WAMU shuts down local news site DCist, lays off reporters

WAMU shuts down local news site DCist, lays off reporters

The Washington-area NPR affiliate WAMU shut down local news site DCist on Friday morning, immediately following an all-staff meeting where employees were informed that layoffs are imminent.

Station general manager Erika Pulley-Hayes made the announcement during a roughly 10-minute meeting, during which no questions were taken. She told staffers that the shift was part of a new strategy to focus more on audio products rather than the written journalism that WAMU had hoped to bolster when it acquired DCist six years ago.

She cited a “ripple effect across media consumption habits” created by the pandemic, a declining advertising market and a difficult philanthropic climate.

Pulley-Hayes did not detail in the meeting how many staffers would be laid off, but she spoke to Axios, which reported 15 staffers would be cut while an undetermined number of others will be hired, mostly in audio-production roles.

A news team that a year ago included 14 journalists — since shriveled to seven through unfilled vacancies — will now have only four reporters after Friday’s layoffs, current and former WAMU staffers told The Washington Post.

In a statement, WAMU’s employee union called those employees “the lifeblood of our journalism,” adding that, “our hearts are broken. We can’t believe we are losing our colleagues and friends.” Reporters covering criminal justice, immigration and the environment were among those laid off.

“We’ve been beating our heads on the wall because the journalists who were laid off, they are very talented audio reporters,” said one newsroom staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.

A spokeswoman for WAMU did not immediately provide a comment.

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Several civic leaders expressed dismay about the cuts. “DCist and the journalists who run it provide essential, irreplaceable reporting to keep us informed about what is happening in our community,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement posted on Facebook. “This is awful news.”

Staffers learned of the meeting a day earlier from an ominous email announcing that WAMU offices would be closed and access to internal computer systems would be temporarily frozen on Friday as executives laid out a new strategic plan.

There was no local programming on WAMU’s airwaves Friday morning.

WAMU is the most listened-to news station in the DC-area — which is the 8th largest radio market in the country, according to Nielsen.

WAMU acquired DCist in 2018, calling it a “beloved local news site,” after a parent network of urban news sites shut it down. Initially launched in 2004, DCist had grown into one of the most prominent digital outlets focused exclusively on local Washington news and lifestyle coverage, delivered in the casual voice popularized by the early-2000s rise of blogs.

Since the merger of the WAMU and DCist newsrooms, many reporters have written stories for DCist as well as recording them for broadcast on WAMU.

But over the past year, a wave of journalists have departed the station, including DCist’s top editor who left just a few weeks ago, and most of those openings had not yet been filled, staffers said.

Former city politics reporter Martin Austermuhle, who left the station last summer, said those vacancies include the education and Maryland politics beats — though a “good chunk of our listenership” is based in the Maryland suburbs.

“Lots of people love their public radio, but people in the D.C. area really love public radio,” he said. “The number of times I’d go out and say ‘I’m Martin Austermuhle,’ people would be like, ‘I love WAMU and NPR!’”

He said DCist had a similar appeal for a younger, more digital-savvy audience that appreciated a commitment to local coverage in the epicenter of political power. “So many reporters in Washington cover the White House, federal agencies and Capitol Hill, but far fewer cover the local stuff,” he said. “We celebrated that side of local reporting.”

Pulley-Hayes told staffers on Friday that “we remain committed to sharing stories about what makes our region unique to what our audience has told us. They want local politics, arts, culture and food.” She also said they will continue to develop new local radio programming while staying committed to their existing programs.

She said that staff will continue to have access to DCist’s archives — a privilege frequently denied to other journalists when a digital media site closes, leaving them with no proof of their past work.

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But for the public, DCist is effectively gone now. Its website address now redirects to WAMU’s webpage, after a brief explanation that “as of February 23, the site will no longer publish new content.”

More than 80 percent of WAMU’s revenue comes from donations and corporate underwriting, public media’s version of advertising. A slim percentage comes from NPR and the publicly-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Over the summer, Pulley-Hayes told staff the station was facing a roughly $2.5 million budget deficit, several former and current staffers said.

The WAMU layoffs come as other news organizations have cut back on local coverage in Washington. Buyouts late last year at The Washington Post included significant cuts to the paper’s Metro section.

Such cuts are part of a larger wave of contractions across a media industry that is still grappling with the disruptions and evolutions of the digital publishing revolution. Vice announced Thursday it would stop publishing on its website and planned to lay off hundreds of employees. The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal have faced significant layoffs this year, while music review website Pitchfork saw its staff cut while being folded into another outlet. The Messenger, a news start-up with $50 million in funding, imploded in less than a year, laying off hundreds of staffers last month.


A previous version of this story cited WAMU’s statement to another news organization that it would hire 10 staff in audio production. WAMU officials now say the number has not yet been determined.