Philadelphia Inquirer journalists call out sick after paper publishes the headline: 'Buildings Matter, Too'

A general view of the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News headquarters building in a 2005 file photo.

(CNN)A large contingent of journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer took a sick day Thursday to demand change at the newspaper, in the wake of the paper's decision to print an article headlined "Buildings Matter, Too."

Organizers told CNN that 44 journalists of color out of 57 in the Inquirer's newsroom -- which make up just over a quarter of the Inquirer's 213 journalists, according to Evan Benn, the paper's director of special projects and editorial events -- signed an open letter to their editors late Wednesday afternoon.
In explaining their decision to call out "sick and tired" Thursday, they said they've spent "months and years" working to gain the public's trust, only to see it "eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions."
      The column, which was published in print on Tuesday, detailed concerns that historical buildings could be damaged during the protests.
        Editors of the paper published an apology to readers and their journalists late Wednesday, saying they regret the decision to run the headline. The apology was signed by executive editor Stan Wischnowski, editor Gabriel Escobar and managing editor Patrick Kerkstra.
          "The Philadelphia Inquirer published a headline in Tuesday's edition that was deeply offensive," it read. "We should not have printed it. We're sorry, and regret that we did. We also know that an apology on its own is not sufficient."
          "The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans. That is unacceptable," the editors wrote in the apology, which spelled out the process errors and promised changes in editorial, recruiting and training processes.
          The Inquirer journalists said in the letter that they were "tired of hasty apologies and silent corrections."
          "We're tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about 'diversity and inclusion' when we raise our concerns," they wrote. "We're tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We're tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of."

          How the letter unfolded

          The newspaper's bi-weekly Zoom staff meeting happened to take place the morning after the article published, the journalists who signed the letter told CNN. The call lasted more than two hours and focused entirely on the headline and racial issues in the Inquirer newsroom.
          The signing journalists also told CNN that the call made them angry and upset. They said that they heard the same responses from management that they always hear, with leadership pointing to continued efforts to hire people of color and how this was a needed conversation.
          The letter followed as a response to both the headline and broader problems, they told CNN. While they formulated their letter, the Inquirer issued its first response to the headline via Twitter.
          "We need to do better," the tweeted image read. "We've heard that loud and clear, including from our own staff. We will. A detailed explanation of how we got this so wrong will follow later today."
          The journalists issued their letter around 5 p.m. Wednesday, they told CNN. The Inquirer published a lengthier apology to its website just before 10 p.m.
          Soon after, the newspaper's publisher Lisa Hughes, sent out an email -- which was provided by the Inquirer -- informing colleagues they would not have their paid days off penalized for their protest.
          "To be clear, we absolutely erred in allowing a headline that is tone-deaf and not reflective of where we are as a nation or community to be printed," Hughes wrote. "On behalf of the entire leadership team at The Inquirer, I am sorry."

          The Inquirer's efforts at bridging the racial gap

          The letter was signed the Journalists of Color of The Philadelphia Inquirer. They confirmed to CNN, however, that despite not requesting their white colleagues to join their letter, more than 60 of their colleagues offered paid time off days within the company's Slack channel to those taking the day to protest. Hughes confirmed in her email that no employees would lose any paid time off if they called out sick Thursday.
          When asked about newsroom demographics, Benn told CNN in an email that the newspaper employs 213 journalists, 57 of whom, or 26.8%, are people of color. He also noted that seven of the newsroom's first eight new hires in 2020 were journalists of color.
          Hughes' email to staff also addressed the importance the Inquirer's journalists have in reporting news for all communities.
          "Black lives matter, and we know that we have a critical role to play in making sure that the work we do every day reflects the community we serve. We know that we -- as a news organization and as a community -- have (a) lot of work to do.
          "But we are not a perfect place," Hughes wrote. "We are striving to be an organization where every employee knows they are valued and heard. We have much more to do."
          The open letter from the editors also promised to "continue training and discussions around cultural sensitivity ... more recruiting resources and requirements for diverse finalist pools [and] a process for flagging, discussing and publicly disclosing lapses in editorial judgment that aren't addressed with a simple factual correction."
            A statement from the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, the union that represents journalists at the Inquirer and other news organizations, supported the journalists.
            "Like the Guild itself, which represents 319 Inquirer employees in news, advertising, circulation, and finance, these journalists of color have been pushing for a more racially diverse company to better reflect the majority-minority city it serves," the Guild said. "A company whose journalism coverage is sensitive to the issues, needs, challenges, and dreams of people of color living and working in and around the city. A company whose predominantly white newsroom has made little progress in becoming more inclusive."