The Story Behind the Unjust Shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo (New Yorker)

The Story Behind the Unjust Shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo

Last Thursday, Emma Whitford, a reporter for the New York City news Web
site Gothamist, was writing up a story about the placement of protective
concrete barriers along the West Side Highway in the wake of the
terrorist attack that killed eight people and injured eleven more on
Halloween. Around 5 P.M., an editor told her that the content-management
system was down. They thought nothing of it at first—it happened from
time to time. Then Whitford looked at the site’s home page, or what used
to be the home page. It was gone, along with all of the site’s current
and past stories. Internal communication networks, such as the company’s
Slack channel, were also closed.

Gwynne Hogan, a reporter who covered the Williamsburg, Bushwick, and
Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn for Gothamist’s sister site,
DNAinfo, was in the field that afternoon, sitting on the stoop of the
home of an eighteen-year-old girl whose body had recently been found.
Hogan had noticed that the girl, before her death, in July, had posted a
picture of herself on social media taken in the place where her body was
eventually recovered—yet, for four months, as police searched,
apparently, no one had thought to look there. “I called my editor and I
was explaining what I’d found, and during the phone conversation he
started saying, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God.’ I thought he was reacting to
what I was saying, but he was looking at the site. He’d seen the

The letter was from Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of Gothamist and
DNAinfo. At the URLs of both sites was a statement in which Ricketts
explained that he was closing them because they weren’t profitable.
“I’m hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on a business
that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling,” he wrote.
Reading the letter, Whitford told me, “I burst into tears. It could not
have been more abrupt or brutal.” The sites’ archives were reinstated
the following day, after an angry backlash—not just for the vanished
journalism but also for the hundred and fifteen laid-off reporters,
editors, and other staff. How were they supposed to find new jobs
without their writing clips to show?

Ricketts, the founder of the online stock brokerage TD Ameritrade,
launched DNAinfo, in 2009, as an ambitious investment in the diminishing
field of local-news reporting. Operating in New York and Chicago, the
site’s journalists covered topics such as real estate, zoning, roads,
schools, and parks, in neighborhood beats. They’d publish stories on
subjects ranging from a cat trapped inside a shuttered building to minor
road repairs in Brooklyn to outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in the
Bronx—the kinds of granular street-level accounts that have been
increasingly overlooked as digital media focusses on more ad-friendly
national and international markets. In March of 2017, Ricketts acquired
Gothamist, a franchise of eight city-centric Web sites that did local
reporting as well as blog-style editorials, opinions, cultural coverage,
and snark. After the purchase, which was for an undisclosed sum,
Ricketts said in a
that Gothamist “fits right in with our vision for future expansion,”
adding, “We think the result will be the most potent online source of
neighborhood news and information available anywhere.” Ultimately, the
newsrooms operated jointly for only eight months.

A week before the sites were shuttered, the staffs of DNAinfo and
Gothamist had unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East. At many
other media outlets that have successfully unionized in recent
years—among them Vice and Gizmodo, which is owned by Univision—“the guy
in charge has a liberal-media-owner reputation to maintain,” as Whitford
put it. Ricketts, by contrast, is a major right-wing donor who—as
Jacobin recently
given millions of dollars to anti-labor politicians at the state and
federal level. It is not illegal for a C.E.O. to shut down a business
because his company has formed a union, but threatening employees with
closure is against the law. In recent days, multiple former staffers
told me that, in both coded and explicit ways, management had warned
them repeatedly in the months before they unionized that doing so would
mean that the sites would cease to exist. Some asked to speak to me off
the record, for fear of angering their former bosses. Ricketts did not
respond to my request for comment. His representative, who asked to be
cited as “a spokesperson for DNAinfo,” said, in an e-mailed statement,
that “While DNAinfo had made progress toward profitability, that
progress wasn’t sufficient to continue the business.”

When Ricketts merged DNAinfo and Gothamist, last March, Hogan and
Whitford told me, there was little sense of management’s plan for how
the sites would fit together. The two newsrooms had previously competed
for stories in New York and Chicago; now, Hogan told me, of Gothamist,
“It felt like they were still my competitor.” There were other points of
confusion: Jezebel
in March, that Gothamist had deleted at least five stories from its
archive that were critical of the Ricketts family’s politics. One
DNAinfo reporter told Jezebel at the time, “Nobody seems to know what’s
going on. Our editors want to give us information, but I don’t think
they even know.” Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin, who co-founded Gothamist, in
2003, and, after selling it to Ricketts, remained at the site as
executive editor and publisher, respectively, told Jezebel that “no one
asked us” to delete the Ricketts stories; they did it because “we don’t
cover Mr. Ricketts.” Whitford told me that the deletion of pieces raised
“questions about censorship: did we have new restraints all of a sudden
that we didn’t know about?”

Gothamist staff members had already begun discussions of unionizing
before the merger. Afterward, they started to bring their new DNAinfo colleagues into the conversations. None of the employees I spoke to had complaints with
their working conditions under Ricketts. Many told me that they were
treated fairly and compensated well. The mission in unionizing, Whitford
said, was, “We want this to be a place that’s good to work at and stay.
To keep the newsroom strong and vital, and to clarify communication.”
The effort, multiple staff members told me, also became a way for the
newly consolidated teams to have productive discussions about how their
jobs had changed. “That was more effective than top-down management at
getting us together,” Whitford said.

Within a few weeks, though, DNAinfo management got wind of the staff’s
unionizing discussions. On April 7th, just before the two sites were to
be integrated officially, with Gothamist staff moving from Dumbo to
midtown Manhattan, Jen Chung called a meeting to speak with the DNAinfo
staff in the presence of Dan Swartz, whom Ricketts had appointed as
chief operating officer the month before. At their office in midtown,
Swartz and Chung stood in front of the newsroom and delivered a set of
prepared remarks. In an audio recording of the meeting that a DNAinfo
reporter shared with me, Chung says that she’s heard there’s been talk
of unionizing, and that staff members should “just know what you’re
getting yourself into.”

“When you sign the union card, you give up the right to speak for
yourself, because the union is going to be speaking for you,” she added,
and continued, “You may have heard that joining a union automatically
gets you higher wages, better benefits, if you sign the card. That’s not
how it works.” The staff had known this speech was coming; the same
meeting had been held in the Chicago office the day before. In New York,
Noah Hurowitz, a reporter for the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of
Brooklyn, told me, the staff wore all black in protest, and said nothing
from the time Swartz and Chung began to when they left the room. Toward
the end of the meeting—before she and Swartz headed to Brooklyn, to
deliver the same remarks to the Gothamist newsroom—Chung tried to engage
the assembled DNAinfo staff, saying, “So, I’m sure some of you have
questions . . . ” In the recording, this remark is followed by several
seconds of ambient static as the room remained silent. A few days later,
the New York Daily News was
a letter Swartz had written to the DNAinfo staff. Ricketts had invested
“literally tens of millions of dollars of his own money” in the site,
Swartz said in the note, adding, “Would a union be the final straw that
caused the business to be closed?”

Dobkin, the publisher of Gothamist, did not participate in the meeting,
but over the months that followed he began having one-on-one lunches
with members of his staff. One Gothamist reporter who attended such a
lunch in June, and took notes afterward, said that Dobkin told him, “I
think Joe Ricketts says what he means,” and “It sure would be horrible
if everybody lost their jobs because of what you guys are doing.” The
reporter added, “There’d be a lot of eyebrow-raising, like, ‘Do you know
what I mean?’ ” Another former Gothamist reporter who attended a lunch
in May told me, “It was textbook union-busting stuff.” Gwynne Hogan told
me that members of management brought her into a room, away from the
rest of the staff, to explain to her explicitly that, if the union was
successful, Ricketts would close the company rather than recognize it.
(Through a spokesperson, Dobkin and Chung declined to comment for this

Even at liberal-minded media companies, it’s not uncommon for employers
to attempt to discourage their staffs from unionizing. Just recently,
after learning of a staff effort to join the NewsGuild union, Tronc, the
parent company of the Los Angeles Times, distributed flyers among the
staff that read “DON’T BE MISLED BY THE GUILD’S PROMISES.” In March,
around the same time that the Gothamist and DNAinfo newsrooms were
merging, the employees of the Web site Slate voted to unionize with the
Writers Guild of America. In an e-mail explaining that Slate would not
be voluntarily recognizing the union, Jacob Weisberg, the site’s former
editor-in-chief and the current chairman of the Slate Group, made the
argument that unions restrict working writers rather than empowering
them, because with a union “the freedom writers and editors have to pick
their stories, to work at home, to work flexible hours, to change jobs
and roles, and to take time off to write books” becomes subject to
“negotiation and team-wide rules, rather than your own discretion and a
1:1 discussion with your editor.” He made an economic appeal, too,
arguing that a union could hurt the company’s bottom line.

Still, Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the Writer’s Guild,
told me that the guild has helped unionize around seven hundred
digital-media workers, and Ricketts was the first owner “to openly
react” to the unionizing effort. In September, as the bargaining unit
was seeking recognition from the National Labor Relations Board, a step
that’s necessary in cases where management doesn’t recognize a staff’s
unionization voluntarily, Ricketts wrote a post on his blog titled “Why
I’m Against Unions at Businesses I Create.” In it, he explained that
“the type of company that interests me is one where ownership and the
employees are truly in it together, without interference from a
third-party union that has its own agenda and priorities.” Despite these
warnings, the staff continued their efforts. On October 26th, the
bargaining unit voted 25–2 in favor of unionization. The outcome was
celebrated among the staff, and written up by the Times and
the Observer. By the time the Web sites were shut down, a week later,
the guild had not yet made demands of the company, and no bargaining had

Larry Cary, a union-side attorney and labor historian, told the
legal-analysis center Law360 on November 3rd that, in the case of
Gothamist and DNAinfo, “the union could conceivably pursue an N.L.R.B.
charge over any purported threats made by the sites’ management team to
close down operations if workers vote to unionize, since any such
threats made during an organizing drive are viable unfair-labor-practice
charges.” Yet, even if it were determined that Ricketts and management
did make illegal threats, that wouldn’t help the workers much, Cynthia
Estlund, a professor of labor law at New York University, told me,
because “there’s no effective remedy for it.” The only plausible penalty
for Ricketts would be to require him to promise that this won’t happen
again, by posting a notice at the location of the business—the now empty
midtown office of DNAinfo and Gothamist. Matt Breunig, a lawyer and the
founder of the think tank People’s Policy Project, told me, “It
obviously shows the general weakness of our institutions that we are
unable to protect people against something like this.” He added, it’s “a
clear failing of the law.” As of Monday, anyway, it’s a moot point: as
part of a severance-package agreement that the Writers Guild negotiated,
the staffers agreed not to file unfair-labor-practice charges against
their former employer.

Last spring, not long after Ricketts acquired Gothamist, the Columbia
Journalism Review
dedicated a special issue to the state of local
journalism. It included a map that showed the United States’ declining
number of local-news outlets and a long article on the finances of
Gannett, the publisher of USA Today and a hundred and nine local
papers; the newspaper chain’s ad revenue fell from six billion dollars,
in 2005, to $1.6 billion, in 2016. “Local journalism is in dire shape,”
Kyle Pope, the Review’s editor, wrote in his letter for the issue.
“Pick your metric—numbers of reporters, newspapers, readers—and nearly
all the trends veer downhill. It’s not a happy story.” Local digital
advertising, on which such sites depend, now goes predominantly to
Facebook and Google. Outlets that run national and international stories
are able to attract advertising because of their potential to reach
broad audiences. In journalism, “the Internet rewards scale,” Ken
Doctor, a media analyst and the author of the “Newsonomics” column for
the Nieman Journalism Lab, told me. And
“if you’re counting page views, local loses every time.”

This downward trend in local-news outlets made the kind of work that
sites like Gothamist and DNAinfo did increasingly precious. One of the
roles of local journalism, not unlike that of unions, is to hold power
accountable. Last month, Katie Honan, a Queens reporter for DNAinfo, sat
through a three-hour meeting in Jackson Heights, where the popular Arepa
Lady food cart was applying for a liquor license for a brick-and-mortar
restaurant on Thirty-seventh Avenue. There, Honan learned that the
restaurant was applying for a license because it wasn’t allowed to sell
any coffee products—Starbucks, which had opened on the same block, had
negotiated a clause in its lease with the city that prevented other
restaurants on the block from selling coffee. “I was the only reporter
there in the meeting,” Honan said.

Sam Biederman, the assistant commissioner for communications at the ‎New
York City Department of Parks and Recreation, told me, of reporters from
both sites, “They were hungry for details, and they were relentless.” He
added, “I would throw up my hands sometimes. ‘I’ve told you everything!’
” Julia Wick, the former editor-in-chief of LAist, another site in the
Gothamist network, wrote, in a piece last week for City
about the unusual editorial freedom that came with being a “scrappy”
news site. “At larger outlets, especially ones with dwindling resources,
writers often have to justify the time they’re spending on each story.”
She continued, “If we thought something was meaningful—even to an
extremely small contingent of people—we published it.”

Since the shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo, there has been talk among
laid-off staff members of seeking funding to start a new local-news
outlet to replace what’s gone. Their experience with Ricketts, several
said, has only confirmed their belief in the importance of unions in
protecting the rights of workers. On a recent afternoon, former staffers
held a rally at City Hall, at which politicians, union leaders, and
reporters from other publications showed up in solidarity. It was a
muggy, overcast day. Peterson, the Guild director, told the crowd, “We
come not to mourn but to organize.” Whitford, wearing a black T-shirt
and black jeans, spoke later. “Anyone out there thinking of unionizing,
don’t be scared by what happened to us, because this is the worst that
can happen,” she said. Later, Ben Kallos, a city-council member from the
Upper East Side, told the crowd, “Head over to Broadway, see a little
show called ‘Newsies.’ I don’t want to give the end away, but the
workers always win.”


via New Yorker

November 14, 2017 at 05:19PM

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