Pay Up: Journalists Twitter-Shame IBT Bosses Over Severance Pay

If IBT Media thought it could fire 50 journalists, and not pay their severance and final wages properly, they reckoned without the journalists’ anger—and reach of social media.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

If Hell were a version of the journalism business, it might look something like this: dozens of laid-off writers and editors taking to Twitter, of all places, to embarrass their former employer into providing them with a decent severance package and, in some cases, salaries owed from when they were still on the job.

“But how do you publicly shame a company that is shameless?” one of the fired journalists told me about IBT Media, the shadowy owners of Newsweek magazine (which they purchased in 2013 from IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company), the International Business Times and several other digital outlets from which about 50 people—or an estimated 30 percent of the editorial staff—have been terminated since March, including a mass bloodletting on June 30 and July 1, after continual assurances that their jobs were safe.

On Thursday—after nearly a month of fruitless attempts to negotiate a severance agreement or, more to the point, even get answers from IBT Media’s elusive founders, Johnathan Davis and Etienne Uzac, who are mysteriously linked to a Korean religious leader whose followers claim he’s the second coming of Christ—the out-of-work journalists launched a Twitter campaign to air their grievances to the world at large.

The fired employees who have received written severance offers say the company is proposing a week’s pay for each year of service, with less fortunate employees who have worked at IBT even a day less than a year getting absolutely nothing.

The campaigning journalists want two weeks’ pay per year and reasonable severance for the short-timers--a demand the company has so far rejected.

Yet some of the laid-off employees say they haven’t even been notified by company officials that they no longer have a job, but must deduce that they’ve been fired because their paychecks have stopped coming.

“You know what’s not fun?” tweeted former IBTimes writer Ned Resnkioff. “Spending two weeks unsure whether you have health care because the place that laid you off won’t email back.”

“@IBTMedia gave zero notice of layoffs, still hasn’t paid some people’s last paycheck, and routinely doesn’t pay its bills,” tweeted former IBTimes staff writer Brendan James, who added in a second tweet: “@IBT Media is in the journalism business in the same way Tony Soprano was in the waste management business.”

Rebecca Grieg, IBTimes’s laid-off international editor, tweeted: “IBTMedia gives lessons on how not to treat staff: mass layoffs without warning & thereafter ignoring all emails & calls.”

Ross Kenneth Urken, a freelancer for Newsweek—from which seven editors and writers, or around 10 percent of the staff, were fired in the latest round—complained: “IBT owes me several thousand dollars for two Newsweek stories I wrote. The refusal to pay despite my follow-ups is disgusting.” (Under a corporate restructuring plan announced in late June, along with the layoffs, Newsweek will exist as a stand-alone entity separate from IBTimes.)

Former IBTimes managing editor Mark Bonner tweeted: “Worked at IBT for 2 yrs and am rejecting my severance offer (2 wks salary) to stand with my colleagues. Journalists deserve better.”

“Appalled @IBTMedia continues to fail to treat its journalists with respect,” tweeted Peter S. Goodman, who quit five months ago as the company’s editor in chief, before the first round of layoffs in March as his far-flung staff suffered frequent late paychecks and, according to sources, were continually denied the financial resources to do their jobs.

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“In support of those seeking due compensation,” added Goodman, an alumnus of The Washington Post and the Huffington Post who is moving to London to cover economic issues for The New York Times.

The shaming campaigners’ hashtag: #IBTWTF.

“There is a pattern of disrespect for current and former employees of International Business Times, and it’s really an insult to be treated this way,” said fired business writer Owen Davis, 28, a former staffer for Rolling Stone and The Nation magazines who joined IBT Media early last year and is one of the organizers of the shaming campaign. “It doesn’t do justice to the work we did for the company.”

The Tel Aviv-based Greig—who was hired last year after working as a producer for the BBC’s Newsnight and Al Jazeera English—told The Daily Beast that inadequate severance payments are not the worst of it: Greig and her laid-off reporting staff in Ireland, China, and Russia still haven’t received their salaries for the entire month of June.

“The new head of HR hasn’t responded to a single one of my last 10 emails or to any of my phone calls,” said Greig, 30, referring to human resources chief Leiann Kaytmaz, who joined the troubled company shortly after her predecessor departed amid the June 30 layoffs. “We can’t even communicate with them. They won’t respond to the questions we have.”

Greig said neither she nor her staff were ever formally notified of their termination. Instead, she was apparently supposed to assume the worst when she was instructed to phone from Tel Aviv into a June 30 editorial meeting in New York, and she heard editor in chief Dayan Candappa, who in May joined IBTMedia as Peter Goodman’s successor, announce the names of the employees who were “still on the team,” and neither her name, nor those of her reporters, were among them.

HR’s Kaytmaz didn’t respond to an email seeking comment; nor did IBT Media’s chief marketing officer, Mitchell Caplan, to whom The Daily Beast was referred for an explanation of the company’s position.

A further wrinkle in the current flap is IBT Media’s alleged relationship to enigmatic South Korean-born pastor David Jang, the founder of an apparently cult-like ministry called “The Community,” in which some members whisper that Jang is actually the Messiah.

In 2004, according to an investigative article in Mother Jones, Jang founded Olivet University in the San Francisco area, where Newsweek has maintained a satellite office; IBT Media exec Johnathan Davis had headed Olivet’s journalism school before launching the company and is married to the university’s president, Mother Jones reported, while IBT Media’s Etienne Uzac used to be Olivet’s treasurer and is married to Marion Kim, the Korean-speaking Jang’s former personal translator and these days the IBT Media exec who controls the corporate pursestrings.

Both Johnathan Davis and Etienne Uzac have consistently denied in press reports that their relationship with Jang has any impact on the editorial content of IBT Media, and several of the fired journalists told me they never saw evidence of any attempt by either executive, or for that matter Jang, to influence coverage at any of the publications.

But several journalists complained that Uzac’s wife, Marion Kim, whom one described as a “modestly dressed woman in her late 30s or early 40s,” has overseen a pattern of apparent cash flow problems that, in at least in one instance, resulted in the non-payment of premiums for standard “kill & ransom” insurance that news outlets typically take out on reporters sent into conflict zones.

When they discovered at the last minute that the insurance policy had lapsed and other necessary security expenses were not being paid, editors recalled their reporter from the dangerous Turkish-Syrian border.

Meanwhile, several fired journalists speculated that Jang’s Olivet University has been draining cash from the company. On Twitter, Owen Davis cited the university’s 990 Form, its public nonprofit tax filing, which indicated that in 2014, IBT Media had donated $1.26 million to Jang’s institution.

“Does IBT have the money?” Davis tweeted. “Well, they had $1.3m to give to religious institution Olivet University in FY 2014.” He added in a second tweet: “It’s nearly impossible to know how much money has flowed from @IBTMedia‪ to religious orgs that IBT mgmt are involved in.”