We all have ideals. But it’s hard to know how strong our commitment to those ideals is until someone is waving money in our face. Here is a story about money winning the battle.
Three and a half months ago, the editorial employees at DNAinfo and Gothamist announced their decision to unionize, and asked their company to recognize their union. (They joined the Writers Guild of America, East, the same union that Gizmodo Media Group belongs to.) Their request came a month after DNAinfo agreed to buy Gothamist, in a merger of local news companies. And the merger itself came on the heels of layoffs at DNAinfo, which has not yet found a path to profitability.
DNAinfo is owned by Joe Ricketts (pictured), the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade. Along with his children, Ricketts also owns the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts is also a prominent conservative Republican political donor. During the 2016 election cycle, Rickets spent millions of dollars on a PAC designed to“prevent Donald Trump from hijacking our great party,” which aired TV ads decrying Trump as a misogynist—and then, when Trump won the nomination, Ricketts endorsed him and gave him a million dollars.
Gothamist’s ownership is very different. It’s one of a very small number of blogs that have been around for well over a decade. It was co-founded by Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin, a native New Yorker who has always seen himself as more of a righteous editorial voice than a ruthless businessman. Just last year, for example, Dobkin wrote this Gothamist post reflecting on the changing nature of media work, and how people in our industry should deal with the internet’s destruction of traditional, safe media jobs:
I would like to suggest another reaction, which is a commitment to overthrowing the tyrannical capitalist system that makes working people run ever faster to earn the same wages. Perhaps it is time for all creative comrades to stop struggling and realize they have joined the submerged working class, and to band together on that basis with other poor people to change the system which oppresses everyone. This could happen in many ways: artists and comedians could join the “Fight for 15" or “Black Lives Matter” struggles, or creative unions could throw their weight behind social democratic candidates for office, or TV writers could sneak in multiple plots about universal wage subsidies, for instance.
A noble sentiment. And now, Dobkin has his chance to uphold it: his own employees at Gothamist have been waiting extremely patiently for him, and Joe Ricketts, to recognize their union. But this is where ideals fall apart. One of the first things Jake Dobkin did when Joe Ricketts bought his company was to go back and delete old stories that were critical of Ricketts. And what has Dobkin done in the months since his workers said they want to unionize? According to reporters at DNAinfo-Gothamist who spoke off the record for fear of retribution, Dobkin has spoken to reporters trying to dissuade them from unionizing, even insinuating that Joe Ricketts would shut down the company if it unionized. The reporters at the company sent us this statement late last week: “It has been more than 100 days since the editorial workers of DNAinfo and Gothamist asked management to voluntarily recognize our union. We said then and we repeat now that voluntary recognition is the best way for both workers and the company to move forward and decide on a contract that helps to attract and retain quality reporters to continue making DNAinfo and Gothamist the vital neighborhood resources our readers rely on. We remain committed to working with management to continue providing the best local and neighborhood news in New York City.”
Dobkin declined to comment for this story. Shortly after he declined, we received an email on his behalf from his PR person—Allan Mayer, the co-CEO of 42West and one of the most powerful PR men on the West Coast. (The benefit of having a billionaire owner, I guess.) Mayer sent along, as comment, two letters that Joe Ricketts had sent on the topic: one, from May 19, to New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who had asked him to recognize the union; and another that was sent to DNA-Gothamist employees on April 19, shortly after they asked for union recognition. In both, Ricketts paints himself as a job creator who has subsidized DNAinfo for years even as it failed to make a profit. He told his employees:
I understand people feel that being in a union will give you a greater voice in the company’s business decisions. I can promise you that I am doing my best to make good decisions that will help the business to succeed while treating employees fairly. As I said earlier, I care deeply about the people who work for me. But, and I realize this is not what you want to hear, as long as it’s my money that’s paying for everything, I intend to be the one making the decisions about the direction of the business.
Until these issues arose, I always thought of DNAinfo as a united team doing something that no one else has figured out how to do: building a viable business around neighborhood news. I realize now that the layoffs made you feel like we’re not on the same side. I want you to know that I still believe we are. We’re either going to make this business successful together or we won’t. And, frankly, I’m not interested in a company with an “us” versus “them” dynamic.
This is a not-very-thinly veiled threat from the billionaire boss to close down the company if its employees unionize. It is, in other words, a great representation of the “tyrannical capitalist system” that made Jake Dobkin, just last year, urge everyone to “band together...to change the system which oppresses everyone.”
Of course, that was before there was money on the table. Now, Jake Dobkin finds himself allied with a billionaire Republican Trump donor. And all of the people who work for him find themselves waiting less and less patiently to be extended the simple courtesy of having their employer deal with them as a group, as they have asked, in accordance with the law.
When it’s all over, people remember who did what.