NEW YORK ― Who has time for civic engagement?
Who in their right mind would, after a full day of work and with a family to feed, trudge to their local community board meeting and listen to hours of minutiae, simply for a shot at developers who promise to bring affordable housing to the poor?
Local reporters, that’s who. And about 115 of them ― along with their expertise, sourcing, editing and general oversight ― were axed overnight by a billionaire owner who didn’t see enough revenue, or hated that his employees had unionized, or both.
Journalists are unsurprisingly mourning the sudden shutdown of DNAinfo, Gothamist and their sister sites on Thursday ― they were chock full of good reporters who have made a real impact, and many in the industry, who know all too well the cruel vicissitudes of the journalism business, worked alongside them for years. But the decimation of the local news landscape in New York City will result in more than journalist tweets bemoaning the state of the industry; this affects the daily life of all citizens, and in a powerful way.
Society just lost some of its last watchdogs.
“The implication is huge ― the major dailies do not cover local news on a granular level in the way that DNAinfo and Gothamist did,” said Newsweek Breaking News Editor Gersh Kuntzman, who once competed against the outlets during his time as editor of The Brooklyn Paper (and, full disclosure, was my boss at that time).
New York has a street-level reporting crisis at the moment. Major print publications like the New York Daily News and The New York Times have made steep cuts to their local newsrooms and lost some of their local coverage. Gothamist and DNAinfo were among the few remaining outlets that gave locals a community, helped shape the discussion on convoluted systems, and provided a soap box to bloggers who broke news in their neighborhoods.
“I’ve covered enough community board meetings to know that great stories percolate up from large gatherings of interested, committed local neighborhood residents. No one is going to listen to these people anymore,” Kuntzman said. “The Times will eventually get around to covering its elitist clickbait like bike lanes in Park Slope or outdoor cafe space issues on the Upper West Side, but Bay Ridge? Fresh Meadows? Ethnic neighbors that don’t happen to have great purveyors of ‘worth a trip’ food items? They won’t exist to that paper.”
Indeed, reporters can’t get a beat on their city unless they’re out there in it.
It was DNAinfo’s Katie Honan who sharply covered disgraced former New York State Sen. Hiram Monserrate when he tried to reenter politics without addressing the fact that he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Monserrate was defeated in several bids for local office soon after. Honan was laid off Thursday along with the rest of her colleagues.
Gothamist reporters aggressively covered and successfully brought to light a swath of cyclist deaths over the years. They popularized the term “manspreading” and called out the NYPD for shooting dogs. They were likewise all laid off Thursday.
These stories represent but a slice of what both publications were doing on a daily basis. Lauren Evans, a former employee at Gothamist, eulogized their work best, saying, “I am sad for my friends — with many of whom I remain close —who have been cast out into a miserable job market. I’m scared for the city, for all the bad landlords and abusive cops and crooked politicians whose behaviors will go unchecked.”
They delivered news that mattered to local people: What’s happening on the block? Who’s trying to screw over residents for personal gain? Where should kids go to school? Where can one find the best ― not the only, the best ― BLT in the city?
Real context ― the kind that reveals why someone should care and what they can do about it ― is hard to find.
“I remember reading education stories by Amy Zimmer at DNAinfo in NYC when [Department of Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos was getting confirmed,” Jason Feldman, a public relations specialist who devoured the two sites when he lived in the city, said. “The DOE is a complicated, big organization and while people understood the larger implications of the DeVos appointment [...] what reporters like Amy did was take these issues and boil them down, and really show readers that it does have huge implications on the local level.”
The service reporters like Zimmer provided was free for readers, but someone’s got to pay for it. The question is, who? Certainly no longer billionaire Joe Ricketts, who shuttered his sites a week after they unionized. And not the general public which, for hyperlocal publications, is slow to fundraise and offers only a niche stream of income for advertisers.
“As local residents, we often take for granted the service of local journalism, just like we take for granted our water service. Nobody thinks about our water until it’s not working,” said HuffPost Executive Editor Jim Rich, who’s experienced the Sisyphean task of trying to keep local news afloat without resources.
When Rich started as editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News in 2015, he took on an already dwindling reporting staff and plummeting daily circulation. Financing on-the-street reporting isn’t easy on any level, he said, and it’s even more difficult to keep a reader’s attention (which is ultimately the barometer for revenue) when there isn’t some award-winning, earth-shattering exclusive on deck.
It’s a one-two punch for local publications, and in the end, readers are the ones who get knocked out.
“So you see corruption that bubbles up out of nowhere in the lower parts of city government, and people go, ‘Wow!’” Rich said. “Well, there was a time that this wouldn’t have come out of nowhere because these issues would have been covered. And you can only keep covering corruption if there’s incremental interest before the bombshell, which has waned over the course of decades.”
Interest wanes, revenue wanes, staff wanes. It’s a downward spiral that New York City hasn’t been able to solve. And with the abrupt and almost unbelievable closure of two fixtures in local journalism, the whole problem grows a little bit more.
It’s a tough moment for the industry, because there are few lights at the end of the tunnel right now. On the hyperlocal front, there are at least a few publications that may seek to enter markets that DNAinfo and Gothamist cornered, but have now left.
“I think that there are sites that’ll fill the gap ― there are still great independent neighborhood blogs out there, and people who are really passionate and invested in their localities,” said Daniel Maurer, editor of Bedford + Bowery, a local collaboration between NYU Journalism and New York Magazine. “Now that DNAinfo has been closed we might develop more of a focus on that comprehensive coverage to fill the void, and I think other sites might feel the same way.”
But until somebody finds a revenue model that’s not grounded in advertising and subject to its whims, it’s a rough road ahead, and the gargantuan loss to local news this week paints a grim picture.
“The closures are a huge blow to the kind of news that alerts New Yorkers to impending legislation, incoming high-rises, threatened businesses while there’s still time to have a say about them,” Maurer said. “Without hyperlocal news sites surfacing and exploring the issues that arise in community board meetings and city council hearings, we’ll have much less agency in shaping the character of our city.”