The hyperlocal news website DNAinfo shut down its newsrooms in Chicago and New York City with an abrupt announcement Thursday afternoon that caught reporters and readers off guard.
In a message posted on his media companies’ websites, CEO Joe Ricketts also said he was ceasing publication of the Gothamist culture blogs, including its sister site Chicagoist.
The news came one week after the New York staffs voted to unionize, a practice that Ricketts had previously decried as creating “a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.”
But Ricketts’ sudden unannounced decision to pull the plug on Thursday prompted one former high-level employee to complain “the way this was handled was pure, absolute trash.”
None of the outlets’ stories appeared to be archived, with links to previous DNAinfo stories redirecting to Ricketts’ note Thursday afternoon.
“I started DNAinfo in 2009 at a time when few people were investing in media companies, wrote Ricketts, the billionaire father of Cubs’ chairman Tom Ricketts. “But I believed an opportunity existed to build a successful company that would report unbiased neighborhood news and information.
“But DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” he wrote. “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.”
The Chicago neighborhood news website had published stories up until the 4 p.m. announcement. Reporters indicated the shutdown came as a shock, and “were literally filing stories when the site was abruptly shut down,” former DNAinfo Chicago deputy editor Jen Sabella wrote in a Facebook post.
“DNA offered something that Chicago truly needed and really responded to. And still needs. I have full confidence that the team here will keep telling the stories that matter to Chicagoans, no matter where they land,” Sabella wrote, adding that “the way this was handled was pure, absolute trash.”
Earlier this year, Ricketts bought Gothamist, which also had sister sites in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Unlike DNAinfo’s straight, shoe-leather news, Gothamist sites offered quirky takes on city life, from aggregated news to restaurant reviews.
A week before the shutdown, the Gothamist and DNAinfo newsrooms in New York voted to join the Writers Guild of America East, which released a statement Thursday saying “it is no secret that threats were made to these workers during the organizing drive.”
In a September post entitled “Why I’m Against Unions At Businesses I Create,” Ricketts wrote on his personal blog of his belief “that unions exert efforts that tend to destroy the Free Enterprise system.”
“I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed,” Ricketts wrote. “And that corrosive dynamic makes no sense in my mind where an entrepreneur is staking his capital on a business that is providing jobs and promoting innovation.”
According to a New York Times report, 115 reporters from the websites who are now out of a job will receive three months of paid “administrative leave” at their full salaries, along with four weeks of severance pay.
Contributing: Associated Press