On the morning of Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, Kati Kokal was trying to keep up with news about the first week of school in her role as an education reporter at The Palm Beach Post. About two hours into her work day, the bombshell she’d been expecting landed: The Post’s owner Gannett began making layoffs that would over the next few weeks affect 3% of its U.S. workforce, about 400 workers.
Kokal, who’d been organizing a community aid response for laid-off Gannett employees in anticipation of the announcement, was suddenly flooded with direct messages. Her idea was to get the word out on social media about newly available talent on the market and to connect those in need with volunteers who could offer various types of support, financial help or leads on new job opportunities.
“It happened so fast,” she said, “I put out a note on Twitter that was like, ‘If you’re laid off (direct message) and I’ll send you this Google Form.’ It really blew up and all of a sudden I had a hundred DMs from people who had been laid off.”
She offered to signal boost their information on Twitter and help with needs including child care help, money for medications and resources to hunt for new jobs.
Other journalists who wanted to help also reached out. “Then I had like 300 DMs from people who wanted to help. This was where the community-aid network was born,” Kokal said. “I was just feverishly answering Twitter DMs into the wee hours of the morning.”
Starting the aid network wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision; Kokal proposed the idea during a nationwide union call after Gannett announced about a week before that layoffs were coming. She was inspired by journalists at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Broward County who, when they were hit with layoffs, helped get information out about affected journalists and connected them with financial help.
Even as she kept working on her education beat, Kokal got to work sifting through direct messages and information submitted via a Google Form. She moved information into a spreadsheet about what each affected journalist needed and set up teams of volunteers to sort through the information.
“We had a jobs team, we had a needs team, we had a financial support team, a moral support team. The moral support team ended up starting a letter-writing campaign with encouraging notes, with Starbucks gift cards and things like that.
“It really created a space of compassion and care where a lot of times we find a lot of anonymity in media layoffs. It took off very quickly.”
Layoffs happened again in December with another 6% of staff from its news division, about 250 employees, to be cut at Gannett. This time, Kokal and her growing team of about 23 volunteers were ready. “By December, we pretty much had the infrastructure in place to create this community network. It was a lot easier the second time.”
Between August and December, Kokal studied up, trying to determine how to best scale up the mutual aid network without becoming a bottleneck or getting overwhelmed as an individual receiving so many requests for help or for volunteering. She took a page from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Covid Mutual Aid 101 toolkit and Dean Spade’s book “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)” and decided that instead of just doing the same thing every time there were new layoffs, she’d decentralize the network so that each community of journalists affected could take charge locally.
Kokal made the mutual aid network her innovation project for the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, where she was a fellow, and to offer it up beyond Gannett to other media organizations that need help. A website with resources, a how-to guide on setting up an aid network and lots of job-listing links launched. The project won Kokal a cash prize at the fellowship’s May closing summit; she plans to distribute some of those funds to the volunteer team. She’ll continue to push out information on social media about journalist-aid networks and to use her platform to help.
The experience, Kokal says, changed her perception about news layoffs.
“I talked to people who were devastated and so, so ashamed and embarrassed,” she said. “We can challenge the idea that this is a personal failure you shouldn’t talk about and that you shouldn’t seek help.
“We’re stronger together.”
This story is part of a series profiling innovation projects from the 2022-2023 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. The projects were presented at a May summit in Washington, D.C.