In its recent announcement about its purchase of Gothamist and DNAinfo, the popular hyperlocal news websites, New York Public Radio President and CEO Laura Walker hailed the sites “as a source of trusted local news,” adding that amid a decline in local journalism, “we remain committed to strong, independent reporting that fills the void.”
While there was a description of the “assets” that had been purchased, there was no mention of the actual journalists who had earned that reputation, so the question loomed large for former Gothamist writers: Was WNYC just buying a brand?
Also missing from the announcement was any mention of the controversial way the sites had been shut down. Just a few months ago, their owner Joe Ricketts abruptly halted operations and temporarily took down the sites a week after the journalists had voted to join a union.
But New York Public Radio did give Ricketts the last quote in a release that permitted him to put a civic-minded face on his hardball move that resulted in more than 100 layoffs in New York City and across the country at the regional spinoffs.
“The most important thing for me was to make sure the assets went to a news organization that would honor our commitment to neighborhood storytelling,” Ricketts said. “I can’t think of a better home for these sites and their archives than WNYC and public radio stations KPCC and WAMU.”
At the time of the shutdown, Ricketts cast the move as merely a business decision, but a month earlier he had blogged that “unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.”
Over the years, Ricketts and his wife have given around $40 million to Republican candidates and PACs. A particular favorite has been Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose rise to national prominence came thanks to his successful salted earth campaign against his state’s public unions.
In addition to not disclosing how much Ricketts got paid, the New York Public Radio announcement failed to disclose the identity of the two donors who funded the acquisition. It also left as an open question the fate of all the Gothamist writers who had voted for a union and were seemingly punished with pink slips.
Word of the high-profile deal comes as WNYC itself is at a pivot point and trying to regain control over its own narrative after being rocked by multiple claims of sexual harassment and bullying by some of the station’s top talents.
A number of the charges went back several years and revealed a culture in which victims that did come forward were ignored and even terminated as alleged abusers were kept on. In a few instances, the victims described taking cases directly to Laura Walker herself. Published reports indicate that on occasion the station resorted to nondisclosure agreements to keep the allegations out of the public eye.
The scandal broke back in December with reporting in New York magazine by Suki Kim about her own firsthand experience as a guest with John Hockenberry, who was the host of WNYC’s “The Takeaway.” Months earlier, Hockenberry retired with a celebratory send-off by the station. Kim’s reporting included other detailed accounts from WNYC employees who went public about their experiences with Hockenberry. The former host issued an apology in a statement.
At a public board meeting in December, Walker said she was “profoundly pained and sorry,” conceding that “for the last several years, I think we’ve prioritized growth and content and programming over investment in some of the processes and people.” The New York Times recently chronicled the station’s meteoric rise from 1995, when it had an $8 million budget and 1 million weekly listeners, to today, when its monthly audience tops 26 million and its annual budget is $100 million.
Also in December, longtime hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz were fired over allegedly inappropriate conduct. Yet there continues to be a vocal group of WNYC’s listeners that have rallied around Lopate, who they feel was a scapegoat after the bruising reporting by New York magazine.
Dean Cappello, the station’s chief content officer who oversaw the shows caught up in the roiling scandal, was removed from his post and now is acting only in an advisory capacity reporting directly to Walker. Sources inside the station said he has not been spotted since the announcement of his demotion.
Several current WNYC employees, who did not want their names published because they were concerned about violating company policy, said there was some optimism that Walker’s efforts at an internal reset are producing tangible results.
“It’s clear Laura was completely blindsided by this,” one longtime staffer said. “It was her own fault because she lost that boots-on-the-ground sense of things, but now she is really working hard to right the ship.”
But the upbeat assessment was not universal. “I just am not buying it that we have turned a corner,” another employee said. “All the leadership that was here when this all played out are still here.”
Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, New York Public Radio’s spokeswoman, told City & State that measures were being implemented in response. “We have added new roles to the HR department to provide employees with additional support and strengthen the overall employee experience,” she said. “We have instituted a new mandatory in-person anti-harassment training for everyone on staff, and we are reviewing our anti-harassment policies, including looking at ways to better support people who come forward with complaints.”
The New York Times also reported that Walker is making close to $800,000 per year at NYPR as well as another $200,000 as a board member of the Tribune Media Co. Tribune is in the midst of a controversial $4 billion merger with the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The disparity between Walker’s compensation and WNYC’s nonprofit workforce will be front and center as the negotiating team from Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists – or SAG-AFTRA – prepares for upcoming contract talks with WNYC.
One longtime union employee complained that, despite some progress over the years, the station’s wages have not kept up with the region’s cost of living.
“I’ve heard that there is a pay study coming later this year,” another longtime union member said. “I’m still way underpaid. I have three jobs.”
In the last contract cycle, union members with more seniority offered up 1 percent of their pay increase to try and bring up the pay scale at the bottom. But now, after WNYC’s #MeToo tribulations, there may be a sense of greater militance, especially among the younger staff members.
“Laura was asked directly at the meeting announcing the Gothamist acquisition if the Gothamist writers that came on would be represented by the Writers Guild or if they would join us in SAG-AFTRA and Laura said they could be represented by either one, but that the specifics had not been worked out yet,” one veteran WNYC employee said.
Historically, WNYC workers involved with producing radio were considered “covered” by the SAG-AFTRA contract, while digital workers doing web-based writing and production were excluded from union representation. Over the years, the workforce has grown exponentially and has been supplemented with interns, per diems and independent contractors.
Back when the station was owned by New York City, it had around 100 employees. Today, more than 600 people produce content for WQXR, WNYC, New Jersey Public Radio, several web streams and more than 50 podcasts, according to the Times. The station’s interns are paid $13 an hour, WNYC’s spokeswoman said.
Prior to being spun off as a nonprofit overseen by a board of trustees, station employees were considered municipal workers who were members of District Council 37. Before the Giuliani administration formally transferred ownership to the nonprofit, WNYC staffers opted to join SAG-AFTRA, but as the station has grown in the years since, management has resisted the union’s efforts to include the digital workforce.
WNYC has brought on Gothamist’s two founders, Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung. In an interview with Wired, Chung said they are “trying to rebuild the newsroom” but because the size of the donation is still being kept under wraps, she did not know how large the budget for hiring would be.
The fact that so much about the deal is still not publicly known has not escaped the attention of the former Gothamist writers who earned Ricketts’ ire when they voted to organize with the Writers Guild of America East. One of the former Gothamist union writers, who asked to remain anonymous amid the ongoing transition, said the lack of transparency about how much Ricketts got, and the source of that money, prompted more questions than it answered. Were there conditions or stipulations attached to the donations, or would the identity of the donors pose a reputational risk?
A former Gothamist union member monitored WNYC after the announcement about the acquisition during the station’s recent fund drive and felt that the nonprofit had adopted Ricketts’ corporatist storyline about the hyperlocal news site’s demise. “And the language being used in WNYC’s fund drive about how the Gothamist and DNA aren’t around anymore because they were not economically viable ignores the reality that they are not around because Ricketts hates unions and not because the numbers couldn’t work,” the former Gothamist union member said in a phone interview.
Asked about the secrecy surrounding the deal, Houlihan Roussel, the New York Public Radio spokeswoman, wrote that the “donors have asked to remain anonymous, but share our commitment to preserving and furthering local journalism. The sale was entirely funded through philanthropic gifts.”
As to the status of the former Gothamist writers who voted to unionize, Houlihan Roussel said only that the relaunch of WNYC’s Gothamist would be in the spring. She also confirmed that the station’s current union contract does not include writers on the digital side.
“We are assembling an editorial transition team consisting of three to four former Gothamist editors, and two to three journalists from WNYC,” Houlihan Roussel wrote. “This team will help produce Gothamist for roughly the first six months of operation. During that time, we will assess permanent staffing needs and hire through our usual channels.”
Editor's note: Bob Hennelly was a staff reporter at WNYC and left in 2013.