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When Stacy-Marie Ishmael moved to Austin, Texas, she chose to live within walking distance of her new office in The Texas Tribune newsroom. And that meant she was close to Lady Bird Lake.
“I grew up on an island, and so I’m convinced that even just seeing water is very therapeutic,” said Ishmael, a Trinidad and Tobago native. “That’s something that’s been awesome … just being able to walk around by water.”
Ishmael unwinds by riding a bicycle around the Austin Veloway and playing games on her Nintendo Switch, like “Hades,” the god of death underworld adventure with a narrative she feels professional envy toward because of its excellence.
She has time for walks with friends, catching up with people she’s lost touch with and taking part in the family WhatsApp group text. (The group chat has a strict nondisclosure clause.)
It’s a huge shift from her year as editorial director at the Tribune, where every day felt like a Fiesta Texas roller coaster. Then, she didn’t have time for anything else.
Taking the helm at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Ishmael helped lead the organization through how the deadly disease was affecting people.
By the following March, she added to that list police killing more unarmed Black people, a contested presidential election (that led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol) and a fatal winter disaster.
“I have been in positions of having to navigate crises more than once,” Ishmael said. “I have been the person whose phone rings at whatever time in the morning when there’s a bombing somewhere and you’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how are we going to cover this?’ and, ‘Oh, is this happening in a city where we have reporters? Are all those reporters safe?’”
With that experience came knowledge that working through crises for an extended time presents a question about sustainability.
“You might be really good at X thing for X amount of time, but if there’s no end in sight for that amount of time, it just becomes harder and harder to sustain the energy and the emotional forbearance required to just constantly be surrounded by fires of every shape and form, including some that affect you personally.”
The inability to separate the series of devastating events from her personal life led to exhaustion. The subsequent burnout led to her resignation from the Tribune after only a year.
Ishmael has quit every job she’s ever had.
“I don’t really rage quit; that’s not my style,” she said. “I leave when I’ve sort of run out of stuff to do that would be useful to the organization. Or I see something that is so important that I feel very strongly that I absolutely have to be trying to be as useful as possible in that context.”
For that reason, she doesn’t see leaving a place as a failure.
She left the Financial Times after it shut down a project that laid off her team. She left BuzzFeed News to take a fellowship at Stanford, where she sought to learn more about misinformation. She left Apple when she learned enough to help others make decisions about what’s best for them in a way that cuts through misinformation.
Ishmael is also realistic about her financial situation. Before deciding to leave a place, she contemplates what she needs to do to make ends meet.
“It’s not that I’m like, ‘(expletive) it, you’re all evil, I’m out,’” Ishmael said. “It’s more like I have a series of things that I think about in terms of, ‘OK, what’s going on in the world? What are the skills or the expertise that I have? Is it best for me to be in this place using them? Or what do I lack?’”
Whether it was education, health, politics or criminal justice, Ishmael found Texas undercovered relative to its importance. She also felt it was an interesting state that the Tribune was uniquely positioned to cover because of its expertise.
The organization was a model in the journalism industry for how to sustain a digital news startup. It also had an incredible roster of reporters who piqued her interest.
But Ishmael never got a chance to decorate her office. She had experience running teams that she hadn’t met in person, but never because “we thought we would die if we went outside,” she said.
She took over the job almost immediately after the cancellation of Austin’s annual South by Southwest event. Her days could go from planning alternatives for events the Tribune couldn’t conduct in person to writing policies for reporters going into the field during the health crisis.
Ishmael worked to figure out the Tribune’s approach to certain beats. There were conversations with funders about grants the organization wanted to renew. She kept up with the chief product officer to implement changes aimed at making coverage more accessible.
“My primary responsibility was identifying what was getting in the way of people’s ability to bring potentially life-saving information to our audiences and to hold people accountable in Texas for failures of leadership that were also doing harm to the communities that we cover,” Ishmael said.
Her team made it happen. They pulled off the first-ever virtual Texas Tribune Festival. They wrote about the students in vulnerable communities left out of virtual learning. They created a texting service for people with no electricity during the February blackouts.
But as a nonwhite, non-male, foreign-born citizen who’s occupied highly visible positions of leadership for a long time, Ishmael has never been able to navigate media removed from the fray.
“I am helping people navigate … but I’m also navigating,” Ishmael said. “Worrying about friends and family needing treatment or knowing that I’m in a position where the borders of the country that I’m from are closed and remain closed for the foreseeable future, which means I have no idea … if something terrible were to happen to my family, I’d have no ability to go help them.”
People like Ishmael don’t get days off. The expectations from self, audiences, colleagues and superiors are high. The empathy is low. They’re always in situations of performance. They aren’t provided the same room for error as white people in their shoes.
There were a lot of workdays Ishmael finished with nothing left in the tank. She would lie down on the floor to recover from hundreds of microdecisions.
It was time to go, again.
“I made the decision because I was spending too much time on the floor,” Ishmael said. “My husband, who is a champion, was just like, ‘Come on, you’re dying.’
“I decided to say it out loud because I tell the truth for a living.”
So: I’m taking a break. I’m stepping down from @TexasTribune, where I’ve spent the last year operating at a relentless and breakneck pace to ensure that our journalism could rise to the demands of this moment.
It did. We did. And in the process, I *totally* burned out.
— stacy-marie ishmael (@s_m_i) March 30, 2021
While women of color work through devastating events happening across their communities every day, they deal with socioeconomic factors — like salary inequity and not having their ideas respected — not likely experienced by the average white reporter.
As a result, some end up leaving their jobs, citing issues like burnout.
Though Ishmael didn’t experience a toxic work environment at the Tribune, she wishes those socioeconomic factors weren’t present at large.
“I get a little bit frustrated when we only talk about mental health in the breach,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Well, take a mental health day.’ A mental health day shouldn’t be the thing that you need to recover. It should be the thing that you take to prevent.”
Reporters aren’t regularly given basic equipment guidance when going out to cover protests, she said, so it’s unlikely that they’re provided guidance on how to deal with trauma.
Ishmael’s time working across multiple industries made it clear that there are no good cultural models for how to identify and treat unhealthy work practices. “It sucks everywhere,” she said.
There are issues newsrooms didn’t create and ultimately can’t solve. But the former editor is under the impression that, just as some showed when they figured out women needed paid parental leave, accountability is within their control.
“You can solve for accountability,” Ishmael said. “You can solve for what are the mechanisms that you have in your newsroom to identify structural discrimination.”
Since leaving the Tribune in April, Ishmael has stayed busy with projects on topics she’s interested in. She wrote an opinion piece about Texas legislators for The Washington Post. She started co-hosting “Slate Money.” She’s working on Fortune’s raceAhead newsletter for the next month.
The experienced leader has also spent time thinking about her short tenure at the Tribune. It was the first time since she covered the 2008 financial crisis that she felt burned out. Both times taught her to stop and understand that being on the floor isn’t good.
Ishmael is still proud of the work her team did under such demanding conditions. She left with no regrets about how it was able to fulfill the mission of the organization.
If there wasn’t a pandemic, she wouldn’t have left.
“We did awesome (expletive),” Ishmael said. “I wish people weren’t experiencing deaths in their families. I wish people weren’t experiencing their partners or their parents being laid off. I wish people weren’t experiencing trying to figure out how to run a news meeting and put their kids in Zoom school at the same time. Life has not been good for people for two years because of this pandemic.”
Her next move is still unknown, but her expectations haven’t changed: She won’t work for a place that’s doing harm, and she won’t work for a place where she isn’t useful.
“There are lots of very cushy, high-paying jobs that are doing a lot of harm, and places that are doing a lot of harm, but I’m like, ‘No, I’m good,’” Ishmael said. “I am as committed to helping other people find ‘the thing’ as I am to making sure I can pay rent and do stuff I enjoy.”
The self-described serial comma enthusiast has always felt a responsibility to leave a place better than she found it. Sometimes that requires her to ask someone why they are the way they are. For the foreseeable future, that person is the journalism industry.
This article was originally published on Aug. 4, 2021. The headline has been changed.
This story is part of a series, Some Personal News, that shares experiences of people who were laid off from their journalism jobs or left the news during the pandemic. We know thousands of people lost their jobs last year, and want to capture the stories of journalists, printing plant employees, ad sales people, news researchers and anyone else whose employment by newsrooms ended or was altered because of the pandemic. You can tell us your story here.