Only the news desk stayed.
Of the forty-six staffers at New York University’s Washington Square News, forty-two resigned on Monday, citing their newly appointed editorial advisor, Kenna Griffin, as their reason.
In an extensive resignation letter, staff members described instances of racism and transphobia from Griffin, as well as gaslighting and a “toxic work environment.” In September, Griffin fired WSN editor-in-chief, Cole Stallone, sparking further tension, particularly as Griffin moved slowly to appoint a successor.
“We were really trying to resolve things internally because we didn’t want to, you know, throw a publicity stunt,” said Finley Muratova, former managing editor of Under The Arch, the magazine of Washington Square News. “We don’t want to resign, we want to keep working, we want to keep doing our jobs, we want to keep making this paper.”
But Muratova personally had negative interactions with Griffin. Shortly after Griffin arrived this semester, Griffin began persistently asking Muratova invasive questions related to their gender identity.
“Finley is my preferred name but I write under a different name and she was like, ‘Oh is Finley a pseudonym?’ and I was like, ‘No Finley is my preferred name’ and then she asked me what my legal name was after I told her that my name is Finley it’s a preferred name because I’m transgender,” said Muratova.
Muratova said that the interaction was “deeply uncomfortable,” but that they believe that Griffin “didn’t do it out of malice.”
Still, Muratova said that the interaction was an inflection point for them.
“That was the point that I realized that Griffin and us (like the staff of the paper) live in very different universes. And that was the point when I realized it is going to be hard, taking into consideration the identity that I bear, to interact with her. And then that was just proven right in small instances, ” said Muratova.
Muratova’s interaction with Griffin was not the only one that prompted the resignation. In the resignation letter, staff list 22 grievances. But one critical flashpoint, referenced high up in the resignation letter, is when Griffin debated the use of the word “murder” with a Black editor, in relation to Breonna Taylor’s death.
The second day of protests in repsonse to the decision not to bring any charges against the Louisville Metro Police Department related to Taylor’s death, the usage of the word “murder” was debated by a Black editor and Griffin. The final published article describes her death as a “killing”.
According to former copy chief Kim Rice, Griffin was opposed to using the word “murder,” because of the legality of using a word which is associated with a formal conviction which neither of the police officers involved in Taylor’s killing have been charged with.
The article and related conversations afterwards were enough to convince Rice to resign on Sunday night, hours before her colleagues would formally resign early Monday morning.
“I resigned because I felt like what I saw with the Breonna Taylor article, I couldn’t forgive it, I couldn’t brush past it and let it occur that was my tipping point,” said Rice, “I couldn’t stay on staff with that occurring, as a Black woman, I couldn’t do that.”
Rice noted that language is important and that precision and accuracy are key, “A lot of it is in the little language.”
According to slack messages reviewed by The Objective, the conversation between the Black editor and Griffin was heated. After the dispute over word choice, Griffin suggested that the editor write an op-ed piece.
The editor declined saying, “I will absolutely not use my trauma and hurt from everything occurring to me and people like me to write a piece.”
Former Managing Editor Abby Hofstetter said that the newspaper was her life for the last two years, but that Griffin’s tenor was unacceptable. “This is not a decision that was easy…” she said. “I love it more than I’ve loved an organization before.”
Hofstetter said that in related conversations with Griffin about the language incident, when Hofstetter, who is white, confronted Griffin with accusations of racism from other staff, Griffin pushed them aside saying that Hofstetter could not accuse her of racism because she is white. Griffin said that only a Black student could accuse her of racism.
In a follow up call with a Black staffer and Hofstetter, Hofstetter said that Griffin did not apologize for her actions, only that the editor had their feelings hurt. Additionally, Griffin initially demurred at the Black editor’s request to have another member of WSN management on the call but later changed her mind. Hofstetter said that the editor re-iterated that the incident was not about hurt feelings but rather larger issues of racism and language.
“Dr. Griffin gave an apology which was in the vein of ‘I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, it was not my intention’,” said Hofstetter.
Griffin, an adjunct professor at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications at Oklahoma University, is currently being investigated by the College Media Association, where she serves as President. They have suspended Griffin from participating events, but she still holds her title as President of the College Media Association.
“The board agreed that some of the charges stemming from the Washington Square News editorial on Monday were serious but that more fact-finding was needed,” CMA’s President-Elect Chris Whitley, director of student publications at Tarrant County (Texas) College, told Poynter.
Former Washington Square News Advisor Rachel Holliday Smith said that her experience, when she was there at the newspaper, was great. Holliday Smith is also an alum of WSN and got along with staffers.
“To read what I read today was heartbreaking,” said Holliday Smith. “It was a real surprise to me.”
Additionally, Holliday Smith said her departure was not due to any tension or conflict with Washington Square News or NYU, just that after 5 years in the position, it had “run its course“.
But Even before Griffin started at the Washington Square News, some staffers felt the organization did very little to deal with racism. After the resignation letter was published, former Washington Square News staffer Mina Mohammadi published her own piece, alleging racist behavior prior to Griffin’s arrival.
“I was constantly used as political fodder to make up for the shortcomings by previous and current white management,” Mohammadi wrote, saying that other editors attempted to use Mohammadi’s ethnicity to bridge the divide between student activists and student journalists.
Currently, only four staffers remain on the staff: the editors on the news desk, Matthew Fischetti, Trace Miller, and deputy news editor Nick Mead; and the deputy culture editor Addison Aloian.
The news desk published an open letter on Monday and on Wednesday a post on WSN’s website entitled ‘NYU Let Us Come Back to Work’, which clarified why they did not leave with their colleagues. They stated in the post, that despite making progress with WSN’s advisory board that if no further progress was taken, they will resign from their posts on Friday.
In the letter, they reiterated their support for their colleagues but thought that they needed to exhaust other options.
“In solidarity with our resigned colleagues — despite our differences in approach — WSN will not continue production until we have entered into negotiations and made an agreement with the journalism department, changing conditions to ensure that WSN is a professional publication and a safe, healthy work environment for all,” said their letter.
Additionally, the news desk clarified that despite agreeing that Griffin had disrespected and marginalized Black members of WSN’s staff, they did not agree that the use of the word murder in the Sept. 24 article was necessary given the narrow legal definition of the word murder.
News Editor Trace Miller said that the difference between the news desk and the WSN staff that resigned is more about process and less about the demands.
“We have the same demands as our colleagues, we are a united front in our demands. We just disagreed with how to address those demands,” said Miller.
Miller reiterated that they are advocating for all WSN that resigned to be reinstated to their posts.
“Everyone must be re-hired, same grievances and same demands. We’re just heartbroken that someone was introduced to our workplace that brought transphobic and racist rhetoric and made baseless claims,” said Miller.
Newsroom dynamics are in the front of Miller’s mind as the majority of the staff remains out of work and the news desk remains striking for their demands to be met.
“It was a difficult decision for me to remain because I didn’t want to come across as like you know, the white male exploiting racism and transphobia in the workplace,” said Miller. “I was extremely worried about that dynamic entering the conversations so I can’t stress that enough that we would have loved to act in solidarity with our colleagues.”
But Mohammadi, who left the WSN a while back, doesn’t believe that racism at the publication starts and ends with Griffin. In the resignation letter, staff asserted that WSN “at its core, is not a racist publication.” She disagrees.
“From people I have talked to after publishing who also worked at WSN, they experienced the exact same issues that I did,” said Mohammadi. “So to suggest it’s not racist and was essentially fine before is horribly inaccurate.”
Correction: This story initially said 43/46 staffers had resigned from the paper. 42/46 have resigned.
Our stories are funded by readers like you.
The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.