Newsroom culture a factor in two recent WOSU staff departures

Paige Pfleger and Gabe Rosenberg left the radio station in the months following an Ohio State HR investigation completed in June 2020; General Manager Tom Rieland strongly supports his management team.

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Tom Rieland, general manager for WOSU

In early March of last year, when the coronavirus was just beginning to make its presence felt in Ohio, staff members with WOSU 89.7 FM NPR News gathered for a morning meeting that was later described in interviews as contentious by former employees Paige Pfleger and Gabe Rosenberg. 

During the meeting, according to these accounts, Mike Thompson, news chief content director for WOSU, responded to questions from a staff member by raising his voice, at which point, Pfleger, then a reporter with the station, asked Thompson “calmly, to please not yell,” as she wrote in an email to Mary Alice Akins, director of business operations for WOSU, on March 6, 2020. 

“Mike then turned to [morning news host] Debbie [Holmes] and said, loudly, ‘Debbie I’m not yelling am I? This isn’t yelling,’” former digital news editor Rosenberg wrote in an email to Akins, also sent on March 6. (Rosenberg has previously contributed as a freelance writer to Alive.)

Thompson then went around the table and asked each staff member if they believed he had been yelling, Pfleger and Rosenberg said, eventually relenting and offering to use his “Mister Rogers voice,” which Pfleger labeled “juvenile and disrespectful” in her email to Akins. (Copies of both emails were made available to Alive.)

“I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s a totally reasonable ask in a professional setting to say, ‘Please don’t raise your voice. Please don’t yell.’ And to be mocked for advocating that, it shows a disregard for people’s well-being, in a way,” said Pfleger, who was named both Rising Star and reporter of the year by the Ohio Associated Press in April 2020, by phone in late May. 

Both Pfleger and Rosenberg described these communication issues between management and staff, including Thompson’s tendency to raise his voice, at times, as recurring and persistent, a point independently supported in interviews with multiple other people with an awareness of the situation.

The conversation that has unfolded over the last year within the walls of WOSU is one that has taken place on a larger scale within the world of public radio in more recent months. In a May feature in The New York Times, media columnist Ben Smith dubbed it the medium’s “Mean-Too Moment.” Published in the wake of WNYC’s decision to part with longtime “On the Media” host Bob Garfield following a dispute in which Garfield was alleged to have yelled at a New York Public Radio colleague, the piece frames the issue, in part, on a generation gap, where a younger, more diverse group of reporters often works in service of veteran hosts and producers, who often tend to be white men.

“Public media, because it is mission-driven, because it is a nonprofit, sort of deludes itself into thinking that it’s better than all of this. And it uses that language of a family, of a mission, to really underpay and mistreat the people at the bottom of the ladder … especially the women and journalists of color, who get stepped on, who get abused, who get harassed,” Rosenberg said of the larger conversation that has been unfolding within the industry. 

“When I read [the New York Times piece], it felt good to be able to put a label on some of my experiences, because I think it was often like, well, you’re not being sexually harassed, and they’re not being openly discriminatory, so it can’t be that bad, right?” Pfleger said. “But there’s also, I think, an imperative to treat people with respect. And I think that idea of ‘Mean-Too’ speaks to the fact that [aspect] is equally as vital to a thriving and healthy work environment.”

The March incident and related HR complaints, combined with past emails Pfleger and Rosenberg sent to Akins documenting similar episodes related to communications with management, and in particular Thompson and managing editor Steve Brown, led WOSU to launch an investigation into the work environment at the station. Ohio State University human resources director Todd Hunter led the investigation, with the report completed in June 2020.

While WOSU Public Media declined to make any current staffers available for interviews, general manager Tom Rieland issued a statement to Alive in which he offered strong support for Thompson and Brown.

“An Ohio State human resources review of WOSU’s newsroom found that newsroom management did not berate staff, yell or violate university policies, and the review did not uncover evidence that the newsroom was mismanaged,” Rieland wrote. “Together with HR, I briefed the two employees who raised concerns and proposed methods for improving communication within the newsroom.”

But a somewhat murkier picture of newsroom relations emerged during Hunter’s exit interview with Pfleger, which the reporter recorded, and a copy of which was provided to Alive. “I have to be careful how I say this, but what I kept pointing out to [Rieland] is, you know, there’s a lot here, and for Mike to just sort of callously put his head in the sand and say, ‘There’s not a problem here,’ is just disingenuous,” Hunter said to Pfleger toward the end of the nearly hour-long interview, which followed Pfleger’s late-December departure from the station. “And I kept telling [Rieland], I’m not saying [Thompson] has to agree with everything [the WOSU staffers] are saying, but if you have enough people under you saying these kinds of things, you have to at least acknowledge, ‘OK, there’s something going on here.’”

Pfleger, who started working at WOSU in September 2018, submitted her first management-related complaint to Akins in late February 2019. Five months later, in July, Rosenberg sent Akins an email in which he wrote of an instance where he perceived Thompson to have yelled at Pfleger, referring to these exchanges as “a longstanding issue” that contributed “to a very toxic environment in the newsroom.” (Copies of all relevant emails were provided to Alive.) 

Frequently, these issues were exacerbated by a cash-strapped newsroom structured in a way that multiple people interviewed described as confusing, sometimes leaving a skeleton crew of staffers to question who was in charge of making daily news decisions.

“WOSU is very much a bare-bones shop in a lot of ways,” said former reporter Esther Honig, who noted that she still felt a debt of gratitude toward Thompson for taking a chance on hiring her when she was young and untested, as well as for the work he did in helping to mold her as a journalist. “And I don’t believe that’s the station’s fault. It’s very much a syndrome with a lot of public radio stations, where you’re trying to do a lot with a little. … But from my experience of being there, at a certain point I was the only reporter for five or six months, so I know what it’s like to be really running off of fumes and trying to keep up.”

In his statement to Alive, Rieland also included a copy of WOSU’s annual confidential employee engagement survey from April, in which WOSU employees reported 94 percent overall job satisfaction, with 96 percent of staff stating that their manager treats them with respect. Meanwhile, 83 percent of those who completed the survey responded favorably to the statement: “My supervisor has positively affected my decision to remain working here.”

But the report submitted by Hunter to Rieland on June 12, which was compiled following interviews with seven WOSU staff members, in addition to Thompson, Brown, Rosenberg and Pfleger, doesn’t fully absolve any of the involved parties.

“It is evident based on the interviews that there are varying perspectives on the issues of communication in the newsroom,” Hunter wrote in the report, a copy of which was obtained by Alive via an open records request. “While some have indicated that they feel Thompson and Brown sometimes yell at newsroom staff, others, including Thompson and Brown, feel they must sometimes speak in a loud tone to get their point across. The same is true for asking questions. The reporters feel that they are simply trying to get clarification of what is being asked but to Thompson and Brown the reporter is being difficult or stubborn about a reporting assignment. It is this lack of understanding between the parties that has now bred distrust and poor communication.” 

In the course of the exit interview, Pfleger and Hunter also discussed what the two viewed as a high turnover rate among the station’s reporters. “Eventually they’re going to say this is an untenable business model, that every two years we turn over our news staff,” Hunter said. “And what’s the constant here? The constant is the management. So that tells you that’s where you have to look.”

“I think that that is the hardest part, in hindsight. It felt like those patterns of behavior were driving out reporters ... and producers that the community trusts and feels a connection with,” Pfleger said. “At the end of the day, the people most harmed by this, it’s not me, it’s the community.” 

Within his report, Hunter recommended that WOSU’s management and staff work with Ohio State’s Office of Human Resources, bringing in an outside facilitator who could help the station “work through these issues with the goal of coming to a shared understanding.” But further talks never took place.

Pfleger and Rosenberg both said the work environment at WOSU figured heavily in their respective decisions to leave the station, along with pay and quality of life factors, with Pfleger moving on to become a reporter for 90.3 WPLN News in Nashville, Tennessee, and Rosenberg exiting in early April to take on the role of audience editor for 89.3 KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. (All Things Considered host Clare Roth also left the station in early May, landing as the news editor for 89.3 WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.) 

Disagreements are inevitable in any newsroom, particularly in situations where editors and reporters might not see eye to eye on the types of stories that should be told, or how they should be approached, as those interviewed said was sometimes the case at WOSU. But Pfleger and Rosenberg said the troubling issues emerged from how management addressed those tensions.

“And I think that’s telling. In the quote-unquote ‘good ol’ days’ of journalism, I think yelling was a pretty common management technique, and people who became managers modeled that behavior for the newsroom,” said Pfleger, who added that it was common for Thompson to tell employees to “grow tougher skin,” a detail supported by other interviews. 

Pfleger, like Rosenberg, didn’t want to leave WOSU — or Columbus, for that matter — and she expressed mixed feelings about her decision to move on from the station and the city, which is part of what led her to speak about her experiences, despite the potential for career repercussions.

“There is still this mentality, like, ‘If I speak up, I will be seen as this rebel, or I’ll be seen as a loudmouth … and it will hurt me, and I won’t be able to get a job in journalism,’” said Pfleger, whose current employer supported and encouraged her decision to speak with Alive. “And I think that’s so harmful, because at the end of the day, we became journalists to speak truth to power. … I want journalism to be a place where we can hold people accountable, even to our own experiences.”

According to Hunter, Pfleger’s persistent efforts could potentially have a longer-term impact within WOSU, particularly as the station prepares to move into its new headquarters, located in the 15th Avenue redevelopment across North High Street from Ohio State, with the aim of being operational by September.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and the way these things seem to go, it’s almost like you kind of just have to slowly chip away at it. … It’s probably not going to be next month, and it may not be next year. But it will happen. It’s just going to take folks continuing to raise the issues,” Hunter said to Pfleger during her exit interview. “[Rieland], I think, is approaching this move into the new building as a rebirth, if you will, of WOSU. And I really feel like he feels that’s the time when we have to do things differently, and we have to do things better … [and] how it’s all about getting into this new building. And once that happens, it’s going to be this bigger, better, new and improved WOSU.”