New York Public Radio and WNYC’s revival of Gothamist, the beloved New York news site which was abruptly shut down last November, has been framed as a rare victory for local journalism. In a Tuesday essay on WNYC, NYPR president Laura Walker cloaked a fundraising plea for the project in Churchillian language. “NYPR and Gothamist Are on a Mission to Save Local News,” the headline read. It was followed by more than 1,100 words professing the civic need for street-level reporting on New York. “When Gothamist was abruptly shut down last November,” Walker wrote, “you could almost hear the city cry out.”
But something was missing. There was not a single mention of Gothamist’s sister site, DNAinfo, which built its own legacy of hyperlocal reporting and was also shut down last November, but is not being resurrected. “It must have been actually kind of difficult to write this whole thing WITHOUT mentioning DNAinfo, you know?” tweeted Rachel Holliday Smith, a former DNAinfo staffer. Other former colleagues shared similar outrage. “Acquiring an aggregation machine and casting it as an investment in ‘fact-checked reporting’ is like pointing to the lettuce on a hamburger and calling it a salad,” groused former DNAinfo editor in chief John Ness.
The mudslinging brought an ugly, if fitting, end to a particularly dystopian entry in the annals of local media. “When that happens,” one former Gothamist staffer told me Wednesday, “the story becomes DNAinfo vs. Gothamist—not workers vs. bosses.”
DNAinfo was presumably left out because it is not part of WNYC’s project. But the tone-deafness of that omission, coupled with the backlash it received, symbolized the deep resentment bubbling beneath the optimistic headlines about Gothamist’s rebirth. A number of the site’s former employees are not returning, and DNAinfo won’t be coming back at all, living on solely as a static archive. As Gothamist’s co-founders, Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung, herald a second chance under the umbrella of a public media powerhouse, the vast majority of their former employees—the people for whom readers cried out in November—haven’t been so lucky.
Dobkin and Chung sold Gothamist and the rest of their company, Gothamist LLC, to Trump-backing billionaire Joe Ricketts in March 2017. The idea was to merge the voicey blogging of their sites—which also included Chicagoist, LAist, and others—with the granular reporting of Ricketts’ DNAinfo sites in New York and Chicago. “We’ve been thinking about how to take our growth to the next level,” Dobkin and Chung wrote when they announced the news. “DNAinfo offers us that opportunity.” But the signs of peril were already evident: Dobkin told Jezebel at the time that he and Chung had deleted articles that were mildly critical of their new owner “when our discussions with Mr. Ricketts were starting to get more serious.”
The staffs of both companies, meanwhile, had been unwittingly marched into a meat grinder. A messy merger ensued. Workers from both Gothamist and DNAinfo attempted to unionize in a joint bargaining unit, pitting them against Chung and Dobkin, who had once railed against “the tyrannical capitalist system” but went all-in to prevent the union from forming. And after they finally succeeded in their push to organize, Ricketts pulled the plug on the entire venture, putting more than 100 journalists out of work around the country. The stunning move not only crystallized staffers’ enmity for Ricketts—a staunchly anti-union Republican mega-donor—but also a profound distrust of Chung and Dobkin’s leadership.
Still, NYPR’s purchase of the remnants of Gothamist last month was cheered as a bright spot for New York media. “I think you can imagine how we felt,” Dobkin told Wired of the shutdown. “It was unexpected. We tried to do our best to improve the situation and bring something positive out of it, and we did.” Public media outlets in Southern California and Washington similarly bought LAist and DCist, respectively.
But details on the projects’ funding, editorial direction, and staffing levels have largely been left to the public imagination. In LA, KPCC President Bill Davis told a local radio station that the purchase “strengthens our digital platform for a very, very affordable price,” hinting they potentially paid as little as $50,000 for the site. So far, none of the former LAist staffers have yet been hired to aid in that effort.
In New York, too, former DNAinfo and Gothamist staffers had been left in the dark about the Dobkin and Chung-led project. The bargaining unit met in late February at the offices of Writers Guild of America-East—the union that also represents Splinter—to share what bits of information members had about a relaunch that was conceived largely without their knowledge.
“People aren’t really sure what to do,” said a former Gothamist staffer present at the meeting, who, like others, spoke to Splinter on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their job prospects. “It’s hard to see people get excited about your publication coming back when you’re not part of it.”
Dobkin and Chung did not reply to requests for comment.
Additional information is slowly dribbling out. In her essay on Tuesday, Walker revealed that one of the anonymous funders who helped foot NYPR’s bill to purchase Gothamist is one of Dobkin’s childhood friends, Josh Reznick. The other—and their motivations—remain unknown.
This week, a small group of former Gothamist employees was officially tapped to join Dobkin and Chung: former Editor in Chief John Del Signore, former Editorial Director Jen Carlson, and longtime editor Christopher Robbins.
Robbins—who has written for Splinter in the past—is the only staffer of the five returning who had been part of DNAinfo-Gothamist’s bargaining unit, and it’s still unclear if any subsequent hires will be brought into the union that represents some WNYC employees.
Meanwhile, WNYC is drawing from its own ranks to fill out the team. It published internal job postings for six-month assignments with the project as of March 6, according to emails to staff obtained by Splinter, and it has since extended the application deadline. A description for the jobs, written by Chung and shared in an email to WNYC staff by Vice President of News Jim Schachter, sounds fairly similar to the role of former Gothamist employees:
A team member will sift through an ocean of news, discard pro forma filler, and elevate important, insightful, moving, or otherwise noteworthy stories with enriching context and without cliche. S/he will also be a skeptical observer, dedicated to original thought—funny, but sometimes not. Sometimes, s/he will pick up the phone, send a raft of emails, or leave the office to bring back something original or unexpected for the post.
In addition to writing a handful of blog posts each day, the successful team member will also have ideas for longer stories that will require weeks of thinking, reporting and writing.
Whoever fills this position should be versatile, comfortable writing about a variety of subjects, from breaking news events to extremely Instagrammable dishes at a food hall near you.
As many as three WNYC staffers will be selected for the temporary gigs, which are set to begin this month. After the assignment, Schachter continued, “we’ll have figured out the permanent staff size of Gothamist and positions will be opened for interested parties internally and externally.” In other words, there may be a few job openings down the line if all goes according to plan.
“Gothamist and DNAinfo both did excellent and worthy work, and we are committed to continuing to invest in local news with the relaunch of Gothamist,” NYPR spokeswoman Jennifer Houlihan Roussel wrote in an email to Splinter. “Together, WNYC and Gothamist can build on each other’s strengths and bring audiences local news across platforms. The Gothamist team members who joined this week are working with us on the launch, and we’ll be reviewing staffing in six months.”
At least some of those interested parties may already have soured on the idea. For now, Gothamist seems to have outlasted a malevolent billionaire. But DNAinfo is gone. The union is effectively dead. A few dozen journalists have been sidelined in the righteous “mission to save local news.” And the bosses who sold Gothamist to a conservative union-buster, tried to shield him from public criticism, joined his fight against the site’s workers, and precipitated its destruction have emerged almost unscathed.
“The public narrative has its bad guy, and it’s the perfect bad guy: Joe Ricketts,” a former DNAinfo staffer told me Wednesday. “He’s rich, he owns the Cubs, he likes Trump. But in real life there are a lot of villains. And there are a lot of losers, too.”