A Pittsburgh-based project that could deliver $1.5 million in foundation funding to WHYY is now on hold because of the unexpected departure of two station news executives, The Inquirer has confirmed.
Chris Satullo, the head of news operations, left Sept. 3, and the resignation of editor Matt Golas became known on Thursday - roughly two weeks after the pair impressed representatives of four big philanthropies with a two-hour pitch to create "PlanBurgh," a West Pennsylvania incarnation of PlanPhilly.
Golas was the primary architect of the plan and the managing editor of PlanPhilly, which covers land use and development issues for WHYY, the dominant public-broadcasting TV and radio operation in Philadelphia.
Funders left the room that day excited and interested about PlanBurgh, according to several people familiar with what transpired. The donors were impressed by what PlanPhilly had achieved in Philadelphia, and more, that Satullo and Golas had not simply applied Philadelphia parameters to Pittsburgh.
Instead, the pair had researched the factors that make Pittsburgh unique, and offered a specific plan for the state's big western city.
No commitments were made to fund the $1.5 million cost of the project, but the conversation about PlanBurgh was moving forward.
However, the sudden departures of the executives most closely associated with the project has made foundation representatives pause, unsure how or whether to proceed, according to people familiar with the process. The donor groups have been discussing the matter among themselves, trying to determine whether the plan can go forward and in what way.
People who discussed Satullo's and Golas' presentation at the Heinz Endowments, and the subsequent uncertainty, declined to be identified, saying it could damage their relationships with WHYY and with foundations in the western part of the state.
WHYY president and CEO William Marrazzo was unavailable to comment on the matter, according to station spokesman Art Ellis, who described PlanBurgh as being in the early stages.
"We've been in touch with the funders [and] understand they may have some concerns," Ellis said. "The project has the full backing of WHYY and we have a good staff of journalists and a good reputation. Chris and Matt did some great things, but there are other people here who are good journalists. It's bigger than any one person."
Satullo, whose title was vice president of news and civic engagement, was known for attracting money, interest, and collaborative partners for innovative news projects. For months there had been tensions between Satullo and the business side. He declined to comment for this article.
WHYY received a grant from the Heinz Endowments to sketch out how PlanBurgh might operate, said John Mussoni, WHYY's managing editor for Delaware news, who was appointed to temporarily replace Satullo.
The future of the project has gotten a lot of internal attention during the last 48 hours, at the same time as the station continues to prepare for the visit of Pope Francis and the mayoral election, he said.
"There have been conversations about getting updates in the next week or two to find out where that [project] stands," Mussoni said.
Golas also declined to comment Friday. He forwarded an email to reporters stating, "As I move on to my next assignment, I will be seeking a work atmosphere that appreciates entrepreneurial, nimble, and collaborative behavior across the board."
Ellis, the station spokesman, responded that WHYY in fact values creative and entrepreneurial projects.
"We do like to proceed carefully, and be sure we're not gambling with our funds or someone else's," he said.
The PlanBurgh meeting took place at the offices of the Heinz Endowments, the Liberty Avenue donor that constitutes one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States. It gives away about $70 million a year to projects and organizations across Southwest Pennsylvania. The $1.5 million would be paid to the station over several years.
Heinz gives money to programs involving the arts, children, families, economic development, and the environment. It's also interested in fostering strong planning and critical thinking about the future of Pittsburgh - which helped foster a connection with Satullo and Golas.
Efforts to reach Matthew Barron, the Heinz sustainability program officer and a contact on PlanBurgh, were unsuccessful Friday.
Representatives of the Pittsburgh Foundation, another major philanthropic player, also attended the meeting at the Heinz offices.
Maxwell E.P. King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, said he could confirm the meeting occurred, but declined further comment. King was editor of The Inquirer from 1990 to 1997.
The other philanthropies involved were the Hillman Family Foundation and Colcom Foundation, both of Pittsburgh.
Golas is a former Inquirer metro editor, and in that role was responsible for news coverage across Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania suburbs, and South Jersey. His departure from WHYY came eight days after the station disclosed to stunned staffers that Satullo was leaving.
Satullo met with dozens of newsroom staffers outside at Franklin Square Park near the WHYY offices. He gave an emotional, impromptu goodbye speech, but would not answer questions about why he was leaving.
Before moving to WHYY in 2008, Satullo was editorial page editor and a columnist at The Inquirer.
In February, PlanPhilly left its original home at the University of Pennsylvania and joined WHYY's newsroom. The station named Ashley Hahn as interim manager of PlanPhilly.
"WHYY is fully committed to the growth of PlanPhilly," executive vice president and chief operating officer Kyra McGrath said in a statement.