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WNYC Part III: Audrey Cooper's Digital First Strategy Has Failed
Happy Anniversary, Though
If you’re new here — welcome! This issue of The Squeeze is the third part in a series of pieces I’m writing on New York Public Radio’s flagship station, WNYC. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend reading part one and two before reading this installment.
This is a long one, so let’s jump right to it.
WNYC Part III: Audrey Cooper's Digital First Strategy Has Failed
In part one of this series, I made the case that New York Public Radio’s decision to hire Andrew Golis, a “digital media executive” with zero experience working in radio, as the organization’s Chief Content Officer, was driven by industry-wide anxiety that digital platforms would “eat public radio’s lunch.” I made the case that Golis was unqualified for his job, where he earns over half a million dollars per year.
In part two, I showed that under Golis’s watch, WNYC Studios, the station’s podcast subsidiary, had entered a period of creative stagnation, marked by high profile departures, show losses, and a decline in audience and download numbers.
Today we’ll take a look at the other major content arm for which Golis is responsible: the WNYC newsroom, which includes the station’s radio operations and the digital website it purchased in 2018, Gothamist. It’s important to note that while Andrew Golis oversees basically everything at WNYC, he doesn’t run its newsroom (in fact, according many sources, he barely steps foot in it). That’s the job of Audrey Cooper, the station’s editor in chief. She makes all the decisions related the station’s news operations, and according to my reporting, Golis backs her up 99 times out of 100. One of Cooper’s most impactful decisions has been to fully merge WNYC’s radio and digital newsrooms. Today all newsroom reporters are expected develop the ability to write stories for the website and produce audio journalism. As readers of this newsletter probably know, those are two very different disciplines, and it’s clear from my reporting that this “digital first” strategy has worked out badly for the station.
Before I go any further, I want to walk you through a few of the events that led up to the hiring of Audrey Cooper:
Andrew Golis started work at WNYC in February of 2019. Seven months later, New York Public Radio hired Goli Sheikholeslami as its new CEO. The press release announcing the news praised Sheikholeslami for leading “the historic integration of the [Washington] Post’s digital and print operations” as a senior executive at the newspaper, and for “launching digital properties” at Chicago Public Media, where she had served as CEO.
Sheikholeslami was eager to integrate WNYC’s radio and digital operations, which were still operating relatively independently when she arrived. The new CEO appeared to think that the task would be straightforward, telling then-Gothamist reporter Christopher Robbins that creating content for digital properties and producing stories for the radio are “eighty percent” the same. (Sheikholeslami hasn’t responded to my repeated requests for an interview.)
In late 2019 and the first part of 2020, Sheikholeslami and Golis conducted a nationwide search for an editor in chief for the newsroom. As the New York Times reported in a story titled “WNYC Employees Demanded Diversity. They Got Another White Boss,” despite feedback from staffers that “a person of color, someone who deeply understood New York and who had experience in public radio” should fill the role, the search concluded with the hire of San Francisco Chronicle’s white editor in chief Audrey Cooper, a person with no experience in radio or knowledge of New York, but who had been lauded for pushing a legacy newspaper into the digital age.
In the span of less than 18 months, the three most powerful roles at a celebrated New York radio institution had now been filled by people who had little to zero combined experience working in public radio.
Now, a lot of shit has gone down at WNYC during the three years Cooper has been in charge of the station’s newsroom (different elements of all the shit have been covered over the past few years by various publications; if you’re interested, you can read up on it here, here, and here). In a future issue, I may get into some of that, but today my focus is on results.
Our story begins last March. A handful of sources told me that WNYC’s editor in chief Audrey Cooper had made staffers prioritize writing for the newsroom’s website over producing radio stories. Multiple staffers said they were expected to write two to three 500-750 word stories each week, hindering their ability to produce the kind of in-depth news and investigative audio journalism that had made the station one of the most respected public radio organizations in the country. Meanwhile, they told me, Gothamist’s traffic numbers were “garbage.”
This was not actually earthshaking news. In March of 2022, Savannah Jacobson had written a profile of Cooper titled “WNYC sought change. It got turmoil,” for Columbia Journalism Review, in which she reported that under Cooper’s watch, “slower, more thoughtfully produced radio is disappearing in favor of cheaper and quicker stories” and Gothamist traffic had fallen “to pre-pandemic levels.” Cooper, unfazed, told Jacobson that she believed the combined force of WNYC’s radio and digital operations could eventually become “New York City’s ‘newsroom of record.’”
But my sources said things had gotten worse.
I reached out to WNYC communications VP Jennifer Houlihan Roussel and asked if I could schedule a chat with Andrew Golis. I wanted to discuss how the station’s digital evolution was going, and understand how executives were measuring its progress. After a week of nothing burger responses, I downgraded my request. Anyone at the station who could answer my questions would do. A few days later, the verdict was in: “We're not going to make anyone available for interview,” Roussel wrote. “But this letter from our Editor in Chief announcing the Gothamist site refresh last fall does a great job describing where we've been and where we are going.”
In the letter, which appeared on Gothamist last October, Audrey Cooper wrote that the website redesign marked an “important moment” for the newsroom and “for local journalism in New York City.” In an effort to “save local news,” the station had been “working to integrate the formidable WNYC and Gothamist teams” to form a “robust news organization” that was “now on track to become our region’s largest local news-gathering force.”
Indeed, it seemed that to Cooper, becoming a “newsroom of record” meant hiring a lot of people. Though the editor in chief had fired, “laid off,” or simply lost dozens of talented and award-winning reporters over the course of her relatively short tenure, my sources confirmed that she was replacing them as quickly as they exited, and then adding even more — mostly younger, less experienced reporters and editors with little to no radio experience.
With so many new hires from non-radio backgrounds, I wondered what the station’s radio reporting sounded like these days. So I starting listening to it (I live in California, so WNYC-FM programming had not previously been a part of my audio routine).
Here’s what I found:
In-depth news and investigative work was still appearing on the airwaves, but far less frequently than in the years prior to Cooper’s arrival (and largely produced by the handful of veteran reporters still on staff who cut their teeth in audio long ago). I heard a lot of the “acts and tracks” style of audio reporting, in which tape is pulled from a staged news event and combined with a reporter’s tracking; as well as many two-ways between reporters and hosts. I also heard non-narrated man-on-the-street audio segments, pre-planned interviews, and headline news segments.
All in all, I heard a handful of stories each week, in which a reporter obviously had the time to take their mic in the field and really get behind the headlines. However, I heard many more stories in which “the news” appeared to be whatever the people in power were saying it was — because that’s what you get with stuff like “acts and tracks.” (This is not a knock on reporters; I’m aware that leadership has directed resources away from in-depth audio journalism!)
In any event, this didn’t feel like “saving local news.” It sounded like a station that was doing it’s best under tough circumstances.
I also began reading Gothamist on the regular.
Here’s what I found:
A previously irreverent and popular New York news website, ostensibly purchased by NYPR to help the organization reach a younger, more digitally savvy audience (or, in the revisionist history of Audrey Cooper, to “save local news”), stripped of its personality. It was lifeless. (This is not a knock on the editorial teams; I’m aware that the directive to write personality-free articles is coming from leadership!)
Again, this seemed counter-intuitive to attracting readers to local news.
But perhaps I was wrong, and audiences were responding to the website’s more straight-forward copy. The only way to find out was to get my hands on traffic numbers. (In a “public media mergers playbook” that Cooper had handed out to newsroom staffers, its authors had written plainly that “if a post-acquisition merger process is going well, digital audience growth and loyalty should be increasing.”)
Jacobson had already reported that Gothamist’s traffic had “peaked in April 2020 at 4.5 million unique visitors,” then dropped to 2 million by December of 2021. So 2 million was my baseline. After doing some digging, I found that this past spring, Gothamist traffic teetered between 1.7 and 1.9 monthly unique visitors. (WNYC confirmed that March came in at 1.8 and April came in at 1.9, but claimed that a drop to 1.7 in May was the fault of a “disruption caused by a bug.”)
Those numbers definitely aren’t great, and if you weigh them against the size of the Gothamist newsroom, they’re even worse — much worse. Let’s break it down:
A team of 7-9 staffers re-launched Gothamist as part of WNYC in 2018. (Obviously, at launch, traffic was zero.)
By early 2020, the work of the Gothamist team (by then, 8-10 staffers, plus a handful of outside contributors) was bringing in 2.5 million unique monthly visitors. As we know from Jacobson’s article, that number grew to 4.5 million monthly uniques in April of 2020.
Audrey Cooper joined WNYC in July of 2020.
A year and a half after that — by which time, Cooper’s digital first strategy was in full swing — Gothamist’s numbers had sunk to 2 million monthly uniques.
And today’s version of Gothamist, which is now staffed by 23 reporters, is bringing in (barely) 2 million monthly uniques.
Under the leadership of Audrey Cooper and her boss Andrew Golis, Gothamist’s reporting staff has more than doubled, while its traffic has declined to below pre-pandemic levels — which is also less than half of what the website’s numbers were at its peak! (If you include the 22 editors listed on Gothamist’s website, you could fairly say that leadership has quadrupled its editorial staff during that decline.)
However you measure it, this is BANANAS.
The other day, a former staffer told me that Cooper predicted that she’d get Gothamist traffic up to ten million monthly unique visitors within three years. Well, guess what? I can guarantee that she didn’t accomplish that goal because today is Audrey Cooper’s three year anniversary of her first day at WNYC, and she’s still 8 million monthly uniques short.
But instead of dwelling on that, let’s review what Audrey Cooper has accomplished over the past three years:
decreasing digital traffic, while doubling/quadrupling her staff;
eradicating the Gothamist brand;
damaging and possibly ruining the legacy of the WNYC newsroom, a New York Institution;
firing, “laying off,” or simply losing countless talented and award-winning reporters;
and more (some of which, I’ll report on later).
That’s all for me this week!
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