The Appeal’s Second Anniversary Letter

The Appeal has come a long way since July 2021. We produce impactful, award-winning journalism that exposes the harms of the U.S. criminal legal system and elevates solutions that keep all people safe. We run a newsroom that centers workers. We are a team that leads with care for each other.

But it didn’t start out that way.

This time two years ago, chaos reigned at The Appeal. We no longer had bosses, which might sound like a pretty sweet deal overall. But our situation came with some clear drawbacks: We were just about to lose our jobs, our financial stability, and a lot of sleep. We’d gained control of The Appeal’s website, but were scrambling to figure out how to incorporate our own nonprofit, build a new team, and raise enough money to keep our work going. 

For those of you here for the first time, here’s the TL;DR version of how things got that way: The Appeal used to be a different organization run by different management. For (a number of) reasons, the staff unionized in 2021. Our bosses then responded by shutting the organization down entirely. This was not the outcome we anticipated. 

But, with an assist from some good folks at the NewsGuild-CWA, we were able to negotiate a different arrangement: Rather than kill The Appeal entirely, our former bosses agreed to hand us The Appeal’s intellectual property for free. All we had to do was everything else. We had a website, but were on our own to build it a home and fund it. 

We relaunched The Appeal as a worker-led nonprofit newsroom. It’s been a busy couple of years for our small but mighty team. We had every intention of reflecting on everything we did in our first year, but we turned around and it was 2023, so we figured a two-year anniversary is the perfect time to share some of our successes, challenges, and hopes for the future.

The worker-led model is working

We get a lot of wide-eyed reactions when we say we’re “worker-led.” But for the most part, our newsroom operates like any other. 

The main difference between The Appeal and other workplaces is that our team, rather than a single boss, has the final say on most critical decisions. To figure out how to set up a worker-led organization, we had great conversations with, and leaned on resources from, our friends at Defector Media and Sustainable Economies Law Center. We then created a democratic decision-making framework so our staff have a formal process for participating in major decisions. We know it’s unlikely we’ll get an emphatic “yes” from eight people every time we need to make a decision, so the bar we use is “Active Solidarity”—approval happens when everyone supports a decision, even if it’s not their favorite.

None of this would have been possible without people from the Mill Law Center, who helped us write our very unique bylaws that preserve our team’s power to make key decisions.

With our bylaws in place, we were able to welcome an incredible Board of Directors of journalists, advocates, academics, and those impacted by the criminal legal system to our team.

Walking the talk of culture, equity, transparency & care

We also hit the reset button on our mission and our values—and how we put those into practice.

First, the logistics were complicated. Turns out, it’s incredibly difficult to find a bank that doesn’t invest in private prisons. Or a professional employer organization (PEO)—which provides payroll services and health insurance for our team—that doesn’t hate unions. Though we eventually found both.

Things got much better when we started to rebuild our culture around self- and community-care. Following great advice on how to implement these ideas from Your Other Half, we chose to offer:

  • 32-hour weeks
  • Flex time
  • Three weeks of summer and winter breaks
  • A flexible time-off policy, with the strong encouragement to take at least three weeks off
  • Meeting-free deep work time

And, after developing a compensation philosophy based on our values, we built an equitable and transparent compensation model that offers thriving, not just surviving, wages. Shocking, we know!

Since then, others have taken interest in what we’ve learned. Our team has spoken at conferences for the Online News Association, Institute for Nonprofit News, and Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri about rethinking care, power, and transparency in newsrooms.

Our journalism & impact

Building a new organization is challenging and time consuming, but we never let that get in the way of producing stellar journalism. In the past two years we:

In addition, our reporting has:

  • Helped spur a Department of Justice investigation into the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division.
  • Contributed to federal investigators visiting a women’s prison in Florida as part of a review of sexual misconduct at Bureau of Prisons facilities.
  • Prompted national and local outlets to examine how jurisdictions were spending federal COVID-19 funds on law enforcement.
  • Led to a federal judge blocking Arizona’s fetal personhood law from being used to criminalize people who perform or obtain abortions.
  • Motivated lawyers and legal clinics to take up defendants’ cases.
  • Improved food conditions in a Virginia women’s prison.
  • Spurred a District Attorney’s Office in New York to release a blind, homeless man who had been sentenced to two to four years for stealing cold medicine. 

We wouldn’t be here without the Weekly Appeal newsletter, which was the first thing we produced after incorporating. Our newsletter, published each Wednesday, features a column with a unique perspective on the criminal legal system. More than 40 percent of subscribers open the email each week. 

But our engagement with readers goes far beyond open rates. We care about what they want to read and put it into action. In surveys, subscribers told us in no uncertain terms that they know everything is terrible and would desperately like to read some good news every once in a while. So we launched our ‘Alternatives’ vertical to cover positive, solutions-focused stories about people or programs working to change the legal system.

We’re also proud of our work with our freelancers, including our currently and formerly incarcerated writers, who wrote 14 percent of our articles last year. Through partnerships with organizations like Empowerment Avenue we connected with talented incarcerated journalists, including Christopher Blackwell, who we were thrilled to welcome to our team earlier this year as our very first Contributing Editor. 

The money of it all

We’re not going to lie, fundraising is not easy. The odds were stacked against us from the beginning—most people who want to start a nonprofit journalism outlet spend far more than two months planning and gathering financial support. We, meanwhile, got The Appeal back up and running during Q4, which meant it was too late in the funding cycle for most grant-making organizations, which didn’t make things any easier. The Appeal team worked full-time for free for four months before we could start paying ourselves. 

But we were lucky to have the support of loyal readers and champions of The Appeal’s work. Scalawag Magazine set up a fundraiser for us that first summer and readers donated $30,000 that got us off the ground. came to the rescue in Fall 2021 with our first foundation grant, and The Just Trust and Meadow Fund followed in early 2022. 

We’ve made a lot of progress since those early days. We increased revenue from $280,000 in 2021 to just under $1 million in 2022, including an 18 percent growth in our end of year campaign. In 2023, we signed our first multi-year grants, with $500,000 secured for 2024. 

This might sound like we’re flush with cash. To be very clear: We are not. Half a million dollars for next year is barely half of our most bare-bones budget. Building the relationships and credibility needed to pull in millions of dollars takes time it often feels like we don’t have. But we’ve made it this far, and we know there are people out there who understand and value the importance of our journalism and our model.

This is hard and we wouldn’t do it any other way

We learned early on that The Appeal team is not afraid to do hard things. And we’re not going to sugar coat it: running a worker-led organization, maintaining connection and community among an all-remote team, and producing good journalism is challenging.

We want The Appeal to be a place where our team is excited to show up for work more days than not. That often means facing inevitable challenges head on. Whether it’s a working meeting to redesign our editorial workflow, a reflection session to address struggles, or a workshop on effective communication and conflict resolution, we take the time to provide the tools and structure needed to work through hard things.

We’ve got big dreams

We can’t wait for the day that we have enough money (hint, hint, nudge, nudge) to realize The Appeal’s full potential.

That means hiring for key roles, like an editor-in-chief and an audience engagement manager. 

It means deepening our relationships with our audience, from facilitating roundtable discussions to strategically expanding our reader revenue efforts.

It means more long-form investigations and expanding the U.S. regions and topics we cover, as well as new products like podcasts and multimedia reporting. 


We’re determined to show that a different way of producing journalism is possible, one that cares for the people we cover as well as ourselves. And in doing so our work will have an even greater impact on the U.S. criminal legal system as we envision a world in which systems of support and care, not punishment, create public safety. We’re just getting started.

Tara Francis Chan

Managing Editor & Operations Director

Molly Greene

Strategy & Legal Director