• Print

Ricketts to Reporters: Drop Dead

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Former DNAinfo reporter Ben Fractenberg speaking at a rally to support the journalists and other staff members who lost their jobs after they voted to form a union, City Hall Park, New York City, November 6, 2017

Last week’s unexpected shutdown of the online news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist came as a shock to those of us who relied on them for in-the-trenches neighborhood reporting. “Hyperlocal news” is what people in the business call it—a term that suggests a kind of breathless, undigested churn on what’s happening around town. But DNAinfo and, especially, Gothamist, which DNAinfo bought and merged with in March, offered more than that. They didn’t replace the glorious muckraking journalism of Wayne Barrett, Tom Robbins, and others that had been excised from The Village Voice as it dwindled over the last twenty-odd years, but they offered something else: hard news spiced with blogging ruminations on the slippery mores of New York’s political life.

The reporters among the twenty-seven full-time editorial staff in New York seemed to be a ubiquitous presence in the neighborhoods they covered—on the street, at community board meetings and city council hearings, at protests and courthouses, or just riding the crippled subway lines. They gave the illusion of missing nothing, and it was possible to believe that every event of note—from a pink swastika scrawled on a synagogue to a breakdown of the newest odors emanating from the Gowanus Canal—was being delivered to your email box throughout the day. Exhausted, amazed, you scrolled through the blizzard of headlines until alighting on one that captured your interest. What you prized was the granular knowledge of the city, the subtly knowing tone that blander, more anodyne networks like Patch lacked.

The websites provided a kind of running, live-action chronicle of how New Yorkers were behaving. A recent, not untypical, article from October 9, for instance, told of a young man who, claiming to be a graduate of NYU law school, spewed racial slurs at passengers on a crowded L train. Fed up with the guy’s outburst, passengers waited until the train pulled into the next station where, banding together, they shoved him out of the car. For good measure, a woman emptied onto his face the container of soup she had been holding. To enhance the story, the reporter posted a jerky two-and-a-half minute cellphone video of the incident, a riveting depiction of the communitarian harshness that could animate a subway car on a Saturday afternoon.

DNAinfo and Gothamist were the first to alert us of impending changes to zoning laws, of the rise and fall of rents during the latest quarter, of bar openings, restaurant closings, public school battles, water line ruptures, and the latest income and demographic statistics in a city that was radically transforming itself before our eyes. As a writer, I often benefited from the sheer volume of their archives, consulting old dispatches to illustrate a point or uncover a particularly telling statistic. In a helter-skelter manner, they tracked the progress of gentrification, locality by locality and sometimes even block by block, bemoaning it in one article and seeming to cheer it on in the next. They publicized the findings of urban think tanks and trade groups. The same email that invited you to meet “the Instagram-Famous Dog Walker of Chelsea” might also inform you that “Poor Black Communities [are] Targeted for Turnstile-Jumping Arrests,” and tell you exactly at which transit stations this injustice was occurring.

Gothamist began, in 2003, as a kind of free-form city blog. Emma Whitford, one of the site’s most talented journalists, told me that she might write in the span of just a few days about such varied subjects as a bus driver who killed a cyclist, the ramifications of convening a New York State Constitutional Convention, a City Council meeting on the viability of driverless cars, and racial tensions in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Gothamist, in the words of a different former reporter there, lavished special attention on “bad landlords, abusive cops, and crooked politicians.” At its best, the accretion of these stories imbued readers with a heightened sense of civic intimacy and involvement. What we had at our disposal was, in effect, a kind of municipal intelligence service. Not surprisingly, sometimes the writing felt hasty; you could sense reporters rushing to get it out and move on to their next discovery, like messages tapped frenetically over a telegraph wire.

The owner of this experiment at the time of its closure was Joe Ricketts, a seventy-six-year-old billionaire who made his fortune as co-founder of the discount brokerage firm, TD Ameritrade. (Ricketts and his family also own the Chicago Cubs, one of the most valuable Major League baseball teams.) A conservative Republican, Ricketts spent millions trying to defeat Donald Trump during the presidential primaries in 2016; after Trump secured the nomination he then donated at least a million dollars to a pro-Trump PAC. According to Rachel Holliday Smith, however, who covered Central Brooklyn for DNAinfo, Ricketts “never got involved in editorial decision making” or imposed his point of view on reporters. (Aside from banning stories about himself, as Michael Bloomberg does at Bloomberg News.)

Ricketts started DNAinfo in 2009, motivated, in his own words, by the apparently sincere belief that “people care deeply about the things that happen where they live and work.” To save money, traditional newspapers had by then largely retreated from street-level metro reporting, and Ricketts thought he could profitably pick up the slack, not only in New York but in Chicago, San Francisco, and a handful of other large cities. DNAinfo, however, lost money every month since its inception. Yet this does not seem to be the primary reason why he shut the operation down. 

Ricketts appears to harbor a special animus toward unions, which he believes “promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.” Following the example of digital journalists at The Intercept, Vice, The Huffington Post, Gizmodo Media Group, MTV News and The Root, in April reporters at DNAinfo’s New York office voted to join the Writers Guild of America East. Ricketts refused to recognize the union. On October 26, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that DNAinfo had to bargain with the Writers Guild. A week later, Ricketts notified his employees, via email, that DNAinfo had ceased to exist. Though employees in other cities had not attempted to unionize, they, too, lost their jobs; 115 people in total were laid off. 

Was this purely an act of spite—an impression reinforced by Ricketts’s initial move, later rescinded, to take the sites’ entire archive of articles offline? Ricketts’s acquisition of Gothamist in March suggests that he had been determined to make the business work. Though it attracted more than nine million readers a month nationwide, it’s possible that, from a strictly financial point of view, DNAinfo held little value. Aware both of their own precarious economic status and of Ricketts’s virulent anti-unionism, reporters at DNAinfo told me that they were careful not to demand higher wages right away. What they were seeking was a modicum of job security after a spate of layoffs related to the Gothamist merger. “As long as it’s my money that’s paying for everything, I intend to be the one making the decisions about the direction of the business,” Ricketts told his employees. He seemed willing to continue to try to “crack the code” of profitability at DNAinfo only if his reporters had no bargaining power.

In any event, an insurmountable obstacle for sites like DNAinfo is the existence of a kind of online duopoly: according to one analyst, Google and Facebook accounted for 77 percent of digital advertising in 2016, up from 72 percent the year before, a trend that shows every sign of continuing. The US Internet advertising industry grew 21.8 percent in 2016, from $59.6 to $72.5 billion. Ninety-nine percent of that growth went to Google and Facebook, meaning that revenue at virtually every other company in the sector was stagnant. Facebook and Google own the personal data of their users, giving advertisers the wherewithal to zero in on users’ particular consumer preferences. Given the billions of users Facebook and Google reach, there is little incentive for advertisers to spend their money elsewhere.

Independent news organizations that have been suffering the loss of print advertising for years now face a decline in digital advertising, too. Without anti-monopoly action from the federal government, the decline will continue. The prospect for such action in the US, however, is dim. (In Europe, Google has been fined $2.7 billion for favoring its shopping service in search results. Two additional anti-trust investigations of the company are in progress.) As written, American antitrust laws are more apt to work in Google and Facebook’s favor. In July, an alliance of news organizations began lobbying the government for an exemption from antitrust law so they could coordinate their negotiations with the two companies. The exemption is likely to be denied, just as book publishers were denied the right to coordinate their negotiations with Amazon. News organizations’ only recourse at present is to hope that Congress may enact antitrust legislation that takes into account the monopolistic evolution of the Internet. Until that happens, it is difficult to imagine anyone profitably assembling a team of professional, reasonably paid journalists to deliver reliable local news—and easy to imagine other proprietors using the fragile business model as a reason to bust efforts to unionize.