Gothamist's Kickstarter Raises More Questions Than It Answers

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Gothamist, the shuttered New York news site being resurrected by local powerhouse New York Public Radio, launched a Kickstarter today to get “back to full strength and make [Gothamist] sustainable for years to come.” And the response is impressive: As of this writing, more than 600 backers have already donated a collective $47,000 to the project, putting the soon-to-be relaunched blog well on its way to its May 4 goal of raising $100,000.


It’s yet another step toward reviving a fixture of local New York journalism—a noble narrative that both NYPR and Gothamist co-founders Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung have embraced in their fundraising push, despite the many issues surrounding their stewardship of the site. It also raises the question of why a media company which was sold to a billionaire last year and is now owned by a  deep-pocketed public radio station is turning to a crowdfunding platform geared primarily toward independent creators.

NYPR has brought on Dobkin, Chung, and some staffers of the previous iteration of Gothamist to collaborate with a few journalists from WNYC—NYPR’s flagship station—on the relaunch. The Kickstarter, complete with a slick video narrated by Chung, gives a few more details on their mission (emphasis mine):

Gothamist’s mission has not, and will not, change. Even with seismic shifts forcing news outlets to rethink their business models, Gothamist is unswerving in its commitment to New Yorkers. In every city, local news is fast becoming an endangered species as newsrooms continue to suffer from drastic layoffs and budget cuts. If we don’t figure out new ways to fund essential local reporting, we will be doing our communities a disservice. This Kickstarter is a way for YOU to make a tangible difference.

In journalism, it matters where the funding comes from. At Gothamist, it now comes from you.

It says all the right things till that last bit, as the money and effort behind Gothamist’s revival remain hazy at best. Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who bought Gothamist’s parent company from Dobkin and Chung for an undisclosed sum last year and then attempted to merge it with his own local news company, DNAinfo, closed both in November following a contentious union drive. In February, Wired reported that WNYC had convinced Ricketts to part ways with the sites in a deal that was “spearheaded by [Dobkin and Chung], and is being funded by two anonymous donors who have contributed an undisclosed sum to acquire the brands.”

New York Public Radio President Laura Walker revealed the identity of one of the anonymous donors—a friend of Dobkin’s—in March. But additional questions remained: Who is the other funder? How long would this seed funding last? Would WNYC prop up Gothamist if it’s not immediately self-sufficient? Will any more former Gothamist employees—the ones who lost their jobs after they tried to unionize—be hired?

Like other public radio outlets, the fast-growing NYPR gets a significant chunk of its funding from member donations. As the organization was reckoning internally with a sexual harassment scandal in December, The New York Times reported that its annual budget reaches $100 million. Gothamist’s Kickstarter might add a few pennies to that, but it’s not clear exactly what the donations will go to—or what will happen should the project not meet its monetary goal. From the Kickstarter:

The first $100,000 will help revive the website and bring back our popular newsletter. It will also enable us to preserve the Gothamist and DNAinfo archives. But this is just the beginning. The more we raise, the better we can serve you.

If we raise another $100,000, we’ll be able to deepen our service. With your participation, we will be able to deliver more of the “Best Of” features, more stunning New York photography, more on the mass transit crisis that is messing with our daily lives, revealing more of the city’s extraordinary secrets and essential weirdness.

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The Kickstarter seems intent on capturing the same public support as seen in Chicago in recent months. A DNAinfo site covering the city was similarly shut down by Ricketts last year, and a handful of former staffers recently raised more than $180,000 to launch a publication to replace it, Block Club Chicago. That effort also received backing from the startup Civil, a blockchain-based media platform.


In New York, the new Gothamist’s model relies on support from an established parent organization with its own strategic imperatives. Curious whether sums donated through Kickstarter would be used to pay current Gothamist staffers—or if they might go toward re-hiring additional employees from the site’s previous iteration—I followed up with NYPR spokeswoman Jennifer Houlihan Roussel on Tuesday.

“Now that Gothamist is a part of NYPR, it will be funded in the same way as WNYC – through a diversified revenue stream of membership, philanthropy and sponsorship,” she wrote. “The Kickstarter is an effort to help us expedite the launch of the site, and engage with the Gothamist audience in a new way now that it is part of a member-supported organization. We’ve already brought on several former Gothamist staffers to work on the launch, and the Kickstarter will go towards launch and operations costs (everything from staffing to backend digital work to photography, etc).”


Roussel added in a separate email that the Kickstarter “will also help resource the preservation of the Gothamist and DNAinfo archives.”

I posed similar questions in an email to Chung, who will be executive editor of the new Gothamist, and will update this post if I hear back. Roussel has previously told me that NYPR will be reviewing the project’s staffing levels—it currently counts six former Gothamist employees—in about six months’ time. I wonder whether we’ll be seeing another Kickstarter then.


Update, 5:56 p.m.: Dobkin tweeted on Tuesday that a seventh former Gothamist employee has come on board the project. A source with knowledge of staffing changes told me the latest addition is longtime advertising staffer Mei Lee.

I write about media for Splinter. I have redeeming qualities, too.