Local News

‘This wasn’t The New York Times, but for me it was a dream job’

November 3, 2017
Image via Maxpixel

Three hours earlier, Noah Hurowitz, a reporter covering the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn for the local news site DNAinfo, was stationed at the borough’s Supreme Court, awaiting a verdict in the case of NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs’s murder trial. Now, standing on the sidewalk outside a Lower East Side bar on Thursday night, balancing a toddler (not his own) on his right arm, Hurowitz is already talking about his newsroom in the past tense.

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“Nobody covers the city like we did. Everyone else has cut back. We would go to community board meetings, community council meetings,” he says. “Honestly, I worry about the newspapers in New York, because I don’t know where they’re going to steal their stories from anymore. We went to everything, and it was boring sometimes, but we fucking got good shit.”

At 5 pm, as Hurowitz (also a CJR contributor) sat in the Brooklyn courthouse and his colleagues reported across various corners of New York City, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of DNAinfo and Gothamist, published a letter announcing he was shutting down the operation, throwing 115 people out of work.

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Dozens of now-former staffers, who just one week ago voted to unionize, have since gathered with other members of the New York journalism tribe at The Magician, a bar on Rivington and Essex, to hold something of an Irish wake for two news sites that helped define the city in the digital age.

Hurowitz, framed by one of The Magician’s Venetian-blinded front windows, hands off the child and considers the impact of Ricketts’s decision. “For DNAinfo to go away, it’s going to leave a giant hole. I can’t speak for the larger news environment, but for New York City, it’s going to be disastrous,” he says. “All of these fucking city council people who, god bless them, are going to get away with whatever they want. We kept them honest, man.”

We didn’t always get the glory, but it made a difference to the people who came to us. And that’s gone. I don’t know if anything is going to replace it.

Dressed in black head-to-toe, Hurowitz’s voice rises as he catalogues his work at DNAinfo. “Who’s gonna report the story about the unlicensed summer camp in Bed-Stuy?” he asks, rhetorically. “Who’s gonna report the story about the GoFundMe scam where some faker invented an elderly woman? I spent a month combing through eviction records and making spreadsheets of property records, and I nailed her. It may be small potatoes, but it means something to the people who she scammed. And it means something to the parents who sent their kids to a slickly marketed illegal summer camp run by a psycho. Who’s gonna shut that shit down now? We didn’t always get the glory, but it made a difference to the people who came to us. And that’s gone. I don’t know if anything is going to replace it.”

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Inside the bar, standing room is scarce as dozens of Horowitz’s colleagues from DNAinfo and around the New York journalism community jostle for space. Sam Corbin, a writer for BuzzFeed, carefully opens a box of Peter Pan donuts while Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” bellows from the jukebox. In the back room, two discarded pizza boxes from a nearby restaurant lay stacked on a table. Just before 10 pm, a rack of tequila shots is placed on the bar and quickly disappears.

Looking around the room at dozens of journalists, most in their 20s and 30s, lamenting the end of an era, DNAinfo general assignment reporter Ben Fractenberg reflects on the turnout. “It’s cathartic to see support from other journalists,” he says. “We’ll land on our feet, but people who rely on us in New York, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, DC are losing out.”

“It’s devastating,” says Fractenberg’s colleague Maya Rajamani, who covered Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. “This wasn’t The New York Times, but for me it was a dream job. What we were doing was so important. It’s a huge loss for New York City.”

In a time of cutbacks at legacy new outlets, DNAinfo provided on-the-ground coverage of neighborhoods often overlooked by the city’s daily papers. Ricketts founded the outlet in 2009, later expanding its coverage to other cities before purchasing Gothamist in March. As journalists and editors discussed plans to unionize, Ricketts wrote on his blog that he opposed the move. “I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed,” he wrote in September.

Much of the conversation rippling throughout The Magician is devoted to castigating Ricketts, who founded TD Ameritrade and is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. A spokesperson for DNAinfo told The New York Times the union vote was only part of the reason Ricketts decided to close up shop, but that “the decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful.”

On Thursday night, few staffers are buying the financial defense, and those involved in the unionization effort say they don’t regret their decision. “This fight is bigger than we are,” Fractenberg says. “It’s about the way news is done. To have a free press, journalists must be organized, which helps keep powerful people in check across the country. That’s why we did this. Our intent was to fill a gap in local coverage. If [Ricketts’s] goal is to revive local reporting, he would have bargained in good faith.”

In addition to anger at Ricketts’s decision, DNAinfo and Gothamist staffers expressed outrage at the way the owner chose to pull the plug. Katie Honan, who covered Corona, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens for DNAinfo, had the day off. Curious whether a story she had recently filed had posted, she pulled up DNAinfo’s homepage, where she saw Ricketts’s message. “It really was a punch in the stomach,” she says.

Outside on Rivington Street, James White, a bearded Web developer and content manager for The Baffler, turns to a friend. “This is a good funeral,” he says. “One of the best I’ve seen.” Behind him, a group of DNAinfo staffers stand taking a cigarette break. “Fuck Joe Ricketts,” a supporter offers from the sidewalk. “Fuck Joe Ricketts!” the DNAinfo journalists reply, in unison.

Karen K. Ho contributed reporting to this article

Editor’s note: The description of chants outside the bar in this story has been updated.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.