Q+A with Alan Henry, WIRED Senior Editor

"Being marginalized doesn’t mean you don’t have the power or agency to advocate for yourself and a more empathetic, productive, and equitable environment for everyone."

by | March 10, 2023

Alan Henry is a journalist and editor who writes and commissions stories that help readers better use their technology. He is currently a senior editor at WIRED. Previously, he was the Smarter Living editor at The New York Times, and before that, the editor in chief of the productivity and lifestyle blog Lifehacker. Earlier this year, Penguin Random House published Henry’s first book, “Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized.”

In this Q&A, Henry talked with LaVonne Roberts about what it’s like to be an undervalued worker while offering tips on how to succeed as one. Henry gave Roberts one of her first bylines in WIRED, and since then, she has kept tabs on his work, which she says has helped her appreciate the times when she’s felt like “the ‘other’ in the room.”  

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

LaVonne Roberts: Did you always want to be an editor, or did you start out wanting to be a journalist?

Alan Henry: I started out wanting to be a journalist. Or, more specifically, a writer. I had such a passion for technology and the power of technology to help people learn things, connect with others, and hear each other’s stories that I wanted to share that love with other people. Even as I’ve grown into an editor, I still love taking time out to write, share my thoughts and journey, and how I use the tools I have around me to improve my life and hopefully tell others how they can improve theirs.

LR:  I’m fascinated that your way of dealing with being marginalized was to publish an article in the NYT about what to do when you’re marginalized. Can you talk more about that experience?  

AH: Well, one of the benefits of working at The New York Times is knowing that you have this platform where you can help other people, and you can shed some light on experiences that others have in a meaningful, useful way. I’m a Service Journalist at heart, meaning the work that I write, edit, and publish aims to be of practical value to my reader—and that also means that so much of my career has been me finding solutions to my own problems and then writing about them so other people can learn from my experiences and avoid the same pitfalls. 

When I realized I had co-workers who were happy to build their careers on my back, take credit for my work, and then sideline me from the spotlight, I had to do something about it. I distinctly remember one meeting where my colleague, a peer, walked into the room late and told the team we were meeting with by way of introduction that he was our defacto supervisor and an expert on everything our team did when he was nothing of the sort. When my other team members didn’t correct him—including our manager, who was in the meeting—I knew I was on my own. 

So it just made sense to me that when I saw an issue that had this stranglehold on my everyday life, on my career, and on my well-being as a queer Black man, I wanted to dive into it from a journalist’s perspective, get to the bottom of it, and offer some solutions. So I reached out to organizational psychologists, diversity and inclusion professionals, and social scientists to see if my experiences were strange if there was data to support them, and what I could do about them. It turned out that there’s a ton of data to back up my experiences. That reporting turned into my piece, “How to Succeed When You’re Marginalized or Discriminated Against at Work,” in The New York Times, which became the basis for “Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized.”

And, well, it also helped that I wrote the piece, had it edited, and published it in my own section, where I had control over things. I like to tell people I did it before anyone could tell me not to, but honestly, there wasn’t anyone who could have told me not to. I wish I could say writing the initial article changed things at the Times, but it didn’t. A lot of people read it, and it resonated with a lot of people, for sure, but it’s not like it changed my experiences there or my decision to leave, ultimately. But it did open the door to talking to some great people at the forefront of these issues of social inclusion and workplace diversity that all went into the book. All of that data and the tips from the experts I spoke with are aimed squarely at helping people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and more thrive. Part of it is acknowledging that just because you feel marginalized doesn’t mean you’re alone. Being marginalized doesn’t mean you don’t have the power or agency to advocate for yourself and a more empathetic, productive, and equitable environment for everyone.

LR: Why did you start a newsletter, and what did you gain from it?

AH: I started “Productivity, Without Privilege,” for three reasons, really. 

One, to re-use what I thought was a snappy title that didn’t make sense to use for the book because those three words really spoke to my experience of trying to stay productive and on top of my game without having the same privilege afforded to many of my other colleagues. 

Two, to share a lot of the tips and techniques that fell to the cutting room floor, so to speak — things that didn’t make it into the book or were too esoteric for the book or side conversations I had with my experts that I still thought were useful, but just didn’t fit. 

And three, to help promote the book! And to help readers get a feel for my voice, what I talked about, and what they could expect when they pick it up. 

For me, though, I gained an amazingly engaged audience of professionals and experts who not just appreciate what I have to say but also reply to me with their own lived experiences, challenges, and how they overcame difficulties in their professional lives as well. It’s been remarkable to hear back from the people I send those emails to every other week. 

LR: How did you leverage your article and past publications when shopping your book? 

AH: Luckily, I didn’t have to shop the book very much. My piece in The New York Times that started this all about what to do when you feel discriminated against at work immediately caught the eye of a book editor and a book agent, who both contacted me about the potential to turn this into a book. I think they understood where I was coming from, and my résumé certainly didn’t hurt, considering the type of things I’ve written about and where I’ve written about them. I’ve made a career by breaking down complex issues and turning them into actionable, practical advice for people who face those issues, and this was no different. 

LR: You’ve worked at a number of publications and reached a point in your career where you’ve accomplished what many writers aspire to do — namely, working at the Times and publishing a book — but what were the unspoken costs of that journey?  

AH: You know, I used to think that prestige publications like NYT were career pinnacle, but then I learned that the true pinnacle has less to do with the name of the company you work for and whether or not you’re doing work that you feel is most fulfilling for you, and actually matters to people. I’ll never regret my time at NYT, and I may even land back there someday if the opportunity is right, but the direct answer to the question is that the costs came in the form of my mental health and personal wellness. 

I had a lot of great friends and colleagues at the Times, and I love them all dearly and still have huge respect for the paper. Still, I remember exactly how depressed I was, how anxious I was when I had to debate whether now was the time to spend my political capital to stand up for myself or not, whether or not my reaching out to someone for a meeting would somehow make its way back to someone who would badmouth me. So on…that’s not journalism. That’s not being able to do work that matters or that informs or helps people. That’s all just so draining and pointless, and it was a huge distraction from the work I just wanted to come in and do. I realized over those few years that as many friends as I had and as great as the work I was doing, I also had to keep fighting on this second front to stay on top of what was happening around me, and it was awful. And to see who got praise and who got punished, who got opportunities and who was overlooked, who had to band together to survive, and who was “allowed” to be a rock star? It all made me even more depressed. So even though I was doing what I had to and was great at my job, I knew at some point it would just be better for me to leave. 

LR: If the Times isn’t capable of noticing, acknowledging, or addressing its structural racism, how can we trust that it can see it anywhere else, especially when reporting on race? 

AH: That’s a good question! And I think it’s important to ask every institution when you read their reporting not just on race but on any issue that faces any marginalized group in society. Do you have transgender friends or family in your life? How do you see them represented in the media that you consume? Perhaps you have a chronic illness—how does the media you consume cover chronic illnesses, or even better, how do they treat their staffers who struggle with one? That’s part of what I wanted to get at in the book (and hey, I wouldn’t complain if my book were handed out at employee orientation!): that a lot of news and other media organizations say all the right things to their customers when it comes to inclusion, diversity, and social justice, but their own environments are openly hostile to people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, disabled people, and others. 

So it’s very difficult for me, as a Black man in America but also a Black man who’s worked in journalism and worked at the Times to look at the paper’s reporting on topics like this without innately knowing that for all the good efforts of the marginalized groups at the paper, they’re still struggling with an environment that can be soul-crushing in its worst cases. Maybe they’re lucky and on great teams with great people—I knew lots of them! But that wasn’t my experience, and it certainly wasn’t others’. 

And honestly, until these entities, which ostensibly are dedicated to speaking truth to power and serving their readers, confront their own organizational issues, they’ll never be able to truly report on them accurately and fully. At least not without falling for the same issues we continue to see in their coverage, whether it’s uncritically transcribing police statements when the same paper has revealed their propensity to lie to the press or whether it’s giving a sitting US Senator a platform to propose violence against his own constituents because he doesn’t like the way they protest.

LR: What does a working mentorship model look like for writers, and why is mentorship so important for writers entering the industry? (Especially writers who might be described as coming from a marginalized background.) 

AH: First of all, mentorship is important for new (and especially marginalized) writers because it’s an opportunity to remind and warn them of the industry’s systemic issues. To tell them honestly and openly, “hey, this is how a lot of places work, and you’ll encounter many people who think and act this way and remember, it’s not YOU, it’s THEM. They may stand in your way, but you don’t have to wear yourself down fighting them; you can go around.” It’s a huge help to have someone, anyone, in your corner, especially at those early stages when you’re full of passion and energy but not great at directing it in the most effective ways. 

The best mentorship programs I’ve been involved in are ones with specific goals and strategies to get you there. Maybe it’s just to get published anywhere. Perhaps it’s to build a portfolio of your writing or to help you build a book proposal that you may never sell, but at least you know how to do it. Maybe it’s pairing you with a writer in the industry you’re in and willing to help you get sourced up, introduce you to their colleagues, or just keep you in the loop for future opportunities. But I especially think it’s helpful to have someone in the industry set expectations for what you’re going to encounter and offer you options to thrive that you may not have heard of or even be on the lookout for. Of course, for the mentor (I’ve been one in the past!), it helps to get an injection of that energy and passion. It can be contagious and make you feel great heading back to work!

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