On Sunday night almost the entire staff of Washington Square News, an independent news outlet operated by New York University students, resigned in unison, linking to a list of demands and grievances on Twitter. Within minutes, the move was heralded by former NYU alums and young journalists as bold and brave. The 43 students were called “strong” and “mature” for making the decision; one person claiming to be an NYU alum wrote, “I’m angry for you all that you were subjected to [sic] abuse and restriction of editorial freedom by someone who should have just been a mentor.”
The statement included a hefty list of accusations, most of which centered around Dr. Kenna Griffin, WSN’s editorial advisor. Griffin, the students say, belittled the staff, by referring to them as overly sensitive, and used racist, and transphobic rhetoric. This bad blood had boiled over, according to the students, after their editor-in-chief was removed from his position by the paper’s publication board, which is comprised of two NYU journalism professors and the EIC. In a letter posted on WSN’s website, and signed by the entire staff, the students list 15 demands, the foremost Griffin’s resignation.
It was a bold response to problems that had been broiling for about a month, beginning just after Griffin was installed in the position. The students are waiting for their demands to be met before they will return to their virtual newsroom. Griffin did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment, nor did any other member of WSN’s board.
A spokesperson for the university told the New York Times that the school had been blindsided unaware of the issues at the paper, adding, “If there is a way that the university can help, we would; however, we would want to do so in a manner that ensures that such assistance does not impinge upon or raise any specter of doubt about the paper’s editorial independence.”
While journalists applauded the mass resignation as a straightforward example of how union techniques can promote justice and equity in the field of journalism, in reality, the story is a bit more complicated. The relationship seemed doomed from the start.
Griffin is a professor of journalism at Gaylord College, a school located in Oklahoma where Griffin currently resides. Previous WSN advisors had always been either NYU alumni or New York residents, who would frequently stop by the WSN offices to meet with students in-person. When Griffin introduced herself as the new advisor in a September 8 email, the staff of WSN had never met her or even been told about her appointment. While previous advisors had been hired by WSN directly and paid from their ad sales, Griffin had been hired directly by NYU. (WSN staffers did not share compensation information.)
The beef between Dr. Griffin and the student journalists of WSN started almost immediately. Six days into her role, Griffin sent an email introducing herself and telling the staff their Editor-in-Chief had been removed. After a lengthy introduction outlining her accolades Griffin wrote, “Cole Stallone is no longer the EIC of WSN, effective immediately,” according to a copy of the email provided to Jezebel.
Stallone had allegedly been in a standoff with Griffin, refusing to let her access the paper’s Slack workspace unless Griffin explained her intention for joining the space. As Abby Hofstetter, the site’s managing editor tells it, Cole and the rest of the staff were uncomfortable allowing Griffin onto the platform, “We didn’t necessarily think it was appropriate for her to be there,” Hofstetter explained. Though Slack is typically a crucial tool for newsrooms, previous advisors had not participated in the Slack, as they were not remote and could advise the students in person. Several staffers said that Stallone wanted to know Griffin’s intentions for the workspace before being allowed to use it.
Among staff, there’s confusion as to why Stallone was fired—“everyone got different answers,” said Hofstetter. Mandie Montes, a managing editor at Under The Arch, WSN’s magazine, said Griffin told her that Stallone was unwilling to work with the new editorial advisor, but emphasized that no one on staff had been given a straightforward answer that made sense. Stallone declined to comment on his firing, saying in an email, “My colleagues resigned after Black, trans, and other marginalized staff felt that Dr. Griffin’s behavior crossed a line and her role reflected greater concerns about the larger structural issues with the paper.”
Griffin was eventually added to Slack and, according to staffers, things escalated when she started making new channels, including one for doling out critiques. All three editors agreed that they found Griffin’s critiques problematic.“She talked down to us,” Hofstetter said, “Most things that she said were condescending. And I spoke to her multiple times about this.” The sentiment was echoed by Finley Muratova, another UTA managing editor, who called Griffin’s critiques patronizing and added, “She didn’t see us as either equals or her students, but rather children who needed to be disciplined for their mistakes.” Montes claimed that for the most part, Griffin’s critiques were fine but their tone was dismissive and the cause of many terse conversations between Griffin and Hofstetter.
Montes recalls staff asking: “Can you please just tell [Griffin], we don’t respond to it this way and it feels really uncomfortable for her to talk to us like that. [Hofstetter] would always bring those issues up to her and [Griffin] never really tried to understand, where we were coming from.”
Several students said that Griffin’s chosen style of communication led to some transphobic rhetoric, including an incident in which she questioned a trans student’s name. In their first meeting, Muratova, who identifies as trans and uses they/them pronouns, introduced themself using their preferred first name, which unintentionally invited a myriad of questions from Dr. Griffin. “She was probing me, saying, oh, is that a pseudonym? So what’s your real name? Why is your name different on the website.” Muratova explained to their advisor that they are transgender and, “[Griffin] just kept asking questions.”
A larger dispute came a little over two weeks later when WSN published an article about protests that had broken out in New York after a Kentucky grand jury chose not to indict any police officers over the death of Breonna Taylor. The original article published by WSN used the word ‘murder’ to describe the shooting. The staff was told that word had to be removed and instead replaced with “killing.” Journalists are required to use the word “killing” before a death is classified as murder by a court conviction, or the publication could be sued for libel. (Both Jezebel and our sister site, The Root, for example, have used the term “killing” to describe the events leading to Breonna Taylor’s death.)
For what Muratova described as “moral reasons,” they refused to make the change as an editor.
The task, the students said, then fell to a Black staffer. (All three managers would not refer to this person by name, only as “the Black staffer.”) Muratova, who did not want the Black staffer to take on the burden of making the change, ended up switching out “murder” for “fatally shot,” which they assert was still against their moral judgment. Muratova, Hofstetter, and Montes all say that Griffin told the writers to focus on objectivity, as opposed to their feelings, before stating the legal argument.
“We had tried to explain to her that being able to speak objectively on the situation was something that not everybody could do right away and that this is a personal issue for many people,” Hofstetter says of the Breonna Taylor article specifically. “And she never really understood it. She was just like, well, this is journalism. You have to be objective. You have to be objective to be a journalist.”
The argument over objectivity between Griffin and her young newsroom is reflective of current changes going on in professional newsrooms across the country. Should the gatekeepers of journalism–predominantly older white men and more recently white women—get to decide what role a traditional definition of ‘objectivity’ should hold in the newsroom? Or with increasingly diverse writers and editors, is there room for building a set of practices that comes from the bottom up? For the students of WSN, the best practices of journalism don’t necessarily lie in tradition, but a negotiated new path.
Speaking on behalf of staff members of color Hofstetter, who is white, added, “[Griffin] was reminded repeatedly that there are identities that people wear that are not only journalism, there are things that people have on their faces that cannot be taken off.”
But Griffin persisted. In a slack channel labeled “corrections,” editors say Griffin addressed a second Black staffer and said that if the staffer had so many feelings about the Breonna Taylor shooting and verdict, she should write a piece about it. Montes, who is friends with this particular Black staffer, found this particularly insulting. “To have a white woman ask a Black woman to write about their feelings and then, you know, the thought of it being for the consumption of readers and commodification of Black pain and Black trauma just seems very I don’t know, doesn’t sit right with me,” she told Jezebel.
Montes was told by the staffer that she intended to resign after this incident because she couldn’t work in an environment that made staffers of color feel unsafe and unheard. Eventually, inspired by the results garnered from the staff of Bon Appétit, a majority of the staff decided they would stand together and resign in an effort to garner the exact kind of attention they’re now getting. (Montes told Jezebel that the staffer at the center of the discussion was not interested in speaking publicly on the matter; Jezebel attempted to contact other staffers of color for comment but received no response.)
The entire ordeal, which lasted three weeks between Griffin’s appointment and the night of mass resignation, has left the entire staff drained. The powers that be at NYU have yet to acquiesce to the staff’s demands and Griffin has not formally resigned. In the meantime, Hofstetter encourages anyone looking for content to read NYU Local, another student publication. Muratova championed the importance of WSN, though, noting that the publications serve “a different community” because NYU Local is a blog and WSN is the news.
Hofstetter is firm in that not a single student will return to WSN until Griffin is removed—but even if she were to leave, the fight for student editorial independence would continue. “It’s important to note that I don’t think this entire situation is on Dr. Griffin,” Hofstetter told Jezebel. “Which is why we have 14 other demands. She is not the only problem. And she was able to do the damage she did because of all of the other problems because there was no system to keep her in check.” Despite no longer working at Washington Square News, all of the students remain enrolled at NYU, which has become their final battleground.
Correction 1:08 PM: This article has been corrected to reflect that Dr. Griffin is not a member of the paper’s editorial board and that the entire staff of the paper did not resign, a small number of staffers remain. This article has also been updated to clarify that two different Black staffers had conflicts with Dr. Griffin, not a single staffer. Jezebel regrets the error, which arose from the newsroom referring to their Black colleagues as “Black staffer” rather than by their names or positions.