A behind-the-scenes look at how BI reporters Julie Bort and Taylor Nicole Rogers exposed a toxic corporate culture at Pinterest
Business Insider is taking you behind the scenes of our best stories with the series "The Inside Story." This week, BI deputy executive editor Olivia Oran spoke to reporters Julie Bort and Taylor Nicole Rogers, who revealed in a recent story that Pinterest, which calls itself "the last positive corner on the internet," was actually a toxic and difficult place to work where Black people felt alienated. Bort and Rogers describe working non-stop for days so they wouldn't get scooped by another news outlet. Interviews with 'Pinployees' were so intense that the reporters were often in tears after hearing stories of emotional abuse at the company. Ultimately, their stories led Pinterest to announce sweeping changes to their corporate culture. Read their story on Pinterest here: "Former Pinterest employees describe a traumatic workplace where managers humiliate employees until they cry, Black people feel alienated, and the toxic culture 'eats away at your soul'"
Olivia Oran: Tell me about your reporting process. When did you start looking into Pinterest and how long did this story take to come together? I heard you both worked on it basically for 72 hours straight! Julie Bort: On the Monday before we published, UK tech editor Shona Ghosh and I both saw a Twitter thread from a Black Pinterest employee documenting the horrible experience she says she had at the company. She and another Black woman had quit. The other woman tweeted her story out too. They made references to a few things that happened to them while there that wasn't detailed in the tweet. I quickly wrote up the tweet and reached out to the women for comment. Everything about this said there was a much bigger story to tell, either from these women or other employees. Non-profit Color of Change put a statement out just as I was ready to publish so I included that, too, since I couldn't get a comment from them. After we published our story, other publications also published stories about the women quitting, too. Color of Change thanked us for our leading story, but the women themselves still ignored my reach-outs. I wanted to ask Color of Change if they would put me in touch with the women, but there was a problem: I'm a white woman and given what these women went through, I reasoned that they might not want to talk to me. That's a perfectly reasonable requirement. BI billionaires reporter Taylor Nicole Rogers and I had talked a few times about reporting tactics in the past so I asked if she wanted to work with me on this and she did. I figured I'd either get this story for myself and Taylor as a team, or I'd get it for Taylor to do herself, with me as coach (if she wanted) but I'd go get it for BI. I reached out to Color of Change asking them to put us in touch with the women. I was upfront, explaining that I realized they may not want to talk to me because I'm a white woman and I pitched Taylor to them. I included links to some my stories and hers. They were happy to talk. On Tuesday, we interviewed them. They agreed there was a bigger culture story here. By Wednesday, sources were coming to my mailbox. People had seen my original story or their tweet, and were ready to speak out. Some Pinterest employees were on an ex-employee group with the two women and the women told them about our story. I spent all of Wednesday interviewing 5 or 6 people, starting at 7 a.m. and ending, not sure, maybe 8 pm at night? Meanwhile, Taylor struck out on her own and talked a few others into talking to us. We reached out to a bunch of current employees but didn't instantly get any. I'm sure we would have, given more time. I sent tapes and transcripts and an outline to Taylor, and she stayed up late Wednesday to start our draft. On Thursday morning, I finished the draft, and our editor Alexei Oreskovic gave it a quick read for reporting holes. Friday was Junteenth and we were hoping to publish on Friday. We got a few late interviews that day and went back to sources to answer Alexei's questions. Read more: Former Pinterest employees describe a traumatic workplace where managers humiliate employees until they cry, Black people feel alienated, and the toxic culture 'eats away at your soul' Between Wednesday-Friday, we had talked to 11 sources, and filed our draft. We had worked non-stop for days, like 7 a.m. to midnight. On Friday, Juneteenth, the tweets were going more viral and Pinterest had leaked a mea culpa, "we're sorry, gonna fix this" email to the troops from the CEO to Bloomberg. Taylor saw that Lady Gaga had put the women's tweets on her Instastory. The world was talking about Pinterest's troubles and we had the inside story of what was really going on! More sources reached but we knew we couldn't do more reporting. We had to publish. By the end of Friday, we had the story filed, dealt with PR, Alexei had edited it in record time like 3 hours and we sent our draft off to legal, Maryanne Stanganelli, our always-rise-to-the-occasion lawyer, who read it that night so it was waiting for us in the a.m. We updated the draft with legal's fixes and sent to our editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell for a final read. She drilled us on if we were rushing … should we get more current employees? But Taylor and I made the case and convinced her that we didn't have time. The story was breaking now and our reporting was solid. Taylor Rogers: The five days between when Julie and I first spoke to Ifeoma and Aerica, our first two sources, and when we published are a bit of a blur. From the moment we hopped on a Google Hangout, it was clear that the mistreatment they described were not isolated incidents. From there, we reached out to and interviewed as many 'Pinployees' as we could, until we understood what the biggest problems inside the company were. By that time it was Thursday night. The next few days were spent writing, fact checking, and tying up loose ends until we published Saturday afternoon. Read more: The two Black employees who took on Pinterest explain why they quit, their fight for pay, the death threats, the private investigator: 'It was a torturous experience' Oran: What was the hardest part of reporting out this story? Bort: Normally the hardest part is getting those initial employees to talk to you but in this case employees were eager to talk and many of them had documents, emails to share that verified their stories. That's a sign that there's something big and toxic going on. People are still reaching out to me, by the way. The hardest part was figuring out what exactly was going on from the company's point of view, when everyone also said that the CEO was very visible and very nice. I mean, what? Taylor scored an interview with a former exec who shocked us with her point of view: gave a full-throated defense of the company. And we started to puzzle together the inside story from there. The hardest piece from me, personally, was listening to so many people who had so many emotional-abuse type stories to share, especially in a short amount of time. At the end of some interviews, I was in tears. Rogers: For me, the most difficult moment of any story is typing out the first sentence. Julie and I had both spent days on the phone piecing together what was really going on inside Pinterest, and we had more stories than we could ever publish. Once we were able to narrow down everything we learned into about 3,000 words worth of content, I was finally able to start putting everything into words. I never write stories in order, but once I have everything on paper it's much easier for me to figure out how to structure everything. This time, that was Julie's job. Oran: Some of the Pinterest employees quoted in the story revealed dealing with depression and other mental health issues during their time at the company. How did you deal with reporting on such a delicate topic? Bort:.We stripped out a lot, lot, lot of the details to protect identities. This was especially important when writing about the Black employees because even little details would have outed them. As for talking to them: I'm human and I make sure to be kind, even if I ask for documentation. The job is to fully understand their point of view, not to litigate or judge it, and to give them a safe space to talk to you, gathering as much detail that you can corroborate later. And then the job is to do EXACTLY the same to others who have opposing points of view. And then to faithfully report all sides. Human lives and the structures we build (corporations) are complicated. The better our stories show all sides, the more understanding we spread and, hopefully, the more we inspire appropriate action from there. Rogers: That was really difficult for me, as I want to be as kind to our sources as humanly possible. There is a fine line between not causing someone more pain by asking them to constantly relive their trauma, and asking them for enough details to be able to tell an iron-clad, compelling story. I think empathy is one of a reporter's most important tools. Oran: What gets you excited about investigative stories like this one? Bort: Journalists like helping people and exposing wrongdoing. I particularly like giving a voice to people who feel like they don't have any: all companies these days force people to sign documents after document to shut people up about their own work lives: non-disclosure clauses, confidentiality agreements, and non-disparagement clauses and private arbitration. When things go wrong for them, they worry they'll be sued if they speak out. Investigations like this give them back their power. Rogers: As a Black woman who grew up in the South, I know what it is like to have people discount you because of the color of your skin. That pain is a powerful motivator to hold powerful people that do that accountable, and to ensure that the next generation of Black women enter a different kind of workplace. Oran: Why is the Pinterest story so important to tell right now? Bort: For me, it was the stories of the treatment of Black employees versus the company's statement of support for BLM that was important to tell right now. Rogers: For me, this story was important because of the sacrifices Ifeoma and Aerica made to publicly share their experiences in their now-viral Twitter threads. I think it's important to believe Black women. As journalists, investigating Pinterest's corporate culture was the least we could do. Oran: What's been your most rewarding experience as a journalist? Bort: Obviously, impact is rewarding. Pinterest promised to make sweeping changes to its culture after we published the first story, right before we published this piece. They knew we were working on this investigation. And now it's our job to check back in a few months and see if they kept their word. But for this story it's been the heartfelt thank yous from employees. EVERY single person thanked us for covering this story. They thought what happened to them was isolated, not a cultural issue. They thought it was them. They thought no one cared. You can't always say that your work alone is what pushes a company to change. But if they know you're watching, and people know they have a voice, and you've helped real people with real problems, I find that intrinsically rewarding. Rogers: I have to second Julie on this one. Too often, we as journalists pay too much attention to scooping each other, writing 'impressive' stories, and "catering to the other blue checks on Twitter," as my colleague Rachel Premack once put it. When people asked me why I wanted to be a journalist in high school, I used to respond "to make the world a better place." Sometime over the past few years, I decided that sounded too naive and started saying something along the lines of "I'm naturally curious, I enjoy getting to know different types of people, etc." I wish I hadn't. Stories like this really do have the potential to make a small part of the word a better place (Pinterest in this case), and I can't wait to write more of them. YOU CAN READ THE FULL STORY HERE: Former Pinterest employees describe a traumatic workplace where managers humiliate employees until they cry, Black people feel alienated, and the toxic culture 'eats away at your soul'Join the conversation about this story »
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