Fingers speaks with reporter Paige Cornwell about the Journalist Furlough Fund, and why American media workers need a better safety net
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I got laid off at the beginning of August. Upon hearing of my misfortune, some of my fellow media masochists—the ones who still have jobs, mostly—tried to Venmo me some money to get me drunk. This very-generous gesture is a thing journalists often do, and I wrote about it in this Fingers essay, “Who’s got the bar tab Venmo”:
You know that thing that dude who peaked in high school used to say, presumably at his high-school peak? “Every time you do [thing], god kills a puppy,” or whatever? Well, every time you see someone tweet “Who’s got the bar tab Venmo?” a media company lays off a journalist. Usually more than one, in fact!
I think it’s a pretty good essay, and you should read it if you want. The folks at VinePair apparently thought the essay was good enough to expand into a reported story, to which I said “god forbid I go a month without a byline, the ego-death would be severe, let’s fucking do it.” That piece just went live over at VinePair dot com, and I think it is also pretty good. Check it out please, thank you.
One of my sources on the VinePair story was Paige Cornwell, a reporter at the Seattle Times who administers the Journalist Furlough Fund. Launched in March 2020 on GoFundMe, the JFF has raised nearly $100,000, which Cornwell herself has been doling out to working reporters, editors, photographers, etc. across the country who have fallen on hard times. It’s one of several efforts that have sprung up to distribute dough directly to journalists in response to the absolute shitshow of a year American media is having. (And, y’know, America in general.)
I interviewed Cornwell in early September about her experience launching this massive, grassroots crowdfunding effort, how journalists can help each other out, and—crucially—how they can’t. Our interview is below; follow Cornwell on Twitter, and donate to the JFF if you’re able. (For transparency: I have contributed to it in the past.)
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Meet Paige Cornwell, Seattle Times reporter and creator of the Journalist Furlough Fund.
Dave Infante, Fingers: Hey, how are you? You said this is your work phone—are you like, back in the office?
Paige Cornwell, reporter: No! Oh god no. This is my work phone, but it’s through my laptop.
I don’t know if it’s because [management] wanted us [to stay home] to save money, or whatever. But I like to think it’s for health reasons!
So I’m reporting this piece for for VinePair about bar tab Venmo. Are you familiar with that practice?
Oh yeah, I’m. very familiar with the bar tab ritual. I’m trying to think about the very first time I heard about it. I don't remember when I first saw it.
So tell me about the fund. Where did this come from?
At the beginning it started with people I knew actually sending me like $10, $5, however much, for like a for a latte. Back when [the coronavirus pandemic] first started happening and we were one of the only newsrooms covering this full-time. So I started seeing how that was really nice. I would go to a nursing home with cases, then go to a coffee shop afterwards, and it was this nice ritual that helped me get through.
Shortly after that, [the pandemic] started spreading, and I started seeing my [journalism] friends being financially impacted by layoffs, or pay cuts, or furloughs. I started sending some of my friends money—like $20, something like that. And someone sent it back and told me “give this to someone who needs it more.” It was like that joke, the same $20 being passed around to everyone.
At some point, I posted on my private Instagram, like “Hey, I want to raise some money for some people I know who financially impacted, here's my Venmo if you if you want to.” I got a huge response, even from people I didn't know. People were screenshotting it and putting it on their own profiles. But that was weird, because all these people I didn't know were sending me money on Venmo. That was a little odd.
I can imagine that’d be kind of disorienting.
Right, right. So at some point, I started a GoFundMe, and I posted on Twitter about it. It really just took off from there.
When did you start doing the disbursements? What did that process look like? I know you have a form in place.
The form started pretty early, just as a way for me to keep track of it. I would say maybe 10 people had reached out to me before that to say they could use financial help, so [I implemented that] pretty early.
Do you have a rough count of how many disbursements you’ve made at this point?
Yeah, it’s hovering at around 400.
Wow. Are you through all the funds, or are you still doing disbursements.
We're still doing it. There's still some money coming in. It’s definitely slowed, but I’m hoping to gain momentum again and get more donations. It’s certainly slower than it was before, but people are still being financially impacted in many different ways, especially now with wildfires and protests and so much more.
Someone else can figure out how to save journalism. I’ll just make sure a reporter can buy their daughter’s school supplies.
Do you feel like these disbursements are a way to build solidarity amongst the people receiving them, or is it more transactional, or what?
I’ve certainly seen the solidarity. I was actually really surprised by the support from people who are, let’s say, “journalist-adjacent,” people who work with journalists, or just [generally] support journalism. So I think it has been big on solidarity because you are seeing people tweeting like “Hey, this helps me, now I want to help someone else, so once I get my unemployment check, once I get back on my feet, I’ll donate.” And I’ve actually seen that—people who received money in April who then donated it back a few months later.
Yeah, the “journalism-adjacent” thing is curious. I was looking through some of the people who commented on the GoFundMe page and saw several people who like identified as PR professionals, flacks. Were you surprised by that?
You know, I was. I think it’s funny that the people who commented and were very open about their donations were a lot of public relations-type people, whereas others were a little quieter about it. There were a lot of pretty big donations that were listed as anonymous, which was interesting to see.
What do you make of that? In my experience it’s more of an adversarial relationship between PR and journalists.
PR people… I mean, there might be an adversarial relationship, but I don't think that PR people don’t want journalists to be there. There can’t be public relations people without without the journalists to disperse the info.
10 large for journos from a T-Mobile comms person, I find it hard to be mad at! Source
Like the Batman-Joker relationship.
Right, right. I also feel like people often think of journalists as a monolith, whereas this fund really shows the individual impact layoffs and furloughs have had on people. That to me has been interesting to see. People really do want to support journalists on the ground. They might not support the companies, they might not support, like [the media] as one big monolith. But when it comes to the actual people and the actual work they're doing, they do support it.
How much labor are you doing to route these disbursements where they need to go, vet applicants… that’s the question, I guess. How much work are you putting on yourself?
It is some work. The vetting doesn’t take as much time as I thought it would, because often people are very public-facing. There have been a few people who have applied and I wasn't able to confirm with them like where they work or what they do even when I emailed them. So it does take some time.
It’s interesting to see people be like “yeah just let me donate and you figure out where it goes.” [Laughs.] It helps that I put in [the updates] like “This much went to a journalist in Missouri who was laid off and using it to buy equipment,” or something. I think seeing that kind of specificity really helps [encourage donations] too.
Do you think… and I’m not trying to belittle what you’ve done here at all, it’s amazing, but do you think this type of solidarity, this crowdfunding… is this “enough” to close the gaps that are constantly widening in the American media ecosystem?
[Laughs.] No, it’s not enough. We’ve made that clear with the fund. This isn't a way to make up for someone's loss. This is more of a crutch for someone, like, if someone’s unemployment check hasn't come through or, you know, they're waiting for [payment] or they like… it’s for keeping before keeping someone from the edge. So often we’ll see people be like, “I need $100 to help me to like not have to dip into my savings,” or “I need $200 like buy a laptop because my company isn't providing one now,” or “I need this so I'm not late on medical debt.” Things like that.
There should be a focus on the industry and the predatory companies who are causing this in the first place.
[The JFF] is definitely not there to save everyone, but I think [it can help with] keeping everyone from the edge. Because that's really scary when someone says, “If I don't pay the medical bills, they're gonna forward it to collections.”
It’d be really cool if journalism just paid well enough in the first place that everyone wasn’t a few inches from the buzzsaw.
Right! I mean that’s the thing. I thought: someone else can figure out how to save journalism as a whole, but I’ll just make sure that someone somewhere will be able to buy their daughter's school supplies. It’s just so ridiculous that we even have to have those conversations. But we do. And I'm happy to be the one to help them.
So as we continue to venture further down this path that we're on as a country, presumably there are going to be more journalism layoffs. Have you thought about formalizing this into a non-profit or anything, or do you want to keep it intentionally low to the ground?
Yeah, I have thought about figuring out a way to like make this a continual thing, because I think there's a need for it, and an interest in it. People want to help. I don't know yet how I'm gonna formalize it, and for now it is kind of nice having it informal, because my schedule is so crazy at the moment. Being able to work on it when I’m able to is helpful as well. Sure I would like to look into the future of this being a “keep journalists from the edge” fund.
Where do you come down on the spectrum of this being a form of charity vs. a sort of professional obligation for journalists to contribute to?
So when I first started this, I saw a lot of national reporters and like better-known reporters & journalists tweeting about this and saying, “I rely on local journalists for what I do,” because at first it was a lot more of the local [media outlets] impacted. And of course now it’s everyone. But I think you see a lot of people recognizing that within a journalism ecosystem, we rely on each other whether you want to admit it or not. So it doesn’t matter where the hole in the ship is because we’re all gonna sink. I certainly saw that a lot… I don't know if there's an obligation, but just acknowledgement that we need to help each other. Like, if the lowly journalists are being impacted, eventually it’s going to come for you, too.
I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to… I don’t know, it’s weird. Like, we should be [able to rely] on our employers to help us. It's not our fault if we can't afford to help each other. So I think it's good, but I also just think that there should be a focus on the fact that it's often the industry and predatory companies who are causing this in the first place.
[Editor’s note: a few hours after our call, Cornwell followed up with me via text to elaborate on this answer. Turns out that during our interview, she’d been coordinating Seattle Times’ wildfire coverage, and was, understandably, somewhat distracted.]
If my brain was operating at its capacity (which hasn’t happened since oh maybe Feb. 28...) I would have said that I don’t necessarily feel an obligation, but as someone who has been at one newspaper for my career and a proud member of a union, I know that I have a lot of privilege. I’ve never been laid off (...yet) and I have friends who have been laid off multiple times. So I feel like the least I can do during this time is help others.
I used to say that I was blessed not to have been furloughed but then the Times did require each person take a few unpaid days off. So I spent my furlough days sending money to others who had been furloughed.
The bottom shelf
Fellow beer writer Austin L. Ray was really helpful and supportive of me back when Fingers was just a dumb idea without a name (I almost called it Blog Half Empty, lmao, gross.) Austin was all like “do it dude,” and I was all like “I dunno,” and then I did it and well here we are. Anyway, for his birthday week, Austin is raising money for Fair Fight, an Atlanta org that Stacey Abrams founded to promote voter education and participation nationwide. You can make your donation directly to Austin via Venmo at @austinlouisray. I know it’s a little weird to send a random stranger money online, so if you don’t want to do that you can just donate directly to Fair Fight. You do you, but I Venmo’d Austin $100 to help fuel his ongoing “FUCK BRIAN KEMP” donation-update tweets, and I trust that my money will end up in Fair Fight’s coffers. If that puts you at ease, Venmo Austin today by 12pm ET to keep telling Georgia governor/sleaze Brian Kemp to go fuck himself.
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