WBUR lays off 29, freezes salaries and says goodbye to four senior leaders

This is heartbreaking. WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) is laying off 29 people “because of the economic fallout of the past several months,” according to a memo sent to the staff by the station’s chief executive officer, Margaret Low. A salary freeze has been imposed. In addition, senior executives Tom Melville, John Davidow and Peter Lydotes are leaving, and Sam Fleming will retire later this year.

Overall, Low says, the current budget of $46 million will be reduced to $40 million in the next fiscal year.

The memo also contains some ideas and observations about increasing the diversity of the staff and about the station’s ongoing commitment to local news.

This is bad news for the Boston area. Along with WGBH News, where I’m a contributor, WBUR is an incredibly important part of the regional news ecosystem system. It’s also terrible news for the folks who’ll be losing their jobs. Best wishes to everyone during this challenging time.

I got the memo from a trusted source. The full text follows:

Dear All,

I have important news to share this morning about a significant reorganization and some of the difficult choices I’ve had to make because of the economic fallout of the past several months.

To begin, we are laying off 29 people. Many of them are part time staff. This means valued colleagues are losing their jobs at a very challenging time and will be leaving WBUR over the next days, weeks and months. We’ve already reached out to everyone who is immediately affected by the changes.

While I’m confident that WBUR has a bright future, this is a hard moment — because longtime coworkers and friends will be departing.

There will also be some shared sacrifice. There will be no wage increases for FY21, except for negotiated union salary adjustments, and there will be no contributions to retirement funds. And we’ve developed a much reduced budget for the next fiscal year. The WBUR Board approved a FY20 budget of just under $46 million. For FY21, the Board will be presented with a budget of just over $40 million.

Beyond the layoffs, we will reduce expenses across the board. Most notably — we are eliminating seven unfilled positions, cutting travel and marketing costs and canceling various contracted services. I’m taking a 10% salary cut.

A number of senior leaders, who collectively have dedicated the better part of a century to WBUR, will be leaving us. They include: Tom Melville, John Davidow and Peter LydotesSam Fleming plans to retire this year. He will be with us three days a week for the next few months.

In addition, we will stop production of Only A Game at the end of September. The New York Times will take over the wildly successful Modern Love podcast at the end of the month, and Kind World, which blossomed from a digital experiment back in 2012 into an award winning Morning Edition feature and podcast, will end its run in July.

At the same time as we are losing cherished colleagues, this restructuring means that we will be hiring for a number of new positions that will make WBUR stronger.

There is a lot more to share, and I apologize in advance for the length of this note. I want to reflect the decisions we’ve made with precision, care and respect for all our colleagues. I will be meeting with some individual teams today and tomorrow and I will hold an AMA later this afternoon, so I can answer any questions you have.

The changes I’m making are necessary to streamline the organization and to reflect the budget realities of the moment. But beyond this restructuring, there is much more work to be done to forge our long term strategic future. Over the summer, we will begin to fully articulate what will define our journalism and our programming going forward and what it will take to become even more essential in people’s lives.

My decisions rest on four pillars — three that I’m addressing immediately with this reorganization and a fourth that I will enlist all of you in tackling in the days and months ahead:

    • Editorial Excellence — we must strive to be the most trusted and beloved source of local news in Boston and beyond, distinguished in a competitive media landscape by the quality and ambition of our journalism and our programming.
    • Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness — we must ensure that WBUR is a disciplined and well-run operation that supports and empowers people, holds them accountable and reflects our values at every turn.
    • Economic Sustainability — we must rightsize the organization so we aren’t spending more money than we are bringing in. At the same time we must double down on generating revenue and finding new ways to fuel WBUR.
    • The Road Ahead — there are two issues of great consequence to our future that require our concerted attention.

The first is racial equity. In the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, we have witnessed a global outpouring of people calling for racial justice — and an end to the profound inequities that have defined the American experience. These days are filled with anguish, but endowed with the possibility of achieving lasting change.

This reckoning demands that we confront elements of systemic racism that have  persisted in our country and our institutions, even as we’ve expressed a commitment to diversity. WBUR is not exempt from this examination — we have a lot of work to do. And it can’t be addressed by simply restating our values of inclusion. This effort must be different in kind and substance than anything we’ve done before. It requires change in every aspect of our culture, our coverage, our hiring and our leadership development. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m committed to leading the way and not letting up. Our future depends on it.

Second, our future also depends on identifying how we continue to grow our audience and cultivate the loyalty and financial support that is essential to sustaining our journalism. This is a time of profound technological change and the clock is ticking. WBUR has been a credible digital innovator. But as listening habits and media consumption patterns continue to shift, we have to confront how we reach new audiences and become even more relevant in people’s lives. So that they can’t imagine a day without WBUR. And they believe we’re worthy of their support.

Both of these efforts will require the investment of every single person at WBUR.

Given all this, it was clear that a restructuring of WBUR was imperative, but everything was accelerated by an unexpected financial crisis that compelled deeper cuts. In laying out the details, I can’t possibly give proper due to all the people who have devoted themselves to WBUR for so many years. Finding ways to celebrate our departing colleagues is made more difficult in the age of social distancing. But we will make sure that happens.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to capture the most important aspects of the restructuring below.

Local News

Local journalism has always been core to our mission. Increasingly it is paramount. We have the biggest local newsroom in public radio and in order to produce agenda-setting coverage, we are reorganizing the team, strengthening our leadership ranks and deepening our bench of editors.

To begin, Dan Mauzy will become Executive Editor for News. In my five months at WBUR, I’ve seen Dan demonstrate editorial depth, impressive leadership, and an unmatched command of every aspect of the newsroom operation. Dan will work closely with Tom Melville to ensure a smooth transition.

For nearly nine years, Tom has led the newsroom with grace, generosity and a deep love and knowledge of the region. This has never been more evident than in these last few months, as first COVID and then the death of George Floyd transformed the nation and the globe. That WBUR’s local journalism has soared, amid the disruption to our operations and the pain we feel in our personal and professional lives, is a testament to Tom. I’m enormously grateful for his intelligence, integrity and extraordinary kindness.

I am also moving the team responsible for the editorial dimension of our digital efforts into the news division, so that our journalism on all platforms is more closely aligned.

Tiffany Campbell, our Executive Editor for Digital, will continue to oversee her editorial staff and newsroom digital strategy, and will now report to Dan. In addition, Cognoscenti, led by Frannie Carr Toth, will move into the newsroom under Tiffany. More on the rest of the digital team in a moment.

John Davidow will be leaving us after a remarkable 17 year run at WBUR. He joined the station after a distinguished career as a producer in commercial television (when it was in its prime). John was hired to lead the local news team, and radio became his new medium. More than 10 years ago, John made another leap, when he took over our fledgling digital operation. His work propelled WBUR to become one of the most prominent local digital operations in the system. At the same time, John gained national recognition in public media for his expertise on emerging technologies. He spotted great talent like Tiffany along the way and built a first class digital team that will remain a vital part of WBUR’s future.

Managing Editor Elisabeth Harrison, who has so skillfully overseen our coverage of COVID-19, will take on additional newsroom responsibilities and also report to Dan. Beyond  health and business, she will oversee our general assignment reporters and those covering politics, immigration and other beats.

Dan Guzman and Jon Cain will become Executive Producers of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, respectively. They will now supervise show hosts, writers and producers. This will add organizational structure and cohesion to our flagship local NPR shows.

Weekend Managing Editor Paul Connearney, will also take on new responsibilities and supervise the newscast anchors.

In addition to what I’ve laid out above, we will be posting three new newsroom positions. They are:

    • A second managing editor to work side by side with Elisabeth and Tiffany and a new managing producer (see below). This new managing editor will report to Dan and oversee our investigations team as well as our coverage of arts and culture, education and the environment.
    • deputy managing editor, reporting to Elisabeth, who will deepen the editing bench for health, business, politics, and other beats.
    • We are also posting a managing producer This person will oversee all local news programs: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Radio Boston and local newscasts.

A New Product Team

As I said in my 100 day note, WBUR has a powerful history. We have been broadcasters for 70 years and, over those years, we have fostered deep and lasting relationships with our radio audience. Our next job is to develop that connection, to build those relationships, for digital audiences in ways that ensure we’re here for another 70 years. We must be laser-focused on that, because with time — and likely sooner than we think —  digital revenue will need to replace much of the traditional broadcast revenue that supports our journalism. And it won’t happen unless we build the kind of loyalty and devotion that we’ve historically had with our radio audience.

To that end, I’m creating a product team, led by Joan DiMicco. Her job will be to make sure that every experience with WBUR, on any platform, is exceptional. She will be responsible for the strategy, design, and implementation of all our products and will help ensure their demonstrable success. This includes our owned platforms such as wbur.org, our newsletters, and our mobile app; and third-party platforms including NPR One and smart speakers. She will also stay abreast of tech developments across the media landscape as we craft what comes next.

The programmers, developers and digital audio editors, who were part of the larger digital team, will now report to Joan. This new team will work hand in hand with all our editorial teams, marketing and membership.

Operations

As I mentioned above, Peter Lydotes, who has overseen WBUR operations for 16 years, will be departing in the fall. Peter joined WBUR in 1992 as a board operator and over the years has gained an impressive understanding of how just about every system at WBUR works. Peter has absorbed many production responsibilities, keeping our people and our increasingly complicated operation and production efforts humming.

With Peter’s planned departure, Glenn Alexander, who oversees all the BRTs, will now report to Karl Voelker and Glenn’s whole team will be part of engineering and operations. This will help align our technical staff and ensure greater consistency across the organization. And, as I mentioned earlier in this note, the newscasters, who were part of Peter’s team, will join the news division.

In addition to this shift, the station will be automated overnight, as it has been throughout most of the COVID crisis. That means, aside from special circumstances, the last local newscast will be at 10 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. on weekends.

Only a Game

After 27 years, Only a Game will end its run this fall. Executive Producer Karen Given along with founding members Gary Waleik and former host Bill Littlefield — had an amazing  journey producing public radio’s only sports program, featuring highly-produced narrative storytelling and reaching more than 360,000 listeners each week on 260 stations. This is the end of an era for WBUR and I look forward to recognizing those who made this show such a meaningful part of public radio weekends for so many years.

More Staffing News

After nearly 30 years at WBUR, Sam Fleming is ready to pass the baton. He wants to spend more time with his wife who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. Sam let me know his plans long before I stepped into my role in January. Thankfully, he promised to stick around as long as he is needed and I’ve asked him to help me with this transition and importantly to work on WBUR’s ethical guidelines. Sam will begin working part time next month and, whether virtually or in person, we will give him a fitting farewell.

Organizational Structure

Right now I have more than a dozen people reporting to me. In the long run that’s not tenable. But given budget constraints, I will hold off on additional senior hires. It is more important to shore up other parts of the organization. This will be a good opportunity to see the newly structured team in action. If there are significant gaps, we will add positions when we have the resources to do so. But I’m going to be conservative on that front for now.

Some Final Thoughts

Organizational changes of this magnitude are hard. But they are also necessary to ensure that we are financially sound and in fighting shape to deliver on big ambitions. This is a two step process. First, we had to deal with the current financial reality and make the necessary organizational changes. Next, we will begin to lay out our strategy and chart our path forward.

To those who are leaving, I’m sorry that you are departing at this difficult moment in the country and the world. I’m enormously grateful for the years that you have devoted to making WBUR such an exceptional place. You will exit with my profound gratitude and a promise to build on the legacy you leave behind.

To those who are staying — thank you for all you’re doing to keep WBUR strong. Your work has never been more consequential. That is what gives us the stamina and resolve to press on — even during the hardest hours. We play a vital role in Boston and beyond. Serving the public. Reporting the truth. Enriching lives. It is a galvanizing cause —  one that is impossible to equal.

Margaret Low
Chief Executive Officer, WBUR

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OpenCourt wins a crucial First Amendment case

John Davidow of WBUR and OpenCourt

Please pardon the near-silence I’ve been maintaining here. I’m co-chairing a faculty search committee, and this week and next leave me with little time for anything other than that and teaching. (And picking arguments on Twitter.)

But I do want to call your attention to an important decision by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. On Wednesday, the court ruled that OpenCourt, the WBUR-affiliated project that offers gavel-to-gavel coverage of proceedings in Quincy District Court, cannot be ordered by the government to redact any of its coverage.

Essentially, what happened was this. The lawyer for the defendant in a horrific child-rape case blurted out the name of the victim during public court proceedings. District Attorney Michael Morrissey sought to impose an order prohibiting OpenCourt from including the girl’s name in its video archives.

OpenCourt argued, rightly in my view, that as a matter of standard journalistic practice, no news organization present would use the girl’s name — but that it would violate the First Amendment to order such discretion. Underscoring OpenCourt’s argument is that several news organizations were present that day, yet Morrissey sought an order only against OpenCourt.

The SJC’s decision says in part:

We conclude that any order restricting OpenCourt’s ability to publish — by “streaming live” over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site or otherwise — existing audio and video recordings of court room proceedings represents a form of prior restraint on the freedoms of the press and speech protected by the First Amendment and art.

OpenCourt and the DA’s office have been at loggerheads from the beginning. The SJC’s ruling should provide some clarity to what had been a murky situation.

John Davidow, executive editor of new media at WBUR and the force behind OpenCourt, recently spoke about the project and the SJC case with my media-law students. Joe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, was a student in my media-law class a few years ago.

What they’re doing is an important experiment in opening up what has traditionally been the most closed part of government.

Norfolk DA, OpenCourt battle over video archives

John Davidow

A suspect’s lawyer blurts out the name of a 15-year-old girl whom prosecutors say was forced into prostitution. Several newspaper reporters hear the name. Even though they have the right to use it under the First Amendment, it’s understood that they won’t — it would be unethical journalistically, it would compromise the criminal case and it would traumatize the alleged victim.

Despite all that, the district attorney’s office goes to court to prevent a news organization’s video from being posted online, even though the folks who run that organization say they have no intention of uploading it until the identifying information has been removed.

In essence, that’s how OpenCourt characterizes a lawsuit brought by Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, which will be heard before Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margaret Botsford later today. The Boston Globe reports on the suit here; WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), with which OpenCourt is affiliated, reports on it here; and Open Court has its own take, with lots of background material, here.

Headed by WBUR’s executive editor for new media, John Davidow, OpenCourt received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to livestream court proceedings and to make it easier for journalists, both professional and citizen, to provide coverage via Twitter and live-blogging. OpenCourt began livestreaming from Quincy District Court in May.

The issue of archiving those videos has proved to be contentious, with Morrissey’s office arguing that the archives — including the one involving the 15-year-old — could compromise “the privacy and safety of victims and witnesses.” Davidow responds that OpenCourt would be guided by the same ethical guidelines as any news organization, and that a legally imposed ban would be an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. Davidow tells the Globe’s John Ellement:

This is really taking reporting that is done every day and then trying to take the editorial aspects away from journalists and put them in the hands of the state to decide what is published and what is not…. [O]nce we lawfully covered a story that was published, then it is up to the news organization to decide what to do with that material.

What Morrissey’s office is trying to do is to take long-established customs recognized by journalists and law-enforcement authorities alike and codify those customs into law, even though there is no reason to believe OpenCourt would act less responsibly than, say, the Quincy Patriot Ledger. It would set a dangerous precedent, and I hope the SJC does what is clearly the right thing.

Norfolk DA seeks to close a window at OpenCourt

OpenCourt, an ambitious project affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) that’s designed to shine some sunlight on court proceedings, has been dealt a setback at the hands of Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey.

Last week OpenCourt began webcasting a livestream from Quincy District Court. But several days into the experiment, Morrissey asked that archives of the video stream be closed to the public. A motion (pdf) filed by his office claims that “the privacy and safety of victims and witnesses could be seriously compromised,” especially in cases involving gang violence. The motion cites the possibility that the jury pool could be tainted as well.

The OpenCourt blog responds:

The letter and the motions came as a great surprise to us, since we have for the past four months met with all stakeholders of the court, including the District Attorney, to ensure we implement this groundbreaking pilot project responsibly and respectfully.

While we will continue to record sessions, we have voluntarily decided to suspend posting the archives until sometime after May 18, 2011, as we try to work out a practical solution to the concerns raised by the District Attorney.

Headed by WBUR’s executive editor for new media, John Davidow, OpenCourt received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to livestream court proceedings and to make it easier for journalists, both professional and citizen, to provide coverage via Twitter and live-blogging.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow recently told Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

What makes this sticky is that OpenCourt has no First Amendment right to archive its video, or even to livestream. The project is entirely dependent on the goodwill of court officials. Yet the traditional closed-door mentality of our justice system helps foster suspicion and cynicism — exactly the negative attitudes that Davidow and company are trying to break down by making it easy for us to see exactly what takes place.

Let’s hope Morrissey thinks better of his knee-jerk reaction to openness and gives OpenCourt the room it needs to keep moving forward.

Note: OpenCourt’s struggle with Morrissey is also being tracked by the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, to whose blog I occasionally contribute.

WBUR wins $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant

John Davidow

Congratulations to WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) and John Davidow, the executive editor of WBUR.org, who won a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to experiment with how digital tools should be used to cover trials and other court proceedings.

Davidow tells Laura McGann of the Nieman Journalism Lab that Quincy District Court will be used as a model to come up with a consistent set of guidelines that will foster greater openness.

Issues to be dealt with include whether and under what circumstances citizen journalists can live-blog a trial, and if one of the parties may post to Twitter in real time — as former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who faces federal corruption charges, wanted to do. Davidow tells McGann:

The courts have sort of gone further and further way from the public and public access. In the old days, they were built in the center of town. The community was able to walk into the courts and see what was going on. Modern life has done away with that. The bridge that was going in between the courts and the public was the media. The media has just less resources.

Davidow’s was one of 12 projects that will receive $2.74 million in the coming year. The others range from ideas to crowdsource the funding of public radio stories to various efforts aimed at melding mapping and gaming features with news presentations. Here is the complete list.

The Boston Globe, too. The Knight folks have announced that the Globe will receive a contract for more than $130,000 to develop and test a widget based on EveryBlock, an automated, hyperlocal aggregation platform, as part of a $450,000 program called OpenBlock.