Union vote doomed money-losing DNAinfo

Joe Ricketts

A vote last week by newsroom employees in New York to unionize was a factor in the decision by Joe Ricketts to shut down the digital news sites DNAinfo Chicago and Chicagoist, the company acknowledged Thursday.

A reported 115 journalists in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington suddenly found themselves out of work after the closing of DNAinfo and its affiliated sites by Ricketts, the company’s billionaire founder and CEO.

“The decision by the New York editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful,” said a spokesperson for DNAinfo. “While DNAinfo has made progress toward profitability, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to continue the business.”

DNAinfo Chicago

Ricketts, patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, has been losing money on DNAinfo since he founded the hyperlocal digital news service in New York in 2009 and expanded it to Chicago in 2012. He added Chicagoist in March.

By all accounts he bitterly opposed the unionizing effort in New York. “Mr. Ricketts has never taken a dime out of the business,” read an internal email meant to discourage employees from organizing, published by the New York Daily News in April. “At some point, the business needs to be profitable or the investor calls it quits.”

Publication of all sites was suspended immediately, but the business will officially close in 90 days. Employees feared that their stories were no longer accessible when DNAinfo and Chicagoist were redirected to the farewell letter by Ricketts. But all is not lost.

“DNAinfo will be preserving and archiving all DNAinfo and Gothamist [and Chicagoist] stories,” the spokesperson said. “The details of that are among the issues the company will address in the coming weeks.”

On blogs and social media posts, journalists and readers reacted with a mixture of anger and sadness over the sudden demise of the sites. “The way this was handled was pure, absolute trash,” Jen Sabella, who resigned last week as deputy editor and director of social media at DNAinfo, wrote in a Facebook post.

The board of the Chicago Headline Club released a statement calling the action “terrible news for journalism, Chicago and democracy at large.”

Here is the text of the organization’s statement:

The Chicago Headline Club is heartbroken to learn that DNAinfo Chicago and Chicagoist have shut down today. Their departure is terrible news for journalism, Chicago and democracy at large.

The two publications — along with their sibling outlets in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles — have been an incredibly valuable source of news and information, providing a vital look at the cities we live in.

During DNAinfo’s five-year history in Chicago, its staff and reporters have won more than a dozen of the Headline Club’s Peter Lisagor Awards. Chicagoist’s pithy and incisive coverage of news and culture has captured the city’s collective id better than many other outlets in the city.

Their disappearance leaves a huge hole in the local and national media fabric that will be hard to refill.

The Headline Club stands ready to help the reporters affected. Our website, headlineclub.org, offers a Chicago-centric list of media jobs through JobFile. Our Watchdog Fund can also compensate journalists for costs related to the reporting of an investigative story.

We’ll also waive registration fees for any employee of DNAinfo or Chicagoist who wants to attend any of our educational programs, like FOIAFest, through the end of 2018. Email programming@headlineclub.org to sign up.

Our hearts go out to the hard-working journalists and the readers who depended on them. Stay strong.

The Chicago Headline Club Board

Thursday’s best comment: Michael Gay: Very sad news. These were good informative sites. Based on the news out of New York, it's obvious the Trump backer-owner cares more about denying his employees a voice, than providing them with good paying jobs and a sucessful business for all concerned. Good luck to all the employees given their walking papers today out of the blue, as we enter into the holiday season. Really stinks. What a shame.