SLIDESHOWS

What Happened At The Root?

Feb 20, 2022

When The Root launched as an offshoot of The Washington Post in 2008, it aimed to fill the gap between print and online media and elevate Black writers in the digital mainstream. It was high-brow — founded by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald E. Graham, with early contributions from writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and William Julius Wilson — but fast-paced, topical, and generally in the business of critiquing culture and those in power.

The voice has evolved; in 2018, then-editor-in-chief Danielle Belton told CNN the site had moved past its once “professorial” tone. The following year, the site was acquired by the newly formed, venture-capital backed G/O Media, along with the slew of blogs owned by the Gawker Media Group (G/O Media did not acquire this website, which was sold to Bustle Digital Group after it was shut down in 2016). But it has remained one of the most popular Black news sites on the internet and a frequent destination for interviews with celebrities and politicians. It was in a Root video that Rep. Ayanna Pressley first revealed her alopecia diagnosis. During the last election cycle, writer Terrell Jermaine Starr interviewed Congress hopefuls Jamaal Bowman, Jaime Harrison, and Raphael Warnock. In 2020, writer Michael Harriot interviewed Obama.

But over the past year, 15 of the site’s employees have left — a nearly 100 percent turnover since April, when it had 16 full-time staffers. The departures included: editor-in-chief Danielle Belton; managing editor Genetta Adams; news editor Monique Judge; social media editor Corey Townsend; editor Maiysha Kai; video producers Felice Leon, Jessica Moulite, and PJ Rickards; writers, Tonja Renée Stidhum, Joe Jurado, Terrell Jermaine Starr, Stephen Crockett Jr., and Michael Harriot; and the two founders of Very Smart Brothas, the popular blog that The Root acquired in 2017, Damon Young and Panama Jackson.

Harriot, who resigned in November, told Gawker: “As a staff, we came to the conclusion that, basically, The Root is over.”

The mass exodus from The Root follows a trend of what has been happening at G/O media in general. In 2019, the entire staff of the sports website Deadspin quit just months after the formation of G/O Media. The Deadspin exits were in response to what staffers said was executive overreach — a directive from the new owners that they “stick to sports,” though Deadspin had always covered much more than that — prompting open online protest and extensive media coverage, sometimes from the staff itself. Around the same time, G/O shuttered its politics blog, Splinter.

A similar situation unfolded at the feminist website Jezebel last year, albeit in a much quieter fashion. As one former Jezebel staffer told Gawker in November, G/O sought “a starfucking publication that courted celebrities,” where “it was important to not be mean.” At that point, nine employees had left in the last year alone, some 75 percent of its staff. Another mass resignation took place just last week, when Chicago-based employees of The A.V. Club declined G/O’s “invitation” to relocate to Los Angeles or lose their jobs. Staffers at both Jezebel and The Root shared a similar complaint: that G/O’s executives appeared to want completely different websites than the ones they had.

Eight former and current Root staffers told Gawker that management seemed to want less of the overtly provocative work its writers were known for in favor of “a softer, gentler, more upbeat site,” with an emphasis on entertainment, fewer swear words, a blurrier relationship with advertisers, and stories like, as one source put it: “This Girl Applied For 17 Scholarships And Got Into Three Ivy League Schools.” On the motivation behind the shift, one writer hypothesized: “I think [G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller] is really more comfortable with Black people who are doing entertainment stuff.”

A G/O spokesperson contested this framing. “​​The Root enjoys full editorial independence, and is firmly committed to continuing its mission of providing unflinching news commentary and analysis with its own unique point of view,” they told Gawker. The comment about Spanfeller, they claimed, was “patently false,” listing his support for coverage of “the Black Lives Matter Movement and voting rights, to the creation of The Root Institute, a heralded thought leadership summit designed to bring together experts to help advance the agenda of Black Americans.”

Still, there were many reasons to think that, at various times, The Root’s owners wanted a different website. In an editorial meeting just before G/O acquired the site, an outgoing executive — who is not Black, but who was married to a Black woman — noted that his wife read Blavity. “[He said] you guys should be pushing to be more like Blavity,” a former contributor paraphrased. “Everybody in the room is like: You've got to be freaking kidding.” For one, the site seemed to be “running circles around Blavity when it came to content circulation and numbers.” For another, it suggested a priority on formats that weren’t exactly The Root’s bread and butter — listicles, slideshows, or image-heavy pieces.

But this became a recurring theme under the new owners. “There are some people in ownership who would love to see this site become the Shaderoom with better writing,” one source said. “Lots of pictures, lots of video, that sort of thing.” For one, writers were frequently asked if their articles could be formatted as slide shows. “​​They're like, instead of trying to bring 40 people to one page,” one source remembered, “what if we just got one person to click 40 times?” Writers were also encouraged to put “ad-safe” headlines on the homepage — toning down strong language to avoid alarming potential partners. The G/O spokesperson said this was done “company-wide” across all their sites to help “provide a safe environment… for our marketers.”

The internal tensions at The Root weren’t new; the Blavity meeting happened in 2018 and staffers have been more than aware of G/O’s influence on their affiliate sites. They also saw some changes on their own, like the disappearance of tags — the subtle, often funny labels that linked articles on the same topic. The issue wasn’t the changes themselves, sources said, so much the absence of explanation when the changes happened. But the consensus among those who spoke to Gawker was that The Root had been largely shielded from executive intervention until the departure of Danielle Belton, who left for The Huffington Post in April of 2021. Per one ex-editor: “It was little by little and then all at once.”

Few Root employees had known Belton was leaving, but when she did, it seemed clear who would replace her — Genetta Adams, the site’s managing editor and then the longest-tenured person there. “She was The Root,” one writer said. And in the initial weeks, Adams did become the de facto boss. But though she applied for the editor-in-chief job, Adams didn’t get any traction. (Sources claimed G/O Media never reached out to her; they also suggested this was related to her heavy involvement in the G/O union. The company said she was “considered for the position” and that her union involvement had “absolutely no bearing.”) Instead, G/O hired Vanessa De Luca, the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine and the erstwhile Medium outlet ZORA (she also runs The Editor-in-Chief LLC, a coaching business focused on career pivots and becoming “the editor-in-chief of your life”).

Several staffers conceded that De Luca did not necessarily receive a cozy welcome. Some were irritated on Adams’s behalf; others were skeptical of anyone selected by Spanfeller. “If he's not going to go with our person, then he's going to go with his person,” one writer explained. “And what does that look like for us?” But most were open-minded. “I don’t think anyone disliked Vanessa,” said Harriot. Some even felt that, by excluding editors from the hiring process, the company had almost “set her up” for a hard transition. The problem once she started, sources said, was that De Luca didn’t seem to have a vision for the site. She didn’t say “if she wanted us to keep doing what we were doing, if she wanted to change things,” Harriot explained. “She didn’t say anything.”

In a comment to Gawker, a G/O Media spokesperson wrote that the company “couldn’t be happier with Vanessa De Luca as The Root’s Editor in Chief,” noting that she is a “proven leader,” with more than 25 years of editorial experience, who has “made a series of new content offerings and great hires (with more in the works).” On the turnover, the company said it had increased its headcount by over 30 percent in recent months. “When there is a change at the leadership level of any publication,” the spokesperson wrote, “there is inevitably going to be turnover.”

In the absence of clear direction, Harriot said, it seemed to some that De Luca was merely passing on “edicts from management.” The firewall between editorial and advertising, for example, seemed to be breaking down. Staff had already watched their site lose space to massive ads, but they started to get quotas from sales. The site would sell a series — on Black love, for example, or the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre — and then staff would have to produce a given number of pieces for it. “It wasn't sponsored content,” Harriot recalled. “But advertising was driving the content.” (The G/O media spokesperson said their Tulsa coverage had not been sponsored). At times, it verged on absurd. For Mother’s and Father’s Day, they sold pieces to a liquor company. But because it was liquor, the corresponding articles couldn’t reference children. “We had to write all these Mother’s Day pieces without talking about kids,” one editor said. Asked about the Mother’s and Father’s Day sponsors, the G/O Media spokesperson said: “No comment.”

The impression was, per Harriot, that “management was now in charge of editorial.” A colleague summed it up differently: “I don't know if you've ever seen the meme of Leonardo DiCaprio in Django, where Samuel Jackson is kind of leaning over him, sucking up to him? That would be the relationship between Spanfeller and Vanessa.”

De Luca did ask her staff about issues at The Root, and there was a common answer: upward mobility. Many staffers felt that they were underpaid and overworked, with few opportunities for raises or promotions. The union mandated an annual increase to keep up with costs-of-living, but for some, that was the only raise they ever got. One top editor, whose responsibilities far exceeded her job description, had never gotten a raise in a four-year tenure (after she resigned and considered filing a complaint for working out of title, a union representative told her that a white, male editor with the same job at another vertical had been making nearly $30,000 more). This seemed especially insulting as staffers had heard that The Root was the most profitable G/O publication — sometimes the only profitable publication — particularly in 2020. As one ex-writer explained it:

I say this very curtly, but I don't mean it this way: With the death of George Floyd, there was a huge push in every market, from every company that didn't want to look like they weren't supporting Black issues. What The Root got in direct connection to that was a huge windfall of money. Everyone wanted to advertise with us, because they knew we were a Black site that was doing something that was popular with the Black community. It didn't mean they read us. It didn't mean that they were truly supportive of our mission, but they wanted on record that they spent advertising dollars with us. As far as we knew, we were the only profitable site. We were the site that was actually funding a lot of the other sites. That was one of the issues.

(G/O declined to confirm whether The Root was the most profitable vertical. The company said several properties were profitable, but that The Root had been “a favorite of marketers over the past two years.”)

And yet, The Root had been short staffed even before Belton left. Not long after she did, one of the Very Smart Brothas’ co-founders, Damon Young, announced his departure. “So many people had left,” Harriot said, “there was a consensus: We need to hire more writers like ASAP.” Instead, they lost more: news writer Joe Jurado and entertainment writer Tonja Renée Stidhum. Their video team soon followed. Unlike many outlets, which expanded video departments during the 2015 media-wide push to “pivot to video,” only to dispense with them soon after — video had long been a crucial part of The Root’s online presence, producing short explainers, interviews, or mini-documentaries wide popularity or critical acclaim. But the year prior, G/O had restructured its video staff, laying off more than 15 producers. Under the new structure, former staffers said, The Root’s three video producers absorbed work from other sites (G/O declined to comment on the specifics of the restructure, but noted they planned to hire more video producers). Ultimately, all three of them left — two in August, the third in October.

Also in August, G/O laid off the site’s social media editor. This baffled staffers, who saw Black Twitter as a crucial resource for disseminating stories. There was “a major blow to traffic,” Harriot said, that they could “directly correlate” with the social editor’s absence. (G/O declined to comment on the layoff, but said The Root had “not lost traffic on a story-to-story basis.”) The company later hired another social editor, but the site’s Twitter account mostly tweets headlines. “The Root understood Twitter was a very unique space for Black folks,” one writer added. “There’s a certain language, there's a certain nuance, there's a certain cachet that we have with this specific group of readers that requires an actual Black person to be in this job.”

Those losses help explain why De Luca’s next move was so poorly received. At a meeting in early fall, she announced she had made a new hire: Tatsha Robertson, her former colleague at Essence, would come on as deputy editor. “We were like, what?” a source remembered. (A G/O spokesperson wrote: “Tatsha Robertson is an extremely talented editor, who has already made significant contributions.”) This was confusing to the staff on several levels. For one, they hadn’t known there was an opening for the job; some would have applied for it. For another, the site needed writers, not editors. On top of that, the job sounded oddly similar to the one Genetta Adams already had. De Luca brushed off the complaints; she’d posted the job on LinkedIn and Robertson would be handling business, rather than editorial. But staff found the original listing. It didn’t mention business. “We have all these other positions that need to be filled,” a source said. “But the one that we get is a job someone already has. And now this woman, who is her friend, is going to be above all of us.”

From there rapport further soured. In one meeting, sources recalled De Luca suggesting an interview with Kevin Samuels, the “male image consultant”-turned-YouTube dating influencer, whom most of the staff considered a misogynist (some of his recent episodes include: “Modern Women Want to be Trophy Wives?;” “Are Modern Women Lazy Daters?;” and “Are Modern Women in Deep Trouble?”). De Luca said she did not recall the suggestion. In another, tensions led to a blowout in which, among other things, one editor accused De Luca of being a Spanfeller plant. “All of a sudden,” one editor said, “things seemed more emotional than tactical.”

De Luca had never been especially communicative, sources said, but now their emails and Slacks frequently went without response. When they did communicate, things were outright hostile. In one notorious incident, several editors noticed that a new writer De Luca had brought on had plagiarized some sentences in several posts; when they flagged this, she accused them of insubordination (three former staffers said De Luca reported the editors to HR, who ultimately agreed with them; G/O denied this, claiming HR had never investigated the incident). Sometimes it seemed staff were being subtweeted by their own boss. In fairness, some did it back.

Throughout the fall, turmoil continued. In October, foreign affairs writer Terrell Jermaine Starr left. The next month, The Root published its annual list of influential Black Americans, “The Root 100,” typically shepherded by Adams. Right after the project came out, Adams and news editor Monique Judge were asked to leave. The circumstances were unclear — both signed NDAs are part of their exit packages, and did not respond to Gawker’s request for comment. G/O declined to comment, as did the union, though the latter said the pair weren’t fired. Staff weren’t given much explanation, though several were suspicious of the move’s timing (after Adams finished the Root 100), its vague rationale, and the absence of a conversation over who would take on their work.

The next week, Harriot wrote his goodbye; writer Stephen Crockett Jr. followed soon after. In December, the other founder of Very Smart Brothas, Panama Jackson, announced he was also leaving, effectively shuttering the vertical. Editor Maiysha Kai quit two weeks later. G/O has recuperated some of those losses; the site now has seven new employees. According to a union spokesperson, all of the new staff were hired at the minimum salary allowed by their collective bargaining agreement — $58,500.

In a statement to Gawker, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), Lowell Peterson, noted that the site’s collective bargaining agreement expires on Feb. 28. “As we commence bargaining with G/O Media, we will address that nearly all new hires have been at the contractual minimum,” he wrote, “and that any improvements in the CBA concerning salary minimums directly impact the staff at The Root and would lead to more equitable workforce.”

Many of The Root’s former staffers to whom we spoke have moved onto other jobs in media or television. After all, as one source said, they’re big names now, and could get any job they wanted. But most told Gawker they would have stayed had things played out differently. “We used to joke that there'd come a time when we'll look back and be like, ‘God, we all used to work together — all of us in this one space,’” one writer said. “Now you look and everyone has left. And this is the catalyst, the reason.”

This piece has been updated to include further comment from G/O Media on the hiring of Vanessa De Luca and Tatsha Robertson.

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