WNYC sought change. It got turmoil.

On June 11, 2020, Audrey Cooper, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was made editor in chief of WNYC, New York’s public radio station. 

Among the sparse decorations she installed in her office, on the eighth floor of WNYC’s SoHo headquarters, was a signed photograph of Colin Powell. She moved in to a multimillion-dollar brownstone in Park Slope, which prompted speculation among her staff about her salary. (Laura Walker, the former chief executive, made almost $2 million in 2019.) 

When one colleague asked about her new neighborhood, she said that it was very dirty, contributing to a sense that she had committed a cardinal sin––she was not very New York. Staffers whispered that she might be a Republican, heresy in a newsroom so closely affiliated with the identity of progressive New Yorkers. (She is, according to her New York registration, a Democrat and is unaffiliated in California.) 

WNYC is a particular culture. Its staff take the fact they receive public funding seriously. They consider it their mission to repay New Yorkers with compelling and independent journalism. They’re passionate about their work. They are idealists. And their devotion is reciprocated by listeners. During the most recent mayoral election, five New Yorkers wrote in WNYC host Brian Lehrer. 

Cooper herself, according to the New York Times, didn’t “get” Lehrer. Her focus seemed to be elsewhere. Early in her tenure she sent around a 185-page academic report on merging radio and internet newsrooms. Much of the advice was bland. But to journalists at the radio station, many of whom had planned to make entire careers at a place they loved, one line stood out. “Leadership and turnover,” it read, “are key ingredients in making acquisitions work over time.” 

She followed up by mailing her editors a book called The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins, a Canadian author of business books. “A long career at a single company,” it says in the first few pages, “is increasingly a thing of the past.” 

Cooper says the aim is to turn WNYC into New York City’s “newsroom of record.” But her staff are not all sure what that means. In the eighteen months or so since she started, at least five newsroom members have been fired or laid off, and at least eighteen more have left of their own volition. (A PR representative disputes the number and pointed out that they have hired eighteen people in the same period.) Some of those who left had been at the station for decades. And a few departed without other jobs lined up, a daring proposition in the narrowing world of public radio, where WNYC is at the top of the field. Former employees have cited burnout, a lost sense of purpose, or a difficult work environment. 

In interviews with eighteen current and former WNYC staffers, a picture emerges of Cooper as an energetic and ambitious leader, but also one who is occasionally vengeful and inspires fear rather than trust. Journalists worry that any comment that she perceives negatively will doom their careers. The station has battled legal action from their union, sag-aftra, which alleged that WNYC was undermining its work, and from at least one former employee who alleged unlawful termination. (These matters were recently settled.) Web traffic is falling back to pre-pandemic levels (though this is happening across the industry). Slower, more thoughtfully produced radio is disappearing in favor of cheaper and quicker stories.  

For WNYC’s management, this is simply the cost of change. In mid-December I spoke with Cooper; Goli Sheikholeslami, WNYC’s president and chief executive; and Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, a PR representative. I was mostly met with charming but empty talking points that were repeated when I spoke to any of the station’s executives. 

“No editor in this country is going to be successful if they think they have all of the answers, and I certainly don’t have them,” Cooper said. “Change is really hard,” she added. “We’re getting there. I think the proof is in the pudding when we continue to do great work.” 

“We are going through a period of transition,” Sheikholeslami said. “And periods of transition bring uncertainty and anxiety, and we all understand that.” 

Shortly after an interview, Sheikholeslami left the station to run Politico

 

WNYC’s story is echoed in newsrooms throughout the nation, which have seen an increase in resignations since the start of the pandemic. Journalists are now just another voice in the endless open-mic night that is the internet. They compete not just with rival newsrooms, but with everything published on earth. Even audio journalism, a once sacred space, is competing with amateur podcasters armed only with their phones. 

Dreams that the industry might pull together in the face of these threats have been replaced by a reality in which newsrooms have to do more with fewer resources, unpopular and uninspiring bosses abound, capricious owners can pull the plug at a moment’s notice, social media algorithms spring new horrors daily, analytics are both determinative and debilitatingly opaque, and job security is increasingly elusive. The industry is grappling with difficult questions of what the future should look like, and its workers all have different answers.

These problems are particularly acute for WNYC, which has always been a different kind of outlet. Grover A. Whalen first conceived of a radio station for the people of New York City in 1922. But city ownership came with a number of obvious problems. In March of 1995, Mayor Rudy Giuliani agreed to sell the station to the WNYC Foundation for $20 million. “The board stood up to Giuliani,” who wanted to sell to the highest bidder, said Laura Walker, the station’s former chief executive, “and said, We’re going to buy this station and we’re going to make it even stronger.” 

“We were in a position to really cover the city,” said Beth Fertig, a former senior reporter who had been with the station for twenty-six years before leaving in October. In 2001, after WNYC’s transmitters––formerly located at the World Trade Center––were destroyed, the station raised funds from more than twenty-seven thousand listeners. “And we grew and grew after that,” Fertig said.

Shortly after the privatization, Walker, a former NPR producer who had worked in the nonprofit arts world, became president and chief executive. She remained in her position until 2019 and oversaw a period of growth: from one to twenty-six million listeners, the launch of a successful podcast arm, dozens of awards, exponential growth in the budget, and several acquisitions, according to the station

The mission, Walker said, was “to make the mind more curious, the heart more open, and the soul more joyful” through peerless radio programming rooted in New York. The station was a podcasting pioneer. “‘Sure, why not’ was the mantra, in a way,” Walker said. 

Years later, in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck, WNYC covered the story around the clock. It remains a source of pride for staffers. Hosts answered listener questions; producers developed poignant features about hurricane victims; other teams made a map of evacuation and flood zones and a transit tracker and posted constant social media updates. The station stayed on the story for years, publishing follow-ups well after the rest of the world had moved on. Their coverage won awards, and spoke to a whole city. 

 

But even as the station seemed to be thriving, new problems were emerging. At the end of 2017, a report in The Cut alleged that John Hockenberry, the host of The Takeaway, had sexually harassed several women. Another article in The Cut, published a couple of months later, alleged more instances of sexual harassment and bullying by more hosts, and reported that “Walker, the HR department, and chief content officer and ‘Takeaway’ founder Dean Cappello…had known about much of Hockenberry’s behavior for years. Three people—Hockenberry and two hosts—lost their jobs, while Cappello was demoted, in a period that the staff refers to as “The Troubles.” 

Amid that turmoil, the station was attempting to integrate the Web and the radio––two distinct and specialized forms, according to staffers who were asked to do both. The goal was one unified newsroom with a shared mission of covering New York City. But radio and the Web had different priorities, different storytelling modes. In 2018, in part to help solve this issue, WNYC acquired Gothamist, a punchy New York City news site, after its billionaire owner shut it down following a staff unionization effort. But there was immediate tension. Where Gothamist covered, for example, the progressives who won statewide elections in 2018 with headlines including “Payback Time,” a WNYC broadcast told a straightforward story about how “a handful of newcomers topple[d] the incumbents.” 

Walker’s departure, in 2019, was followed quickly by that of Jim Schachter, vice president of news. Sheikholeslami, who came from Chicago Public Media, became the chief executive of New York Public Radio, WNYC’s parent company. She was faced not only with earning the newsroom’s trust after a tumultuous period, but also balancing a dire budget. “My initial focus,” she said in an interview, “was the financial situation in the organization.” 

Sheikholeslami, along with Andrew Golis, the chief content officer, began the process of hiring someone to lead WNYC’s newsroom. The newsroom made its list of priorities clear: they wanted someone local, and a person of color, with experience in public media and in radio, as Ginia Bellafante reported in the Times.

In June the staff was told that the search was finished. The next editor in chief of WNYC would be Cooper, a white woman who had a long career in corporate-owned newspapers, had never worked in radio, and had no experience in New York.

At the San Francisco Chronicle she worked her way from assistant city editor to editor in chief, in about nine years. Under her leadership, which began in 2015, the paper launched an investigative team, bolstered its metro reporting, and developed a number of substantive projects on complex topics. One of those topics, homelessness, was personal, according to an account Cooper gave the Times: she once walked past a homeless couple having sex in their tent and shouted at them, prompting them to loose their pit bull on her.

It was this run at the Chronicle that convinced Sheikholeslami and Golis that Cooper was the right pick for WNYC. “Over and over,” Bellafante wrote, they “heard that Ms. Cooper was beloved by reporters.” For her part, Cooper told me, what appealed to her about WNYC was “to really supercharge all these amazing people and assets that we have here, and make it into a bigger organization.”

But the WNYC search team seemed to have missed the accounts of others who had worked with Cooper at the Chronicle, who said she was vindictive, mercurial, and difficult to work for. “Many people working for her find her engaging, disarming, witty, spontaneous, unfiltered, fun, you know, inspiring,” said Caroline Grannan, who is the paper’s unit chair for the Pacific Media Workers Guild and a copy editor at the Chronicle. “And subordinates who fall out of favor and cross her see a whole different side of her.” 

Cooper built a reputation for fostering an environment, in the words of Eve Batey, who used to work with Cooper at the Chronicle, that was very middle school. (Others said, in fairness, that it was more like high school.) “Easily once a week, someone would be like, ‘Audrey said this about you,’” Batey said. 

 

Cooper moved to New York City as its grim first wave of covid began to subside. At WNYC, staffers were grappling with the fact that making radio from home is particularly hard. And they were coping with the loss of Richard Hake, a beloved host of Morning Edition who died near the end of last April at the age of fifty-one. Leading at this moment would have been hard for the deftest of editors. 

Staff members say they wanted to show Cooper goodwill. No one could blame her for accepting the position. And at first, things seemed to be going fine. “That column,” Cooper said, referring to the Bellafante piece, “I don’t really feel like it was about me, to be honest with you.” Cooper seemed interested in learning the ins and outs of radio, and she was holding meetings with staff members to learn about their goals at the station. 

But eventually, she stopped sitting in on radio training sessions. In fact, staffers said that she didn’t seem to listen to her own radio station. (Cooper called this notion “silly.”) The organizational charts she spoke about felt useless to them. No one really understood what it meant to be the “newsroom of record.” (I asked Sheikholeslami if she could offer specifics about what it entails; she said, “Our vision is that we really want to approach this very holistically.”)

In practice, to the staff, it meant fewer longer radio pieces—which take a long time to produce—in favor of interviews and banter between hosts and reporters. (Cooper pointed out that she created a narrative audio editor position.) Radio people now write Web stories, and Web people are being asked to learn audio editing, with little training. 

Gothamist has toned down, and lost much of its readership—its audience size peaked in April 2020 at 4.5 million unique visitors; in December of 2021, that number was 2 million. And then fresh scandal struck. 

 

Plagiarism in American journalism simply used to mean passing published work off as one’s own without attribution. In the Web era, on sites like Gothamist that specialize in voice and have few qualms about aggregating, that line is fuzzier. And radio has its own rules. It commonly uses stories from wire services––standard news stories that subscribers are welcome to publish as they come—to build its pieces. 

In late January of 2021, Fred Mogul, a reporter who had been with the station since 2002, was asked to cover a story. The Miami Heat, according to one of those wire services—the Associated Press, which the radio side of WNYC subscribes to—was using dogs to detect covid; Mogul was asked to write about a similar program that was to be introduced in New York.

His story included a paragraph from the AP’s original story, which he says he attributed at the bottom of the piece. He considered this to be a standard practice, particularly on the radio side of WNYC. But his editor told him, according to a lawsuit he later filed, that he should not “copy-paste text (outside of quotes) from AP stories.”

Mogul responded, “We’ve been told that’s kosher, I’m pretty sure, since we’re paying members—as long as they’re bylined at the top or bottom. Want me to rewrite or just omit?” The story ran without the AP paragraph or attribution. 

But the issue was elevated by his editor. On February 5, nine days after Mogul originally filed his story to his editor, Cooper told Mogul, via Zoom, that she had decided to terminate his employment. He started to respond. But, according to the suit, Cooper left immediately, in the middle of his sentence

The same day, Cooper called all-staff meetings to inform the rest of the newsroom about her decision to fire Mogul. Stunned staff members asked for specifics of the incident––did he not cite the AP at all? Are you saying you think he intentionally plagiarized? We’ve all done exactly what you’re describing, so are you going to fire us all, too? 

“The fact that…very few of us knew that Gothamist didn’t have an AP subscription, to me, speaks directly to the failures of the integration” of Web and radio, Nancy Solomon, a reporter who’s been with the station for ten years, said, according to a recording of the meeting. “I fully am behind you and your commitment to improve the integration, but it looks like Fred has become a victim to a lack of change, communication, integration, knowledge, training—a unified understanding of how we do this.” 

Rebeca Ibarra, a host who left in October, echoed the thought. “I understand that you think that’s wrong, which, you know what, maybe it is wrong, but we haven’t even had a conversation about this. And this is how we’re all learning what we have been doing for years is not acceptable,” she said. Cooper responded that she found this misunderstanding “truly astounding” because it’s “exceedingly clear in the editorial standards.” 

Ibarra responded, “But Audrey, you literally came in and said that most of our practices are terrible and you’re here trying to fix them all.” A misunderstanding, staff members implored her, does not warrant a firing. More than sixty staffers also signed a letter in support of Mogul. This was the moment, many of her staff have said, that Cooper lost her newsroom. 

Cooper said she would conduct an internal audit. Since then, five other articles posted on Gothamist from the past year or so have been retracted and replaced with an editor’s note reading: “After publishing this story, WNYC found it contained unattributed words or phrases. We have decided to retract this article and are investigating the editing process that led to this mistake.” (These stories, four of which were written about in the Times, were apparently not uncovered by the station’s audit.)

Four of those articles were written by Jami Floyd––who was a legal editor and show host before she was named the senior editor of WNYC’s Race and Justice Unit––and Floyd co-bylined a fifth. Floyd was on a two-week vacation as these articles came to management’s attention in the fall. As of the beginning of November, she was back to work overseeing the Race and Justice desk. Floyd’s colleagues are unsure whether she was suspended or what disciplinary action was taken; Cooper and Sheikholeslami told me they would not comment on personnel matters. 

It posed a stark contrast to Cooper’s rhetoric after she fired Mogul, where she repeatedly described a zero-tolerance policy for using language from work by other news outlets without attribution. In November, after the Times reported on the stories by Floyd and her subsequent reassignment, Floyd posted a 1,464-word rebuttal on a website called Reputation Doctor. A Twitter account associated with Reputation Doctor also tweeted a suggestion that the Times story was influenced by a relationship (of which there is no evidence) between the reporter and a Gothamist editor. 

“‘Plagiarism’ is a fraught word,” Floyd wrote to me in an email. “Let me be perfectly clear: I have never stolen anyone’s work. I have never taken someone’s idea and passed it off as my own. I have never defrauded readers or made myself out to be something that I’m not.” She said that she still holds her position at WNYC but has been consulting with a PR representative, an employment lawyer, and defamation counsel to “be certain my reputation and livelihood remain intact, despite the misstatements reported about me.” She told me that she requested a correction and went through the Times story with the paper’s business editor line by line. No correction has been made.

Floyd’s reassignment seems a matter of semantics. She has been retitled as “director” of the unit, a noneditorial role, but takes part in editorial meetings. When editors pressed Cooper for more information, she insisted she was enforcing her rules consistently. She told me, “They are very different cases, and they were handled differently.” 

But CJR came across at least five more WNYC articles with Floyd’s byline that include strikingly similar wording to specific articles from SCOTUSBlog, Constitution Blog, Business Insider, the Times, and more, that remained posted in full on wnyc.org and were not highlighted in the newsroom’s audit or subsequent investigations.

When CJR reached Floyd with the examples, she vehemently denied any wrongdoing and characterized them as industry-standard “patchwriting.”

When I raised this with Cooper, she caveated the instances by saying they were five and eleven years old and that Floyd was not an official employee at that time. Nonetheless, she said, “We take this very seriously. Plagiarism has no place in this newsroom.” She did not offer specifics when I asked why they had not found these instances after Floyd’s reassignment. 

A few days after Cooper and I spoke, WNYC retracted two of the articles “while it investigates” what occurred.

 

In April, WNYC laid off fourteen people, four of whom worked in the newsroom. Their number included Christopher Robbins, who was the union shop steward; John Del Signore, the former editor in chief of Gothamist; Matthew Schuerman, a widely respected editor; and Richard Yeh, who, among other things, ran a renowned internship program that many credit for diversifying the newsroom’s staff—one of Cooper’s stated goals. Yeh was also the only person to go on the record in Bellafante’s 2020 column.

After staffers criticized the decision in an all-staff meeting—a place where, when Walker was leading the company, staffers could lob difficult questions to management and expect answers—two reporters were contacted by human resources. Though they were not officially disciplined, staffers felt punished for airing their views.

sag-aftra, the staffers’ union, filed an unfair labor practice charge in May, alleging retaliatory firing, surveilling union members, issuing unwarranted discipline, and “enforcing unlawful work rules.” They also sued on behalf of Mogul. 

The station retained Jones Day, a notoriously anti-labor law firm, to fight the allegations. Some staffers argue it was an inappropriate use of listener-supported WNYC funds. I asked Sheikholeslami whether any of these layoffs constituted retaliation. “There is no retaliation,” she said. “I would not permit that.” Cooper said, in a different interview, “I don’t retaliate against anyone. Nobody has been pushed out.”

Leaders have sought to attribute WNYC staff’s low morale to the pandemic and the difficulty of change—notions many staffers find, at best, condescending. But many of those who left, as the Daily Beast also reported, described a climate of fear, an environment in which leadership exhibits a vindictiveness toward those who dare to question decisions. Many are emotionally drained––in part because WNYC is a place they once loved. Their mental health, some have told me, has never been worse. 

Ultimately, readers and listeners may not care about any of this. Internal warfare that seems urgent and all-encompassing comes off as petty office politics outside of the newsroom. But, journalists say, the infighting and instability has fundamentally affected the (listener supported) journalism. When Hurricane Ida hit, or a fire in the Bronx killed seventeen people, they said, their coverage did not come close to matching the valuable, timely information the station generated in breaking news events of past years. 

In the station’s office there is a plaque of twelve framed photographs honoring those who embodied New York Public Radio values. Two of those have gone to producers: Richard Yeh in 2019 and Alice Wilder in 2020. Both are now gone. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR.

TOP IMAGE: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images