learned that you were coming back to Science after so many years away. Speaking personally, I have felt nothing but strong support from you for my many projects at Science, and I cannot express adequately how much I appreciate the understanding you have shown for the passion that I try to bring to them. So it really hurts me, with a visceral pain, to have to write this letter, even if my three month leave of absence is primarily a symbolic gesture. I have no illusions that Science can’t do without me for that short period of time. But I do hope that this gesture, and my decision to make it public, might help in the larger effort by our colleagues to return the AAAS to its former humane values.

Yours truly,

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent