Screencap from YouTube

The news Friday that a public radio consortium would be relaunching New York news site Gothamist and some of its sister sites was met by an outpouring of support for the recently shuttered publications and gratitude toward the stations helping to resurrect them.

It seemed like a rare bright spot for local media markets whose economic implosion has steadily continued. Even large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, where this unique partnership will initially bear fruit, are starved for focused news coverage.

But peer closely at the details made public about this revival, and some questions pop up. It requires that an alternative media site with a distinct voice shares space with buttoned-up public radio sensibilities; it relies on anonymous funding and the vision of controversial newsroom leaders; and it’s uncertain whether it will include the writers who gave the sites a unique identity, and who lost their jobs when they were abruptly folded last year.

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In other words: Can a new Gothamist possibly be the same?


To recap how we got here: Joe Ricketts, a billionaire businessman who owned New York news site DNAinfo, purchased Gothamist last March and announced plans to merge the two publications. Soon after, a months-long attempt by the newsrooms to unionize pitted them against both Ricketts, a GOP donor, and Gothamist’s co-founder and publisher Jake Dobkin, who’d taken an anti-union stance despite previously railing against “the tyrannical capitalist system.”

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In November, just weeks after the staffers finally unionized with Writers Guild of America-East—the union that represents Gizmodo Media Group—Ricketts abruptly shut down the sites along with sister publications LAist and DCist. Multiple former DNAinfo and Gothamist staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, have told Splinter since then that they lay blame for the outcome not only on Rickett’s ideological crusade, but also a woeful lack of direction from Dobkin and co-founder Jen Chung at a time of immense pressure. “We looked to them for leadership, and we didn’t get it,” one former Gothamist employee said Friday.

On Friday, Wired reported that public radio stations in New York (WNYC), Southern California (KPCC), and Washington (WAMU) had come together to acquire Gothamist, LAist, and DCist, respectively. Ricketts signed off on the deal, but it “was spearheaded by Gothamist founders Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung,” Wired’s Issie Lapowsky reported, “and is being funded by two anonymous donors who have contributed an undisclosed sum to acquire the brands.” No details were given about how long this funding is intended to last, or whether there are any strings attached to it.

DNAinfo, which distinguished itself with granular beat reporting on New York neighborhoods, will not be relaunched. But all the sites’ archives, which momentarily hung in the balance when they were first closed in November, will be maintained.

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Lapowsky continued (emphasis mine):

The details of the integration are still being ironed out. Initially, WNYC plans to run Gothamist as a parallel site, seeded with stories by Chung, members of the WNYC staff, and eventually, a mix of new hires and former Gothamist writers interested in getting the band back together. “We’re going to be trying to rebuild the newsroom,” Chung says. Because the size of the donation is still private, it’s unclear just how large the budget for hiring is.

Inside WNYC, which has grappled in recent months with its own crisis of leadership after a spate of sexual harassment allegations, the news was a much-needed morale boost, one staffer told Splinter. Laura Walker, head of WNYC parent organization New York Public Radio, addressed this in a memo to staff obtained by Splinter:

I know that one question you may be asking is why, even if we are supporters and friends of Gothamist and our shared mission, we are making this move when we are slowing down in order to focus on our internal culture. First, we have indeed slowed down our strategic planning about our role in the larger New York City news ecosystem. At the same time, the senior team, the board and I believe that, not only was the opportunity to bring in Gothamist with our public radio partners a unique one, but that our ongoing efforts to develop a stronger digital presence and reach a larger and more diverse audience must – and should – continue. We are approaching this move with our values of innovation, equity and transparency.

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The nonprofit model makes sense for Gothamist’s local reporting, and WNYC will surely benefit from the additional firepower. The site, which is slated to begin publishing again this spring, will have to temper its voice to meet WNYC’s editorial guidelines. And Walker added in her note to staff Friday morning that the organization was building an “editorial transition team” under Chung of “3-4 veteran Gothamist editors and 2-3 journalists from WNYC who will work together for roughly 6 months.”

“After this initial, roughly 6 month period, we will determine the permanent staffing needs for Gothamist and open those positions to those interested to apply,” Walker wrote.

It’s unclear if hires added thereafter would be brought into the union representing many WNYC employees, the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “WNYC has had a collective bargaining agreement with SAG-Aftra for many years, and once we gear up and hire staff we will make any union determinations in accordance with that agreement,” a WNYC spokesperson told The New York Times Friday.

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Whether former Gothamist staffers would similarly be interested in “getting the band back together”—as Chung put it to Wired—is a different question. The deal itself has resurfaced the mutual distrust between Dobkin and Chung and their former staffers pent up since before the DNAinfo and Gothamist’s closures. While two former staffers told Splinter Friday that they’d heard rumors of a potential comeback in the works, the bargaining unit for onetime employees suggested in a tweet on Friday that it hadn’t been officially consulted:

Dobkin and Chung have yet to respond to our emails seeking comment. Splinter’s query to WNYC on whether it has attempted to contact any additional former Gothamist staffers has likewise gone unanswered.

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“WNYC has a responsibility to us to reach out sooner rather than later, because they’re getting a lot of good will based on our upheaval,” one former Gothamist employee told Splinter on Friday. “I’m glad people are excited. But they shouldn’t confuse ‘Gothamist is back’ with ‘The people we loved reading at Gothamist are back.’”


Read the full text of Laura Walker’s email announcing WNYC’s acquisition of Gothamist below:

Dear Colleagues,

Today, I am thrilled to announce that WNYC, in partnership with our public radio colleagues at KPCC and WAMU, has reached an agreement to acquire Gothamist! This information is embargoed until 10:30am ET. At 11am, a group of us will gather in the 8th floor Cafe to explain more and answer your questions. Please join us if you are able!

Many of us were saddened by the unexpected shutdown of Gothamist and DNAinfo last November. Gothamist’s reporting complemented ours in many ways, and we collaborated on projects like We the Commuters. The loss left a void in local journalism, and I know that some of you were quick to ask whether we could find a way to save it.

This arrangement will give us and our public radio colleagues the story archives, internet domains, and social media assets from both Gothamist and all the “-ists” including LA-ist and DC-ist. We plan to re-launch Gothamist this Spring here in New York and our colleagues at KPCC and WAMU will run their sites independently focussing on their communities.

Generous philanthropic support from three donors who are deeply committed to local journalism made the purchase possible, as well as some of our own campaign funds. We are not using operating funds for this purchase. We are not planning to relaunch the DNAinfo site, although we will preserve the archives of the site.

I am also delighted that the cofounders of Gothamist Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung will join us to be in charge of the Gothamist. Jen will serve as Executive Editor, Gothamist and will report to Jim Schachter and Jake will serve as Head of Strategy, Gothamist, working closely with sponsorship, membership and digital. He will to report to John Chao and work closely with Nate Landau.

We plan to assemble two teams to drive the effort forward—an editorial transition team and an overall integration team.

The editorial transition team will work under Jen to relaunch the Gothamist site. It will consist of 3-4 veteran Gothamist editors and 2-3 journalists from WNYC who will work together for roughly 6 months. We will post the positions for WNYC employees in the coming days; more about this from Jim shortly. After this initial, roughly 6 month period, we will determine the permanent staffing needs for Gothamist and open those positions to those interested to apply. We are committed to building a diverse team at Gothamist and serving an audience of New Yorkers from diverse communities—and this will be a mandate for the transition team.

The integration team will be cross functional and will help to integrate Gothamist into NYPR. We are still forming this team, so more news to come. From the newsroom, participants will be Jim, Jen, Lee Hill, Sean Bowditch, Kate Hinds, Jenny Ye and Rhyne Piggott. From the digital department participants will be Nate Landau, Valentina Powers, Freyja Balmer and Jim Jazwiecki. From Business Development, Stephanie Shaer. In addition, several others from membership and sponsorship will join the integration team. This team is not full-time, we are conscious of balancing existing work—and so are thinking through how to prioritize carefully as we do planning. This effort is similar to the transition we made when we purchased WQXR from The New York Times, saving classical music radio in New York.

I know that one question you may be asking is why, even if we are supporters and friends of Gothamist and our shared mission, we are making this move when we are slowing down in order to focus on our internal culture. First, we have indeed slowed down our strategic planning about our role in the larger New York City news ecosystem. At the same time, the senior team, the board and I believe that, not only was the opportunity to bring in Gothamist with our public radio partners a unique one, but that our ongoing efforts to develop a stronger digital presence and reach a larger and more diverse audience must – and should – continue. We are approaching this move with our values of innovation, equity and transparency.

We believe that the addition of Gothamist’s digital platform serves our mission to preserve and enhance local journalism in New York. And we are excited by what we, WNYC and Gothamist, can do together for New Yorkers.

I know there will be many questions in the days and weeks ahead, and we look forward to answering them and continuing the conversation together. I want to particularly thank Jim Schachter, Stephanie Shaer, Nate Landau, Celia Muller, Dana Teplitsky, and Hillary Strong, and many more on this effort which has required many long nights of work. Please ask any of us questions, and we look forward to seeing you at 11am.

Thank you for all you do to support our mission, and for joining us in welcoming Gothamist to the NYPR family.

Sincerely,

Laura

Any idea who Gothamist’s anonymous donors are? Email me (david.uberti@splinternews.com) or send Splinter an anonymous tip (tips@splinternews.com).