The New Yorker The Story Behind the Unjust Shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo by Anna Heyward

The New Yorker
The New Yorker
The Story Behind the Unjust Shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo
Anna Heyward
11/14/2017

Former staffers of the shuttered local-news publications say that, in both coded and explicit ways, management under Joe Ricketts warned them that if they unionized, the sites would cease to exist.

Photograph by Kris Connor / Roadside Attractions / Getty
 

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 letter.”

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 statement 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 reported—has 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 reported, 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, 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 leaked 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 story.)

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 Writers 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 NationalLabor 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 begun.

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 Bruenig, 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 Lab, 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.”

 

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