-- RIP DNAInfo/Gothamist | LTV Squad

RIP DNAInfo/Gothamist

Published on: November 3rd, 2017 Written by:

Late yesterday, news broke that Billionaire Joe Ricketts has shut down two major NYC online news outlets: Gothamist on and DNAInfo.

According to the New York Times: “…in the financially daunting era of digital journalism, there has been no tougher nut to crack than making local news profitable, a lesson Mr. Ricketts, who lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence, is just the latest to learn. In New York City, the nation’s biggest media market, established organizations such as The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily News have slashed staff or withdrawn from street-level reporting. The Voice stopped publishing its print edition in September. It is worth noting the Times has also cut back on it’s NYC Metro section covering local news.

Profitability wasn’t really the problem. Ricketts went into the news business in 2009 with DNAInfo, funding the whole operation. There’s no way he couldn’t have known that news publishing is an incredibly hard way to try to make money. This reality has existed for decades now. Other NYC news outlets rely on the support of their wealthy owners. For example, Rupert Murdoch (estimated net worth: $11bn) owns Wall Street Journal. The Daily News was owned for years by Mort Zuckerman (estimated net worth: $2.8bn). He recently sold it to Tronc. The Daily News, by the way, also had a dark anti-union period in its history during the early 1990s. My dad was one of many union employees who lost their jobs during that time.

What triggered Ricketts to shut down the operation wasn’t the bottom line – it was the reporters vote last week to join a Union. If you haven’t already heard, Ricketts is a rabid anti-union, pro trump jerk.

Perhaps the bigger kick in the crotch (for NYC) is the fact that it’s not just DNAInfo that is gone. With it, Ricketts shut down Gothamist. Gothamist was a bit more home-grown, founded by Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung in 2003. Riding the tide of hipster culture, gothamist grew, with publications covering other cities. They often covered stories other publications didn’t touch, and published some good long form reporting over the years, usually with wit and sharp elbows.

In March of 2010, Jake & Jen attempted to sell Gothamist to James Dolan of Cablevision. There were big announcements at the time of this great deal, reportedly valued at 5 million dollars. Then Jake went and ran his mouth… quickly killing the deal.

Thus, when March 2017 came around and news broke that they had made a deal with Joe “Pro-Trump” Ricketts to sell him Gothamist (for an undisclosed amount), few astute media observers were surprised. In a blatant display of selling out, Dobkin immediately removed any and all negative mentions of Ricketts from Gothamist.

At the time, I commented to friends on facebook how this would be the death of Gothamist.

My assumption was that Ricketts would run a long con and slowly turn the publications from politically left leaning to right. Maybe use them to try to sow division in NYC. All I really knew was that absolutely no good could come from Ricketts owning Gothamist. It was in the back of my mind that maybe he would fold them both, but it seemed an odd thing for anyone sane to do. Billionaires are not sane though. They buy and sell companies and people, throwing them away like used syringes after they’ve gotten their fix. Had Dobkin not sold out to Ricketts this last march, Gothamist would be alive and well today.

(I might elaborate on my comment on Dobkin being an asshole next week, in his early years his side hobby was internet trolling in an attempt to be gangster – very Shkreli-esque in retrospect)

Thus far this year, we’ve lost the Village Voice, Gawker, DNAInfo, Gothamist, Observer, and the New York Times Metro Section – all either shut down or severely cut back on. The super wealthy right wingers want less media, and they are getting it. In the case of Gothamist – Ricketts literally bought it just to kill it. Joe Rickett’s personal wealth (estimated at $2.1bn) is huge enough to not even take a noticeable hit.

To be sure though, publishing online is NOT a money making business. Most media outlets rely on advertising revenue, which has been a fickle bride to say the least. Online advertising has shifted, from display ads to more programmatic, targeted methods. With this shift, revenue from online advertising has gone way down for traditional media companies. They are literally dying, while social media platforms like Facebook rake in the bigger bucks. One must wonder if we will have any written large media outlets at all in decades to come. This is a big scary question to ponder.

This are really dark times, and I truly feel for all the reporters of both news outlets, who were hard working, dedicated and committed to delivering local news that many of the bigger outlets don’t bother with. I stand by all those who hope an employee-owned venture is created as a result of this-one not beholden to failed leaders and the super wealthy.

In these uncertain times, I do want to make clear that, as tiny as this site is compared to other news outlets, it won’t be going anyway. I have no plans on selling this site, ever, despite the fact it only earns a trickle of money per year. In fact, I’ll personally be trying to cover some local Queens issues more aggressively here in the coming months. I will also continue my periodic coverage of Queens transit issues, both here and with Access Queens.

That said, if you enjoy what I write here, by all means consider supporting it via Patreon, buying a book or perhaps taking one of our off-limits tours. I’m fortunate for these three revenue streams, as they offset the costs and keep the lights on around here.

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NOTE: Argumentative comments completely devoid of facts (supply links to support your arguement) will not be published.

2 responses to “RIP DNAInfo/Gothamist”

  1. Nat says:

    I am really trying to understand your viewpoint here. I loved DNAInfo and Gothamist. They had some of the best local coverage I’d seen in years, maybe ever. But the assertion that Ricketts had an obligation to keep the business running because “There’s no way he couldn’t have known that news publishing is an incredibly hard way to try to make money. This reality has existed for decades now. Other NYC news outlets rely on the support of their wealthy owners” just seems wrong. WSJ, NYT…these companies are profitable. The fact that Ricketts even kept it running at a loss for eight years is pretty remarkable.

    I have no doubt that the unionization of the employees played a pivotal role in the shutdown. But to me, the outrage is misplaced. They took a gamble, and this is where the chips fell. Surely they had to know this was a possibility, ESPECIALLY given the fact that this was already a money-losing business. How does that math add up? How did they think “we are employees of a business that has lost money for at least eight years, let’s ask for a wage increase” and think it would all work out? Did they think Ricketts would just shrug and plow even more money into the business? And it’s not like Ricketts could’ve warned them in advance that unionization would make him shut the business down, since that would constitute a threat according to the National Labor Relations Board[1] (although given Ricketts political proclivities they should have known this was a likely outcome).

    I guess what I’m getting at is, even though this is sad, I don’t think Ricketts did anything morally wrong (not talking about the Trump stuff here – that is unforgivable). I admit it’s totally possible (and even likely!) that there are facts that would change my mental calculus. Maybe a scheme to monetization (paywall?) was right around the corner. Maybe they were on the verge of profitability (doubtful). But in absence of additional evidence, the situation seems simple: business lost money, workers wanted raises, owner decides it’s not worth the extra time, money, and agita to keep the business running. Really not sure how the employees expected this would turn out otherwise.

    [1] https://www.nlrb.gov/rights-we-protect/employerunion-rights-and-obligations

  2. Bad Guy Joe says:

    Waoh. Long reply! (which is awesome).

    “How did they think “we are employees of a business that has lost money for at least eight years, let’s ask for a wage increase” and think it would all work out? ”

    Here is the thing: they had made no demands yet. They never had a chance to even have that conversation. Gothamist was apparently profitable, while DNAInfo *apparently* was not. I have to use apparently for both because this is just what was reported in the press. Both were privately held – it’s not like they were filing quarterly earnings reports to shareholders. To your point on absense of evidence: this cuts both ways. Was DNAInfo really not making money? Was Gothamist actually profitable? If so, why did they sell to Ricketts (a man with a reputation for erratic behavior)?

    Other online publications have unionized in recent years without incident. Until we can answer some of the above I’m sticking with my opinion (which is, just an opinion, based on what I’ve seen/heard). This NY Times bit today shares this opinion – explains it a touch more than I’ve got time to at the moment. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/dnainfo-gothamist-ricketts-union.html

    My guess is the union expected he was blustering, and they’d at least get some workplace changes over time. I know some of these reporters. They didn’t strike me as having unrealistic demands.

    As for right & wrong, maybe Ricketts did nothing illegal in the eyes of NLRB, maybe he did. We’ll see if the union files suit in court. They might have a good enough case to get a settlement, according to a casual convo with a lawyer I had the other day. All I know is in my opinion, what he did was morally repugnant.

    I think one of the bigger questions going forward is this: will anyone step forward to fill the gap in local reporting? Dobkin & Chung probably signed a non-compete contract clause when they sold, so I’m doubtly they will be back in the game for 1-3 years at least. I honestly hope neither comes back because they frankly let readers down in a huge way. Personally I hope a worker-owned platform comes along. There’s enough ways to monetize it that this could be entirely reasonable to pull off. The audience is certainly there.

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    Joseph Anastasio

    Design & History nerd, open space & infrastructure advocate. 
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