NEW YORK, N.Y.—Praising local journalism and condemning union-busting, more than 300 people rallied in City Hall Park Nov. 6 to protest billionaire Joseph Ricketts shutting down the Gothamist and DNAinfo news Web sites after their reporters and editors voted to join a union. “Are we going to mourn or are we going to organize?” Writers Guild of America East executive director Lowell Peterson asked the crowd.
Ricketts who had founded DNAinfo in 2009 and bought Gothamist last March, closed the two sites Nov. 2, six days after their news staff voted 25-2 to join the Writers Guild. An outspoken opponent of labor unions, especially in his own businesses—in September, he wrote on his blog that unions are trying to “destroy the Free Enterprise system”—he claimed that DNAinfo had been losing too much money to be sustained.
“We’ve had our own experience with vindictive billionaires,” said Brendan O’Connor of Gizmodo—formerly Gawker, where staff ratified their first Writers Guild contract in February 2016, six months before it was forced to fold by a libel suit bankrolled by billionaire Peter Thiel. O’Connor thanked Ricketts, Thiel, and the expletive-deleted owner of the Village Voice “for clarifying in the minds of journalists exactly the conflict we’re in” through “an act of class warfare.”
The crowd blurred the line between reporters and participants, with many people in Writers Guild T-shirts taking notes and photos. [Disclaimer: I have written about 30 articles for Gothamist over the past five years.] It also included contingents from several other unions, including District Council 37 and the City University Professional Staff Congress. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris also spoke, and 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa condemned the injustice of “a billionaire who thinks he can deny workers the right to have a voice.”
“It’s about solidarity,” said New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez. “This isn’t just a one-day fight because it was a one-day vicious action.”
Elected officials praised the two sites’ work even when it criticized them. “Local journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said City Councilmember Donovan Richards (D-Queens)—even if the DNAinfo reporter covering his district could be “a pain in the ass.” Public Advocate Letitia James lauded the reporters “that have told the story about gentrification and affordable housing,” while several City Councilmembers congratulated their willingness to spend their nights covering community board meetings.
The Writers Guild will meet with Gothamist/DNAinfo management this week, Peterson told LaborPress. First, he said, the union wants “to have a real conversation about what is in their head,” such as why Ricketts decided to terminate the sites instead of selling them. It will also consider its legal options, such as whether it can make a viable case that the closing violated federal laws against retaliating against workers for union activity, and “continue the political pressure.”
“We were really caught flatfooted,” said DNAinfo reporter Ben Fractenburg. For him, the worst aspect of the closing was that management immediately took down the two Web sites, erasing all the articles he’d written in his professional career. (They were partially restored about 24 hours later.)
“Don’t be afraid for us,” Gothamist housing reporter Emma Whitford said. With all the support the workers have gotten, she added, “I feel the opposite of lonely.”