Chris Satullo added dozens of newsroom positions during his time at WHYY. But the last few — through the acquisition of the development news site, PlanPhilly — proved to be the last.
The sober Philadelphia public broadcaster is dealing with chaos and fallout after the abrupt departure of Satullo, whose title was Vice President for News and Civic Dialogue.
The newsroom — responsible for providing content to WHYY’s radio broadcasts as well as NewsWorks.org, a digital initiative launched by Satullo in 2010 — is in an uproar. Journalists have questioned the abrupt departure; they learned via a mass email that he was no longer employed there. Satullo was reportedly deeply involved in planning and strategy until last week.
“It was a shock,” one newsroom source told Billy Penn. “The younger people here, people early in their career, are particularly rattled.”
WHYY declined to comment on Satullo’s departure beyond Marrazzo’s original email to staff. Fred Sutherland, the chairman of WHYY’s board, referred Billy Penn’s questions to the station’s PR executive.
Billy Penn has learned Satullo’s departure may be tied to the fate of PlanPhilly, the environment and transportation vertical that WHYY absorbed at the beginning of 2015 from PennPraxis.
While no money changed hands in that transaction, the Wyncote Foundation agreed to continue to bankroll much of PlanPhilly with $250,000 a year — but PlanPhilly Managing Editor Matt Golas said at the time that the site’s operations were not fully funded.
Golas, until very recently the site’s only full-time employee under WHYY ownership, tendered his resignation at the close of business Wednesday. PlanPhilly’s contractor staff — blog editor Ashley Hahn; reporters Jared Brey and Jim Saksa; and engagement editor Jon Geeting — all became full-time employees last week. (Hahn has been named interim editor of PlanPhilly.) The Wyncote Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
“WHYY is fully committed to the growth of PlanPhilly as part of our family of news gathering and distribution platforms, said WHYY Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Kyra McGrath in a statement. “The staff has been doing a terrific job covering planning, design and development issues in our region.”
WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo, who emailed the station’s staff early last Thursday about “a change in the executive leadership team“ before announcing that Satullo “decided to move on,” visited his news staff’s morning meeting Tuesday in an effort to soothe jangled nerves. And while he told the staff that no further changes were planned and announced that the organization’s Delaware Managing Editor John Mussoni would be the interim VP of News, the staff is still wondering this:
What’s next for WHYY?
What Satullo built
There wasn’t much of a newsroom to speak of at WHYY before Chris Satullo.
The former Inquirer editorial page editor, who’d carved out a national reputation during his nearly-30 years at the Tower of Truth on North Broad Street, was brought on as the Vice President of News and Civic Dialogue in December 2008. He promptly began a plan to launch an alternative news source in Philadelphia, which had previously relied primarily on The Inquirer and the Daily News for sober, non-weather-driven coverage of news and civic dialogue in the city.
Many of NewsWorks’ new bylines (an informal count of hires numbers at least two dozen since late 2010) were lured to the station from those organizations: At the time of his death in 2014, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Tony Auth was drawing for NewsWorks. Former Inquirer politics writer Dick Polman had daily bylines on the site. Dave Davies left the Daily News in January 2009 to cover politics and city issues (though Davies had been a regular fill-in for WHYY-produced Fresh Air for years); Inquirer culture writer Howie Shapiro began writing in 2013 after taking a buyout from the paper. And digitally, former Philly.com executive producer Don Henry became the Director of Digital News of NewsWorks.org, the new home for all this content.
WHYY now reaches 930,000 television viewers per week and 454,000 radio listeners per week, according to Art Ellis, the organization’s VP for Communications. Some 429,000 users per month visit NewsWorks.org, and the station records 119,000 users a month on WHYY.org.
Another key part of the puzzle, for Satullo: Using partnerships to supplement the staff he brought on board. Within a short time, NewsWorks worked out deals with NBC10, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Technically Philly, ArtBlog, NJ Spotlight and PlanPhilly (pre-acquisition). That collaborative spirit is relatively rare in public media, according to former NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller.
“When I was NPR CEO I used to visit member stations all the time and meet with various business and creative staff. At that time, many public radio stations were really struggling to figure out to adapt the way they do things to the digital age,” Schiller, who was CEO from 2009 to 2011. “Chris was among the very few who understood that the public radio’s connection to the community was it’s not-so-secret secret power, and that digital/social media was tailor made to extend that relationship. … I don’t know what caused him to leave but I’m sorry to see him go. Public media needs more people like Chris.”
Those sentiments are echoed by others in the days since Marrazzo’s surprise announcement of Satullo’s departure.
“In my dealings with him regarding the New Jersey news ecosystem, he was always generous and open, eager to help others. Satullo incubated startups not only inside WHYY but also outside. For example, he supported the amazing Jersey Shore Hurricane News — a Facebook group with more than 200,000 followers — by paying its founder, Justin Auciello, to create content for NewsWorks,” said Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. “Satullo had the tremendous respect of funders, including the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (where — disclosure — I serve on the board). Search for his name on Facebook and Twitter and among people shocked by his departure are some who fund WHYY.”
— Molly de Aguiar (@GRDodgeMedia) September 7, 2015
“The ultimate test of whether journalism in Philly is doing its job is how well Philadelphia works. Not all journalists think this way,” wrote NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen in an email to Billy Penn. “And yet (from what I can tell at a distance) he has the respect of the people he works with. That’s a big accomplishment. And that’s why I care about what happened at WHYY.”
Disclosure: Billy Penn Community Manager Shannon Wink is a former NewsWorks employee.