Following union vote, Gothamist goes dark

If you’re a fan of the local, metropolitan news outlets Gothamist or DNAinfo, you’re waking up today to find a placeholder at both of their sites. Joe Ricketts, the CEO of the parent company owning both outlets, abruptly shut them both down yesterday. Whether you believe there’s a causal relationship between the events or not, it’s worth noting that the closure took place one week to the day after the staff of the outlets voted to unionize, joining the Writers Guild of America, East. (New York Daily News)

The billionaire owner of hyperlocal news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist shut them down Thursday — just a week after staffers voted to join a union.

Joe Ricketts, a supporter of President Trump who made billions as the founder of TD Ameritrade, yanked the sites at 5 p.m. and sent an email to employees to let them know they lost their jobs.

“I’ve made the difficult decision to begin the orderly wind down of the DNAinfo/Gothamist business,” Ricketts wrote.

“Reaching this decision wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t one I made lightly,” he said in the email, most of which was also posted online to replace the now-defunct sites.

Ricketts owns the Chicago Cubs as well as having been the founder of TD Ameritrade. So was the unionization the reason for shuttering the sites? There were at least hints of that last week in a memo from the company’s COO.

“Would a union be the final straw that caused the business to be closed? I don’t know. But it’s important that everyone keep in mind that this is not a business where ownership is keeping more than its fair share of the profits,” the email said.

You can read the letter from Ricketts explaining the closure here, but it’s fairly straightforward. Both DNAinfo and Gothamist had been losing money consistently. The boss had supposedly been planning on combining the two in an effort to improve efficiency, but the unionization move seemed to be taking the organization in the wrong direction.

Their stated desires in joining WGAE included more, “fair policies regarding compensation and benefits” among other things. When you’re working for a group that’s already consistently losing money, that’s probably not the best time to be pushing higher labor costs.

It’s a shame that things had to end this way. I’ve linked to Gothamist many times here over the past couple of years. Their “hyperlocal” approach to news coverage allowed them to really dig into a lot of stories in the Big Apple, many of which had national consequences or at least comprised a significant part of larger conversations. They covered police lethal force encounters, gang violence and the political careers of figures like Bill de Blasio, who still entertains hopes of national office by all accounts.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Some will doubtless try to make this a story about union busting, but Ricketts probably explains it best in his letter. He wrote, “I’m hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling for I believe telling those stories remains essential.”

A noble goal, but staffing up that sort of journalistic endeavor is expensive and they just weren’t making money. In the end, unless you have limitless resources to flush into a politically motivated effort, you just can’t keep operating under those conditions forever.