The Baffler, November 2017
Joe Ricketts, Media Destroyer
A eulogy for Gothamist and DNAinfo
“NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS” hasn’t yet been tried out as a slogan for a media company—for what would seem to be patently obvious reasons. Late last week, though, multi-billionaire Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and went from Never Trumpers to kissing the ring at the last minute, invoked the sense, if not the exact wording, of that dictum as he shuttered Gothamist and DNAinfo, the company I worked at until sometime around 5 p.m. on November 2, 2017. Ricketts wasn’t satisfied to simply follow the formula laid down by hundreds of downsizing moguls before him, and cashier his employees with a bloodless corporate email informing us he was putting us out of work. No—Ricketts, who was clearly dismissing me and 114 other company employees in retaliation for a successful union drive, drove his plutocratic point home by wiping every article from the family of -ist websites and DNAinfo’s Chicago and New York branches. (For the moment, after a great public outcry, the archives have been put back up.) To Joe Ricketts, who frequently paid lip service in company gatherings to committedly supporting local journalism, no news was the best news on offer.
The proof of how the world worked, and the proof that reporters ever did any work, was in those stories, and so in replacing them with a letter praising his own genius for starting a website, Ricketts did more than just erase a literal database of New York City history. He also directly attacked the reporters who he fired without a second thought. It’s the kind of retaliatory move made by a man who thinks he’s above consequences—a spiteful kiss-off to people whose only crime was sticking up for themselves.
Joe Ricketts, media destroyer, isn’t exactly the same as the men who came before him. He’s not Peter Thiel, lurking in the shadows, propping up Hulk Hogan as a proxy. He’s not the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose corporate chieftains keep their newsrooms open only so they can flood the airwaves with howling right-wing propaganda. His closest analogue might be Peter Barbey, the man who will forever carry the infamy of wiping out the Village Voice’s print edition—again after a series of disingenuous public statements lauding the journalistic legacy he was poised to carry forward. Barbey, too, was seeking to kneecap the Voice paper’s union and nudge the paper’s ethos away from its storied record of muckraking and street-fighting liberalism. Whatever their other differences—Barbey previously owned a small local paper in Pennsylvania, unlike Ricketts, who must be counted a journalistic fraud as well as a Randian corporate ghoul—they are united by a bone-deep determination to control information and twist it to suit the needs of people in power.
Especially in the case of Gothamist and DNAinfo, where reporters spent hours without overtime going to community board meetings, small protests, City Council hearings, and funerals, that information was a critical public resource—the lifeblood of New York City’s justly famous, and combative, civic culture. Our sites told you what was happening at your community board, and supplied the backstory behind the opening of a new neighborhood restaurant or bar, and chronicled the many ways big and small that local politicians served themselves (and to be fair, served their constituents). Even when we covered something as simple as what fun thing was going on over the weekend, the reporters in the DNA and -ist network brought together a vital stream of otherwise scattered information that made you feel part of a community within the large and forbidding backdrop of New York (or Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Shanghai). In an era where a steady contingent of media Cassandras wonder where we can find the kind of reliable, on-the-ground, daily reporting that might have keyed into the mood of the country during the run-up to Donald Trump’s surprise election win, DNAinfo and Gothamist reporters were among the best recent examples of that tradition’s survival. While others fretted, and ordered up scores of retrospective accounts of regional politics gone hopelessly awry, we kept our heads down, and kept doing the work.
I’m also proud to say we were doing the work until the very last minute. One colleague of mine recalled talking to a tipster to set up a story right as the shutdown notice came in. For my part, I was talking to an intern, walking him through the best way to approach looking for and pitching stories to me. Yes, I do say this in part to demonstrate how very brilliant and committed we are (hire us!). But I also want to strike a death blow to Joe Ricketts’s bankrupt reasoning for repudiating union drives at the manifest cost of a living, breathing, and successful franchise devoted to independent local journalism.
I know that keeping a company growing and thriving requires focus and tireless effort by everyone. Indeed, in my opinion, the essential esprit de corps that every successful company needs can’t exist when employees and ownership see themselves as being on opposite ends of a seesaw. Everyone at a company—owners and employees alike—need to be sitting on the same end of the seesaw because the world is sitting on the other end.
I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed. 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.
That’s why the type of company that interests me is one where ownership and the employees are truly in it together.
We can leave aside the absolutely insane seesaw analogy (save to note, of course, that the whole point of a seesaw is to have two people sitting on opposite sides working together to enjoy going up and down). The gist of Ricketts’s brief tirade against collective-bargaining rights is that a union would poison an atmosphere that would otherwise be a pristine capitalist wonderland. Except that Ricketts never once even began to act as though we could be granted a spot on either side of his company see-saw. Indeed, he never even bothered to address his employees after he acquired our company, short of bluntly telling us “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.”
Bringing together two websites with drastically different tones and styles without any coherent guidance, which is what Ricketts and his apparatchiks did in the DNA-Gothamist case, might well have been an unqualified disaster. It could have turned the workforce’s esprit de corps into an esprit de crap in remarkably short order. Instead though, the union brought reporters together. The union was how we became closer as reporters; it was also what allowed us to learn each other’s strengths and skills. At the level of non-rhetorical esprit de corps, the union also gave us the hope for a shared journalistic future that had us staying up late hours to work and research and do our damndest to keep people informed. As the old refrain goes, the union made us strong—not Joe Ricketts, not his money, not his decisions, and certainly not his “direction.”
And so today, Ricketts has what my father called his “Reagan with the air-traffic controllers” moment. He can go back to wherever it is billionaires go to hang out, brag about what he no doubt thinks is a great victory over his ungrateful employees, and be an inspiration to some of the very worst people on the planet Earth. Right now, the rude and unprovoked assault on the collective-bargaining rights of the DNA-Gothamist workforce represents one blow in a full-frontal plutocratic assault on a genuinely free press.
And yet. Maybe it’s because I’m an irrational optimist, or maybe it’s because I very recently hit my head extremely hard on a wooden floor, but we will not be cowed. Reporters report, and to a person, each one of my incredibly brave, funny, whip-smart, plugged-in coworkers is going to keep reporting.