On the Closing of Gothamist
We’re all fucked.
If Gothamist — one the leading regional digital publications in the world — can’t make it, how can any of us in digital media expect to survive?
Gothamist was losing money. Joe Ricketts, the company’s CEO who acquired the New York area site earlier this year, claimed that its employees’ vote to unionize would’ve caused it to lose even more money. The scary thing is that he’s probably correct.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, Ricketts is a piece of shit. His decision to scrub the web clean of Gothamist and DNA Info’s archives was nothing but vindictive, and robbed not only millions of readers of very, very valuable content that could’ve been useful for decades to come, but stole away the sites’ writers chances of using those pieces to get new work.
But, contrary to the way I’ve seen it reported elsewhere, it is possible for both things to be true at the same time: Ricketts is a piece of shit AND he’s not wrong that the vote to unionize would’ve made a bad financial situation worse.
I support unions. My grandfather was a union organizer who had McCarthy’s agents come to his door in search of communist propaganda. He hid all his books in the attic and then kept right on doing what he was doing.
But the news of Gothamist’s demise forces all of us — owners of digital media and our writers, as well as all of you, the readers — to take a good, hard look at the economic reality of this business. Digital media simply may not be sustainable at that level. And that’s really, really fucking frightening.
The reason why is pretty simple: changes in the landscape of advertising, the source of 100% (or close) of any publication’s revenue. No longer is it possible to demand exorbitant fees for advertising the way print publications did for decades. Whereas the success of print advertising wasn’t quantifiable and was based largely on brand awareness, image and prestige, advertising in the digital age is a race to the bottom based on razor-thin ROI. Everything is quantifiable, and data-conscious advertisers are not quick to part with their money if they’re not pleased with what they are (or aren’t) getting back for it. These days, humans have been taken largely out of the equation; many of the ads you see on this website are displayed to you via an automatic bidding process that happens in real time based on your specific demographic information. This is not inherently a bad thing — it is what it is. But the result is less income. And with less income comes either less content or lower quality content.
I recently had a wonderful experience with Gothamist. I contacted the site’s general news tip email address to inform them of a significant event with a business in my family. Within half an hour they’d responded, and they sent a photographer and reporter down THAT SAME DAY for coverage. I was incredibly impressed with their organization’s nimbleness and “on it”-ness. How fantastic that a small(ish) organization that started right here in New York City by a former teacher at the high school I attended had grown into such a juggernaut!
Now I know it was a sham; they were losing money the whole time. When I learned the news yesterday I was just gutted.
To say nothing of the loss of quality regional reporting. Who else is going to report on localized neighborhood issues? Or corrupt — very corrupt — state and local politicians? Our regional journalists keep them in check, and they’ll be sorely missed. The national papers certainly don’t give a shit.
What I’m saying is this: the kind of detailed, deep-dive journalism that Gothamist and DNA Info offered — and people often demand this site offers — simply isn’t sustainable on digital advertising budgets. That’s why you end up with Top 25 lists and articles about dumb shit the idiot from Five Finger Death Punch said. Sure, we occasionally publish longer pieces (like this one), but there’s a reason you don’t see magazine-style articles here featuring quotes from multiple artists and glossy, pro-shot original photos: that shit is expensive to create! We simply don’t have the money. And don’t make a “chicken or the egg” argument — others have tried, and so have we. Yes, there are many, many other great sites out there doing a wonderful job of covering metal, but they’re often run by hobbyists who don’t have the time or resources to dive deep, either.
I ultimately believe that someone or some organization is going to purchase Gothamist and resurrect the site. I think that’ll happen soon; talks may already be in the works. The brand is so, so strong, and much smaller publications in more niche industries have been rescued from the dead.
But whatever happens, yesterday’s news was a harsh reality check. Digital media is a tough game. Those of us who are lucky enough to call it our jobs are just that: really fucking lucky.
And you, the readers, are lucky, too: be glad you have any metal media at all, because it’s a very real possibility that soon you will not.
Dear DNAinfo and Gothamist Readers:
Today, I’ve made the difficult decision to discontinue publishing DNAinfo and Gothamist. Reaching this decision wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t one I made lightly.
I started DNAinfo in 2009 at a time when few people were investing in media companies. But I believed an opportunity existed to build a successful company that would report unbiased neighborhood news and information. These were stories that weren’t getting told, and because I believe people care deeply about the things that happen where they live and work, I thought we could build a large and loyal audience that advertisers would want to reach.
A lot of what I believed would happen did, but not all of it. Today, DNAinfo and Gothamist deliver news and information each day to over half a million people’s email inboxes; we have over 2 million fans across our social channels; and each month, we have over 15 million visits to our sites by over 9 million people. But more important than large numbers of visits and fans, we’ve reported tens of thousands of stories that have informed, impacted, and inspired millions of people. And in the process, I believe we’ve left the world a better place.
But DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure. And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded. I want to thank our readers for their support and loyalty through the years. And I want to thank our employees for their tireless effort and dedication.
I’m hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling for I believe telling those stories remains essential.
Chief Executive Officer