After billionaire Joe Ricketts announced the shuttering of local news organizations Gothamist and DNAInfo last fall, readers across the country mourned the loss of the beloved sites, and worried about the vulnerability of journalism in the digital age.
Now, a consortium of public radio stations, including WNYC in New York, WAMU in Washington DC, and KPCC in Southern California, has banded together to bring some of those sites back from the dead. The three stations are acquiring the assets of Gothamist and some of its associated sites, including LAist, DCist, and DNAInfo. The deal was spearheaded by Gothamist founders Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung, and is being funded by two anonymous donors who have contributed an undisclosed sum to acquire the brands. As part of the deal, the archives of both sites will remain online. Gothamist, led by Dobkin and Chung, will begin publishing new stories this spring.
Dobkin characterizes the acquisition as "the best possible outcome" following Gothamist's unceremonious closure, which infuriated much of the media industry. Ricketts' controversial decision to shut down the sites came months after DNAInfo acquired Gothamist, and just one week after the combined newsroom successfully unionized. As an added blow, Ricketts initially blocked access to the archives of both sites, replacing them with a letter announcing that he had turned off the lights.
"I think you can imagine how we felt," Dobkin says 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."
Following a public outcry, those archives were restored, and will now be maintained by the public radio stations. In a statement regarding the sale Thursday, Ricketts said, "The most important thing for me was to make sure the assets went to a news organization that would honor our commitment to neighborhood storytelling."
'The hope is we can build something bigger and better by bringing these two things together.'
Jim Schachter, WNYC
If there's any bastion of neighborhood storytelling left in America, public radio stations would be it. While local newspapers and other media companies have largely failed to adjust to the difficult freemium economics of digital journalism, New York Public Radio, the non-profit owner of WNYC, has only grown, expanding to some $93 million in annual revenue in 2017 and more than 20 million listeners across its radio stations and podcasts.
That's why, when the news about Gothamist broke in the fall, WNYC executives thought they might be able to keep it alive. They soon began talks with Dobkin and Chung—who were already busy looking for possible donors—as well as fellow public radio stations across the country.
"The nonprofit WNYC business model has proved to be a growing and thriving thing while a lot of things have been going so deeply south," says Jim Schachter, head of the news division at WNYC. "The hope is we can build something bigger and better by bringing these two things together."
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.
Out west, where the Los Angeles Times currently faces its own existential crisis under changing ownership, KPCC's team hopes LAist can preserve "a strong news ecosystem in Los Angeles," says Alex Schaffert, assistant vice president of digital strategy and innovation. "Our goal is to generate new content for the site, build on the archive of stories that we were fortunate to acquire, and integrate LAist into KPCC’s portfolio of services."
And in Washington, DC, WAMU plans to hire a three-person staff and begin publishing new content to DCist by spring. "Regional journalism is an essential aspect of our mission as a public media station, and acquiring DCist means serving a bigger audience, across more platforms," says Andi McDaniel, chief content officer of WAMU. According to Dobkin, the group is currently scouting other local radio stations and news organizations that could acquire the assets for Gothamist's additional city sites, including Chicago and San Francisco. DNAInfo will live on in its archives only.
These sites will continue to face the same pressures that afflict all digital media brands in 2018. Those haven't gone away. It's also unclear how hard it will be to bring an audience back after a several-month hiatus. Schachter of WNYC says the team plans to proceed slowly and cautiously. "The history of media integration is one that requires you to enter into it with great humility," he says.
A nearly century-old radio station like WNYC swooping in to save a group of sites that helped write the rules of online journalism does contain a hint of irony. But when you consider these radio stations have managed to weather technological changes from the transistor to the television, the idea that they might be able to help younger newsrooms navigate the choppy waters of the digital revolution—while benefitting from their digital native audiences—doesn't sound so crazy after all.