Pay, Diversity and Retention at The Post
Testimonials from Black Washington Post staffers
In the summer of 2020, White America finally woke up. The murder of George Floyd by police on camera forced a painful and uncomfortable reckoning across the country. Our newspaper, The Washington Post, documented those who were protesting and marching and demanding that the nation honestly confront its history of anti-Blackness and racism, then act to dismantle those harmful systems.
But as Black employees of The Post, we also knew we were not exempt from those systemic injustices — not in our own lives and not in our workplace. We were asked to tell the stories of Black people at an institution that had never fully invested in us.
In the paper’s 150-year history, we have never had a Black publisher or Black executive editor. As of summer 2020, there had been only one Black managing editor. The first Black reporter wasn’t hired until 1952, and the first Black female reporter didn’t join the staff until a decade later. A group of seven Black reporters — known as the “Metro 7” — filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against The Post in 1972, alleging systemic discrimination in terms of hiring and promotion.
To this day, the newspaper has still never proportionately reflected Chocolate City — the first city in the nation to become majority-Black.
As the outside world was calling for change two years ago, members of the Post Guild knew the paper needed change internally, too. More than 500 Post staffers signed a petition to company management challenging them to take ownership of cultural inequities and outlining nearly a dozen recommendations for how to make our workplace fairer — some of which management eventually implemented.
At the same time the staff was challenging the company to be more accountable, Black Guild members also wanted to ensure the union was adequately representing our wants and needs. As a result, we formed the Guild’s first-ever Black Caucus.
One of our earliest initiatives was to talk with one another about our shared experiences. Between September 2020 and July 2021, the Black Caucus surveyed more than 30 current and former employees from different departments within the newsroom and the business side of the company, with varying job titles and levels of experience.
We learned of opportunity and joy — but also of disappointment, pain and strife, the latter of which we chose to focus on in this report to illustrate what change is required for Black employees to feel fully understood, supported and empowered.
One Black Post reporter described his time at the company as a “mix of highs and lows.” The highs: the ability to do prize-winning journalism, “any reporter’s goal.”
But that very same reporter said the lows were invalidating. He went years without a merit pay increase, he said, despite consistently outperforming his colleagues, and he said the company failed to adequately award and appreciate work by and about people of color.
Many Black employees painted a similar picture of their tenure at The Post. They say working for The Post is the realization of a lifelong dream and that having a byline in the paper is an honor. They commend the company’s willingness to evolve, citing the slate of initiatives designed to “build a stronger culture of diversity and equity,” as publisher Fred Ryan wrote in a memo to staff in June 2020 after the Guild’s advocacy campaign.
But hiring more Black staffers is not enough; The Post must also nurture, reward and protect its Black employees. We are also keenly aware of the deeply troubling and problematic trends that have been allowed to fester throughout the company for decades.
The collection of Black employees we interviewed — nearly all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely — described a culture in which they are expected to deal with microaggressions and at times endure troublesome assumptions about their capabilities. Some said their ideas are dismissed by managers and co-workers. Several Black employees say they have been shut out of promotion opportunities and asked to take on menial tasks outside their permanent roles — making it even harder to advance.
And many Black employees are leaving The Post because of it, as demonstrated by the Guild’s study on pay, diversity and retention also published today.
Even at a time of tremendous growth and hiring at The Post, the percentage of White employees has remained steady from 2016 to 2021 even as the percentage of Black employees has steadily declined, according to the company’s data. In 2016, Black employees made up 25 percent of the total workforce. By 2021, that figure had fallen to 18.8 percent. Black leadership also decreased — from 20 percent in 2016 to 15.9 percent in 2021.
And even though The Post has hired more people of color in recent years, the number of Black employees hired barely outpaces those who have left.
These issues are not new, but decades old.
If the company is truly serious about making the Post an inclusive workplace — and retaining its talented Black workers — then it must understand how its past and current culture has undermined those efforts. We hope this helps.
Nearly every current and former Black employee surveyed and interviewed for this report spoke candidly about issues they feel permeate the newsroom and the Commercial department, which includes those who work in marketing, advertising and the daily distribution of the print newspaper.
Black employees felt that their credentials were constantly questioned and that the legitimacy of their work was challenged more often than their non-Black peers. They also pointed to the glaring dearth of Black leaders across the company.
In the first half of 2021, fewer than 1 in 10 newsroom leaders were Black, according to a demographic report released by the company in July. And that number had declined over time. In 2016, the data shows, about 10.3 percent of newsroom leaders were Black. But by 2021, Black representation in leadership had fallen to 9 percent.
The same decline is reflected in Business leadership — which includes the Commercial department — according to the company’s demographic report. About 26.1 percent of managers were Black in 2016 — a number that had declined to 20.3 percent by 2021.
The majority of those interviewed for this report acknowledged a general shift in The Post’s recent efforts to improve diversity, including the hiring of a managing editor for diversity and inclusion; a new dedicated human resources director for diversity and inclusion; and the recruitment of reporters to cover race, identity and domestic terrorism. A recent robust expansion of the newsroom’s masthead has also included the promotion or hiring of more Black editors, and several Black leaders in Commercial have also been elevated.
But many also acknowledged that hiring alone can’t undo decades of harm perpetuated by a culture that at times has maligned and undervalued Black members of the company.
For example, in August 2020, a group of workers in Commercial wrote a letter to Publisher Fred Ryan describing instances of racism, discrimination and inequality in their departments. It began: “Did you know that in the Accounting and Finance departments of The Washington Post, the commercial side of the organization is referred to as ‘The Plantation,’ because many of the workers are Black and being overseen by White bosses? Highly educated Black employees continue to be stuck in roles on ‘The Plantation’ for years with no hope of climbing up the ladder, while White employees are promoted into unadvertised positions unrelated to their current jobs.”
“The Plantation” was a phrase Black colleagues regularly used sardonically among themselves, a way to cope with an environment that they say has dismissed and undervalued them for decades.
Several Black reporters spoke of the sense of paranoia they still feel after years of being second-guessed by White colleagues and managers. The weight of feeling othered and devalued often looms over those who have worked for a company that has, intentionally or not, created an environment where some Black employees feel undermined.
“It would take a revolutionary shift in the mindset of the place” to change The Post’s culture, said a highly decorated senior reporter. He added that Black employees have traditionally lacked spaces to thrive and clear pathways to career growth.
A Post editor said she has regularly felt overlooked by her White counterparts, with colleagues going above her to speak with her manager about decisions under her purview.
“They ask for verification from my boss in a way they do not my White colleagues,” she said.
When the same editor interviewed for a job similar to the one she had been doing for several years, a senior manager suggested she did not have the requisite experience. “If he didn't want me on his team, I'd have preferred he was just honest rather than insult my intelligence and demean my skills,” she added.
In the letter to the publisher in August 2020, Commercial employees similarly cited instances where hiring and promotion by White managers heavily favored White employees and excluded Black staffers — what they called a “textbook case of affinity bias.”
The slights toward Black employees have existed in more explicit forms as well. In the newsroom, a journalist who worked as an editor and reporter at The Post described the racially insensitive comments he endured on the National desk. “I replaced [a senior Black reporter], who had moved on to a new position, and some people referred to my position as ‘the Black position’ on National,” he said.
His issue highlights the complexity of being Black at The Post, where employees are often “the only,” if they are visible at all.
Not only did this employee feel he was viewed merely as a diversity hire, but he also said there were a number of people who refused to even acknowledge his existence.
“I worked on National for four years, and [an award-winning senior journalist], on those rare occasions he was in the newsroom, would look at me and visibly frown every time he saw me. Never so much as a hello, even if I said ‘hi’ first,” he said.
Younger Black staffers have also described feeling discouraged when they’ve overheard disparaging remarks about Black people.
A junior staffer with less than five years on her team recalled one meeting in which a longtime editor said “people east of the river” were not socially distanced on public transit and implied that Black people in Anacostia — one of D.C.’s most historically underserved neighborhoods — were responsible for the city’s high coronavirus caseload.
“I hear things like this all the time,” she said. “It doesn’t make you feel welcome or comfortable.”
Another young reporter described what it was like to watch another reporter of color leave The Post after being denied a promotion.
“The job was offered to a White woman with less experience shortly after the first woman left,” the employee said. “It sort of left a bad taste in my mouth and made me reconsider if I actually wanted to stay at The Post.”
One former journalist spoke about their decision to leave the paper, even after The Post agreed to match the offer they received from a competing company.
But at that point, the former employee did not see their department changing its repeated patterns of mistreatment over the years. The department, they said, undermined attempts to report stories about Black culture, unceremoniously rejected pitches for Black History Month, and made it difficult to attend conferences and professional development opportunities.
The employee’s new workplace asked them how they wanted to grow professionally and quickly set up a development plan to work toward those goals. The employee lamented that The Post had never done that for them.
The current culture and lack of upward mobility at The Post is driving Black talent away at a time when the newsroom’s leaders are desperately trying to attract younger, more diverse audiences who want to see more representation both in the news we tell and who is reporting it.
That’s also true for the Commercial department, where Black employees say the culture has eroded trust and driven people away from the company. One major factor, workers highlighted in their August 2020 letter, was the profound distrust Black employees have in Human Resources — so much so that they asked the publisher to move the new diversity and inclusion director position outside of HR entirely.
Commercial employees said they have watched as HR prioritized self-protection over protecting employees and managers who experienced systemic discrimination or racism, failing to hold their own to the same standard they demand of other staffers. And unlike the newsroom, where managing editors operate as liaisons between HR on personnel matters, Commercial employees have no such buffer and are left to fend for themselves.
That distrust was only intensified by the publisher's handling of staffers’ August 2020 letter. Instead of responding himself, he forwarded their grievances to The Post’s director of Human Resources — twice.
Black employees want to move up in the company, take on more challenging assignments, lead teams of employees and edit significant projects. But those employees — regardless of experience or time spent within the company — pointed to systemic obstacles that have often made it challenging for Black people to advance in the company or take on leadership roles.
One veteran Post journalist spoke about the obstacles Black managers face while trying to move up in the company, mentioning that after she had proved herself as a leader, “winning awards and generally standing out, it became clear to me that I was expected to remain in the same job indefinitely without complaint.”
Several Black women shared similar experiences.
“I am convinced that generally Black women have been at the bottom of the totem pole at The Post, with too many driven out or mistreated,” the journalist added. “That has been demoralizing for those of us who have remained.”
Other employees said their attempts to move up were stymied by managers who assigned them low-skill tasks unlikely to lead to promotions — often outside the purview of their jobs — that took time away from other work.
One Black staffer, who started as a contractor, wrote for various Post sections — on her own time and without being paid for her work — for several years in hopes of landing a reporting job. When she was finally hired as a reporter, she was told she would have to take on several duties that were typically handled by employees in a lower-level position.
The reporter said she feels these extra duties made it difficult to be productive as a reporter, which was both her job title and the role in which she was evaluated annually. It rendered her unable to spend time on her daily work as well as ambitious projects that could have helped her ascend in the company. It also set up an awkward dynamic with some of her colleagues, who assumed she was in a lower-level position because of her non-reporting duties.
“It hindered me from shining,” she said. “I felt set up to fail.”
A Black woman who was hired full time in 2014 and has since left the company offered a similar assessment. Despite her 10 years of experience in newsrooms, she was asked to perform low-level tasks and assigned to the night shift with few pathways for moving to her preferred daytime schedule.
“I often felt that I was disproportionately asked to fetch court documents and run errands for colleagues on stories I was not even reporting on, and when I could have been working on pieces from my own story idea list,” she said. “During my four years at The Post, I never held a permanent daytime reporting position downtown.”
Longtime Black Commercial workers also said they’ve struggled with upward mobility in their careers. Rather than being trained and promoted to take on new roles, they’ve been replaced by digital natives — who are often White — or contractors who can do the job at a fraction of the price.
Another obstacle to advancement, employees said, was a lack of career coaching. One newsroom employee said it was difficult to find mentors as a young Black staffer, and that it added to feeling underappreciated by the company. Before being hired full time more than three years ago, he said he had been stuck in a part-time, non-salaried position for more than two years, despite consistently taking on work outside his assigned role.
“WaPo values my work,” said the staffer, “but not me.”
Another staff member of three years, working in a different area of the newsroom, shared a similar experience.
“When I was going through the hiring process I was led to believe that writing articles would be a large part of my position and that it would be a launching pad for me to move up in the organization,” they said. “But in my three years at The Post that hasn't been the case. Instead, I'm basically a glorified secretary.”
This staffer said they recently applied for a position in their section that would involve more writing but were not invited for an interview. Instead, the employee said, they received an automated email that informed them they weren’t selected for the position.
“If I’m not qualified, that’s fine — but let’s have the decency to communicate,” they added.
Those who have gone through the interview process at The Post know it can be an excellent opportunity to get face time with top editors and articulate a vision for coverage or a project that they might not otherwise be assigned. When internal candidates are denied the chance to discuss their qualifications for a job, even in an informal conversation about how to better position themselves in the future, staffers feel ignored, unseen and deemed unworthy of investment.
Black staffers who pursue editing roles often do so in hopes of increasing upward mobility for their Black peers. Yet some say they face the same obstacles they encountered before they were promoted.
The editor whose colleagues regularly went over her head said she had tried to discuss diversity issues with one of The Post’s top managers but her concerns had been dismissed.
“I raised the issue of the lack of diversity in certain higher-level editing jobs,” she said. “This manager made the comment, ‘Well, we post all these jobs and none of you apply.’”
While interviewing Black staffers for this report, issues surrounding pay were persistent. Their experiences mirror the testimonials about pay disparities assembled by our Guild colleagues on the Equity and Diversity Committee, who interviewed Post workers of all races and ethnicities. In this section, we will focus specifically on the pay of Guild-covered Black employees — who earn less than their Guild-covered White colleagues in both the Newsroom and Commercial departments.
While median salaries for all employees are rising, disparities between White employees and employees of color persist, according to the latest analysis. In 2021, the median salary for White employees across the newsroom was $113,810, up from $102,880 in 2019, the year of the last Guild pay study. The median salary for Black employees was $102,700, an increase from $91,881 in 2019. But the gap between median salaries for White and Black newsroom employees — just over $11,000 — was even larger than the one exposed in the 2019 pay study.
The disparities were even more glaring from an intersectional standpoint: Women of color had a median salary of $94,840, compared with a median salary of $123,797 for White men, according to this year’s pay study.
These gaps were also reflected on the business side of the company, where the median pay for the 73 Guild-covered White salaried employees was $17,600 more than that for the 32 employees of color also covered by the Guild. The median salary for White Commercial workers grew since the 2019 pay study, rising from $88,000 to $97,600, while the median wage for employees of color declined from $83,445 to $80,000.
These apparent inequities are made more troubling by the company’s lack of transparency concerning salaries and raises. Multiple staffers said they received raises only after discovering that their salaries were significantly lower than those of colleagues with comparable jobs and initiating conversations with their managers. Often, these raises were merely incremental and, ultimately, not enough to achieve pay parity — amounting to what some staffers described as years of lost compensation.
Vice President of Human Resources Wayne Connell said at a March town hall that employees concerned about pay equity can ask for a salary review. But that process goes through HR and, from the outset, puts the burden on the employee to prove they are worthy of a salary increase. The employee, who must initiate the process, is required to detail their work history inside and outside The Post; explain the responsibilities of their current job; and identify who should be in their peer comparison group.
And if the review ultimately determines that the employee is underpaid, there is no guarantee that the company will act upon that disparity.
Often, newsroom employees report, the biggest salary increases result from The Post matching outside offers, again placing the burden on underpaid employees.
The company outlines the salary review process in an internal notice that says it uses “rigorous analysis to establish salaries that fairly reflect employee’s qualifications for the job and their individual performance.” But, according to the Guild’s pay study, some of the considerations that factor into salary decisions are in areas where disparities already exist.
One example is the company’s annual performance evaluations, which help inform merit raises.
But these raises are not allocated equitably, according to a Guild analysis. White people, who make up 67 percent of the newsroom, received 76 percent of raises from 2015 to 2021. The average raise for a White employee was $3,080.
Meanwhile, Black employees — 9 percent of the newsroom — earned 9 percent of raises. But the average raise for a Black person was just $2,500.
Further analysis shows merit raises disproportionately benefit White men, who make up 35 percent of the newsroom but received 43 percent of merit raises. White women, 32 percent of the newsroom, received 33 percent of merit raises.
Black men received 4 percent of merit raises and make up 4 percent of the newsroom. Black women earned 5 percent of the raises while making up 5 percent of the newsroom.
Performance at The Post is ranked on a scale from 1 to 5, with 3 typically signifying that the employee “meets expectations.” Eighty-four percent of Guild-covered employees who scored a 4 or higher on their evaluations since 2015 were White, while just 11 percent were journalists of color. Roughly one-third of scores below 3 were given to Guild-covered employees of color, who make up about a quarter of the newsroom.
The former Black staffer who felt relegated to evening and overnight shifts said she only received one merit raise during the four years she spent at the company, despite having a decade of experience, being one of the most productive writers in her section and consistently receiving positive feedback from managers. This merit raise only arrived after she compared salaries with more-junior colleagues who were hired into similar roles. Even after appealing to her editors, she said there was little recourse: Ultimately, she received a small cost-of-living increase.
She was no longer working for the company when the 2019 pay study was published and was surprised to learn that she had been making about $30,000 less than the median salary for White women in the newsroom.
Another Black veteran reporter said he went a decade without receiving a merit raise despite maintaining a consistent presence on the front page. “It's not a stretch to say I had more front-page bylines for enterprise stories than most reporters,” he said. “But it wasn't until recently that my work was rewarded with merit pay increases.”
For employees who begin as contractors or in lower-paid roles, such as news aides, it can be even more challenging to reach pay equity. The Black contractor turned staffer discovered — after reading the Guild’s 2019 pay study — that she was making well below the median for newsroom salaries among staffers in her age group despite being one of the most productive reporters in her section. While she finally received a merit raise in 2020 — notably after the extra duties were removed from her plate — a salary review revealed she still made thousands of dollars less than the median for her peer group (determined by HR and her managers) and staffers with a similar level of experience.
The lack of diversity and racial literacy in the newsroom plays out in a number of ways, but most pressing has been the harm it has caused to Black staffers and our journalism about Black communities. That harm was exacerbated in the last two years, as the ongoing pandemic continues to disproportionately affect communities of color and a so-called reckoning over race in America highlighted the layers of injustice Black people still experience.
Black journalists have found themselves caught in the middle.
A lack of representation on staff has meant that the few Black journalists we do have feel a duty to step up and advocate coverage of stories about Black people that the rest of the newsroom has historically overlooked or underreported. But in doing so, Black journalists often endure burnout — because of the workload and subject matter of these stories, but also because our editors, managers and colleagues are often ill-equipped to support us as we do the work. Black journalists have been asked to carry the burden of responsibly handling some of the most important stories of our time, with little acknowledgment of the specific ways this work personally affects us.
It also means that Black journalists become pigeonholed into only covering issues of race or racism, an expectation our White colleagues do not face. A commitment to diversity and racial justice from The Post cannot just look like hiring more Black journalists — it must also center on educating non-Black journalists on the ways race, racism and white supremacy are baked into our society. Black journalists and journalists of color should not shoulder that responsibility alone.
In interviews for this report, Black employees spoke of the ways these disparities have played out in real time. They described how their excitement to work in a world-class newsroom and the opportunity to produce impactful, top-flight journalism was lessened by the lack of support they experienced and the racism they observed in their colleagues’ work.
“On multiple occasions, there have been phrases or descriptions of Black athletes that have felt inappropriate to me but were still published,” said the staffer of three years who described feeling like a glorified secretary. This reporter expressed discomfort at a 2019 column written by a White journalist who described National Football League player Antonio Brown as a “brute” — Jim Crow-era terminology stereotyping African Americans.
Athletes and staff members at Howard University, a prominent historically Black institution in the District, have complained to at least two Post reporters that coverage of the school lacks nuance and consistency. In a story about a woman who admitted to embezzling more than $150,000 from her sorority — which was founded at Howard — The Post used a photo of the university’s campus. The decision drew criticism from the Howard community because the school had nothing to do with the woman’s actions. The photo was eventually changed.
“There have been so many stories that we've missed out on because our editors, and even our reporters to an extent, don't reflect the world that we live in,” the staffer added, speaking to the ways in which Black staffers sometimes don’t pitch ideas in anticipation that their idea may not be taken seriously.
“Specifically in the past, there have been stories that have been published that either should not have been written, or framed in a different way that takes the perspective of Black and Brown people into account,” another current staffer said.
When Black employees have tried to challenge the way The Post covers people of color, some staffers said they are not always taken seriously. A former editor said she raised concerns about rural Puerto Ricans being described as “villagers” — noting it reinforces stereotypes, and that The Post typically does not use the same terminology to refer to Americans living in villages. She said she was strongly and repeatedly rebuked.
“The editor proceeded to yell over me to read dictionary definitions of words like ‘villager’ as if I don’t know what words mean,” she said. “The only good that came out of it is that another editor witnessed it and elevated it to their manager, and so the fix I’d hoped for happened.”
Even when their challenges have been acknowledged, Black staffers said they still felt exhausted by playing de facto ombudsman for their colleagues and managers. That additional emotional labor, they said, is not widely recognized as work worth acknowledging on things such as annual performance evaluations, which can be tied to pay raises and promotions.
Beyond that, some reporters have said they felt ideas they pitched were rejected or not embraced, then given to White reporters instead. The longtime reporter who has had a consistent presence on the front page said he pitched a series of stories to a National editor that received no response. The subject matter was part of his beat, he said, but the idea was ultimately given to White reporters who had never covered the topic.
Other employees described similar situations. “I pitched a story that my editor just handed over to a teammate simply because that guy ‘had convinced’ him more,” said a reporter who has been at The Post for a couple years.
The former editor who was chastised after challenging the language used to describe Puerto Ricans said she “had White male editors take my ideas and pitches and be ‘nervous’ about me handling them.” Her ideas were also assigned to a White male colleague “multiple times,” she added.
Black employees also spoke of instances where they were assigned stories about race without indicating particular interest or expertise.
The contractor turned reporter was often the go-to person on her team for such stories. She pitched stories about Black people or issues that she felt were overlooked, but it caused her to add even more to her workload. One producer even said they were asked by White colleagues to identify potential Black sources for stories.
Many interviewed for this report expressed a need for strategic hiring of editors of color to improve coverage. One reporter said The Post needs a more diverse team of assignment editors, especially in Style, Investigations and Politics, areas where staffers say the dearth of Black assignment editors feels particularly lacking.
Others said the issues go beyond simple hiring and permeate the culture at The Post.
“It’s difficult to argue that our coverage is not still intended for a largely White audience,” a staffer said.
This attitude manifests in the stories The Post decides to pursue, the institutions and communities to which the paper dedicates resources, and in the editorial decisions it makes about framing and promotion. “When The Post writes stories about Black people, they are not necessarily written for Black people, especially when it comes to things like the Style section, ‘culture’ stories, et cetera,” one staffer said.
When Black cultural or historical icons pass away or do something newsworthy, The Post has been late at times to cover the news, if the paper covers it at all, often at the behind-the-scenes urging of Black staffers who have to convince White editors of newsworthiness. This not only erodes trust among readers of color, who might interpret these oversights as signs that stories about Black culture are not relevant, but it also prevents The Post from enticing new, diverse audiences who don’t see the fullness of their experiences reflected in our journalism.
And at times, attempts to change the culture have been stifled.
Following the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, the editor who raised concerns about coverage in Puerto Rico wrote a letter to the masthead, asking newsroom leaders about the boundaries around what Black journalists at The Post were allowed to say publicly about police brutality and systemic racism. The response she received was a phone call from one managing editor, who told her to “consider whether journalism is for [her].”
The editor decided to look for a job elsewhere and now holds a leadership role at another large legacy news organization: “I feel respected and heard, and I can actually get stuff done.”
She said she felt there were fundamental differences in how The Post’s journalists believe journalism should be produced, saying “objectivity” was often wielded to represent a White male perspective while the editorial judgments from those with other identities and experiences were heavily politicized in the newsroom.
“It’s crushing. Journalism is appealing to me because its role is to challenge power structures,” she said. “We have a frightening resistance to challenging our own.”
*Note: Some of the people interviewed for this section were also interviewed for the Guild’s testimonials on pay, diversity and retention at The Post.