On Tuesday, November 2 at 5:00 p.m., the flurry of headlines on two of New York City’s local/hyperlocal news sites was replaced by a post by owner Joe Ricketts.
“DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” Ricketts wrote. And just like that, hundreds of thousands of articles disappeared from these two sites.
Just a week ago, reporters in the New York offices from both news sites officially unionized and joined the Writer’s Guild of America East.
Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade — his family also owns the Chicago Cubs — has not hidden his anti-union sentiment. He forecasted his actions just months ago when he wrote “Why I’m Against Unions At Businesses I Create,” a post on his personal blog.
“I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed,” wrote Ricketts. “And that corrosive dynamic makes no sense in my mind where an entrepreneur is staking his capital on a business that is providing jobs and promoting innovation.”
Ricketts’ interest in hyperlocal news coverage has always been a curiosity. As an avid supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, he has failed to address how Trump’s fake news paradigm jives with Ricketts’ own news organizations.
In addition to shutting down the sites and firing over a hundred employees, journalists can no longer access their published work. “All other articles promptly vanished from the sites,” reported the New York Times. “[A]n official at DNAinfo said they would be archived online.” Countless former and freelance journalists who have written for both Gothamist and DNAinfo have also been greatly affected. Those news articles are vital for job applications, interviews, and career opportunities. Journalists are frantically searching for ways in which to preserve their body of work. It’s one of the ugly realities of online-only journalism. [Update on Nov 3: As of this afternoon, archives for both DNAinfo and Gothamist and are currently online.]
“It’s a sad day for New Yorkers,” said Mark Caserta, Executive Director of the Park Slope Fifth Avenue BID. “Outlets like DNAinfo and Gothamist were critical to getting the word out about important community issues and events that local newspapers and broadsheets wouldn’t cover. In many cases, their coverage attracted coverage from larger local and national news outlets after their well-written stories appeared. They will be sorely missed.”
“The reporters at DNAinfo brought a finely detailed layer of reporting to places like Gowanus, showing us the key to understanding how the powers of real estate have changed the neighborhood,” said writer and editor Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal. “I relied upon them to fill the gaps that other platforms did not.”
The problems neither begin nor end with Joe Ricketts. His actions, however, bring up issues that should be addressed in each and every hyperlocal newsroom at some point before the end of the workday. Non-unionized writers deserve to know where their organization stands. Full-time and freelance hyperlocal journalists live in a reality where their jobs shift, change and disappear — often with little or no notice.
Attending midsummer drinks or holiday parties at one hyperlocal news organization became a thankless errand after I soon realized that many of my colleagues present would be let go from the organization — with little to no warning. Others would leave on account of exhaustion. I’d look around the table, share a toast, and think to myself that most if not all of these writers would not be around for the next celebration or festive gathering six months later. And six months later, the ritual would return with a similar outcome.
And if the firings are not a by-product of fiscal emergencies, writers depart due to deep burnout and exhaustion as they tire of pumping out massive amounts of writing on a daily basis due to working for terribly short-staffed organizations. In addition, reporters need to make uncomfortable choices as they perform the balancing act of writing extremely fast, juggling multiple articles and quote-sourcing, while performing under pressure to achieve excellent click rates for every published item. And without an available editor, typos often release the wrath of urban grammarians who relentlessly take aim at the blearly-eyed [sic] reporter in the article’s comments section or social media post.
Of course, fiscal realities for publishers are real. However, writers, especially young ones, need to be mentored. “If this is the future of journalism, it should be a career for people, not a postcollege hobby,” said Katie Honan, former DNAinfo reporter.
Hyperlocal local journalism continues to develop as a vital resource that neighbors depend on. And if there’s any question of this, witness Katia Kelly’s Pardon Me For Asking investigation of Paul Manafort’s Carroll Gardens property and how Kelly has contributed to his indictment on charges of money laundering and foreign lobbying.
And I’d like to give a special shoutout to my colleague Leslie Albrecht, former DNAinfo reporter for the Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, and Gowanus neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It was always a pleasure to see her at board meetings and press conferences. While she left DNAinfo months ago, I consider her an example of what DNAinfo — and hyperlocal news — gets right. Competition can be a gracious thing.
Hyperlocal organizations: let this be a call to treat each other better, to take care of each other more, and to preserve the intellectual and reporting value of the important work we do.
We can do better by and for each other.
Updated: Friday, November 3, 2017 at 3:49 p.m. to include a quote from Joseph Alexiou.