Donald Trump’s gift, or at least the gift he thinks he has, is his ability to deflect people from the truth. Sure, there’s an investigation going on into whether or not he colluded with the Russians to get elected, but have you seen the African-American NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem? Yes, questions are mounting about his cratering poll numbers and ability to govern, but did you hear the latest rumor about Crooked Hillary?
That kind of obfuscation requires a free and dedicated press to hunt down the truth and get to the heart of the matter. It’s also the main reason Trump spends most of his time on Twitter trying to undermine national news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. That, in turn, has put a lot of attention on major news organizations and the need to keep them financially healthy and independent. So that they can do the hard work of keeping things in check. As such, interest in the well-being of large media companies is the highest they’ve probably been since the Watergate scandal.
Wow, so many Fake News stories today. No matter what I do or say, they will not write or speak truth. The Fake News Media is out of control!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2017
However, in another way, that’s just another form of deflection from the problem simmering down below the office towers and rooftop satellite dishes those national news organizations are perched. While all our attention is on making sure the Washington Post and NBC can do their jobs effectively for the nation, the local battles are all being lost. And that might end up hurting us even more.
On Thursday, Joe Ricketts, CEO and billionaire owner of DNAInfo, abruptly shut down the eight-year-old news organization. That includes the recently acquired Gothamist and its sister sites (SFist, LAist, DCist, Chicagoist), a 14-year-old network of hyperlocal online news outlets. According to his announcement, Ricketts said that the network received “15 million visits to our sites by over 9 million people” every month. However, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the New York newsroom of DNAinfo and Gothamist voted to unionize and join the Writers Guild of America East last week. Less than a week later, the sites have been shuttered and the archives removed from the internet (a spokesperson told reporters that they will be preserving and archiving all DNAinfo and Gothamist stories).
Not only was this a shocking display of coldheartedness by a billionaire owner who probably didn’t become a billionaire by being a nice person, but it also means that a news source which millions of people in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere count on to keep them up to speed on what’s happening in their neighborhoods and city is now gone without any sign that it will be replaced or replicated anytime soon.
Maybe it sounds silly, but while we have hundreds of news organizations at the ready to dissect anything and everything Donald Trump does, the number of journalists committed to reporting on the events of a local city council meeting, the shuttering of a longtime business down the block, or the passing of a valued community member is dwindling down towards zero. As companies like DNAInfo disappear or get gobbled up by conglomerates, local readers miss out on the chance to understand street-level news in their community, and that’s where all of our problems really start.
While it could be hard to muster sympathy for Gawker at times, it’s clear that their disappearance has left a gap that no one has been able to fill. The site and network were wiped out when a different billionaire used an unrelated lawsuit to get payback over the way that media company has painted him. Thanks to that, a serious check and balance on certain sectors just below the surface had one less watchdog to worry about. It also seemed to set a new tone that if you don’t like said watchdog, just get a rich person (or be a rich person) willing to dole out enough cash to put it down.
[Gawker shut down]
sounds nice but
[DNAinfo shut down]
it would cost jobs
[Gothamist shut down]
— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) November 2, 2017
Of course, if you can’t beat them, you can also just buy them. Ricketts bought the Gothamist sites in March and immediately after doing so they scrubbed a collection of defamatory posts about him. Most of the posts had to do with Ricketts’ apparent distaste for Barack Obama. At the time, Gothamist co-founder Jake Dobkin said, “just as Bloomberg doesn’t cover Bloomberg, we don’t plan to cover Joe Ricketts and so we decided to take down our coverage of him.” As Jezebel noted at the time, Bloomberg covers Bloomberg all the time. While purchasing the network of news sites might have made sense to pair with DNAInfo, there was clearly an added benefit for Ricketts in owning an outlet that would have called attention to his less savory details. He killed two bird with one stone, and now he’s killed the stone.
It’s reminiscent of what another billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, did when he bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Just like that, the most powerful person in Las Vegas knew he’d never get racked over the coals by the only news outlet that would put any time or energy into doing so.
Gothamist, Gawker, Village Voice, DNA Info, all gone within a year…. they’re trying to end independent media, and it’s working.
— Max RN (@MaxRivlinNadler) November 2, 2017
The unfortunate truth is that most of the time you don’t even need billionaires to wipe out local journalism. The Seattle Weekly, which had operated as an alternative news source for the region for decades, recently announced that it would become a glorified community newspaper lacking any kind of investigative bite. Across the country, the Village Voice stopped producing free print versions earlier this year. The money just isn’t there and it’s much harder for a small media company to react to changing technologies than a corporation that can weather the storm and invest millions in catching up with consumers.
One of the dumbest things we collectively did on the internet was deciding in the beginning that everything should be free. That de facto requirement set news organizations back decades in their ability to generate income online. You wouldn’t dare steal a newspaper from the store, but for years no one considered for a second that they should pay for the same content they read online. When the shift really started to happen, the dominoes were already falling. Local and small media companies could either go out of business, let a bigger fish buy them out, or try their damndest to weather the storm for as long as they could. A few succeeded, most didn’t.
In their wake, companies like DNAInfo, backed by a billionaire, at least gave local journalism a chance. But in the end, when a billionaire decided to pull the plug, the plug gets pulled. Daring to ask for fair wages and employment terms were apparently enough for the pull to happen.
It might be hard to understand what a loss this will be for millions of readers in Chicago and New York. DNAInfo and Gothamist were indelible resources of daily news. Some of what they reported was “important” while some of it was important to only a handful of people. But it was wondering to have the option and, unfortunately, it looks like we took it for granted.
On Twitter, one person reacted to the news by saying that it was “time for kind billionaires to step up and fund local journalism.” The problem with that sentiment is that most billionaires don’t become billionaires by being kind. Regardless, that’s the misdirect. Instead of looking for benevolent billionaires to rescue our important resources, we should be looking to one another. Clearly, if this moment in time has taught us anything, it’s that billionaires are not going to save us.
In the end, we’re probably on our own — us non-billionaires — when it comes to finding ways to stay informed on what’s happening around us. From understanding the zoning laws that will change our neighborhood irrevocably to figuring out what the hell that strange noise was last night that woke us up and everything in between. Figuring out how to do that as our indelible news organizations disappear might be too much to ask. And it might be too late anyway.