SFist network shut down by anti-union billionaire owner

Retaliation for union vote shuts down entire Gothamist and DNAinfo networks: 115 writers and editors out of jobs

Visitors to local news aggregator and commentary site SFist were stunned today to find all of its content and archives replaced by a simply worded note from billionaire CEO and owner Joe Ricketts, announcing that parent networks DNAinfo and Gothamist were ceasing publication immediately.

Ricketts, a noted political conservative who founded TD Ameritrade, bought the Gothamist network — which controls SFist, LAist, and others — in March under the auspices of his DNAinfo media company, causing wary rumblings on the local scene. How would the new owner’s conservative activism square with the voices of the -Ist sites, media wonks wondered, especially since there was already evidence of censorship as the deal went through.   

We finally have a definitive answer, although SFist’s demise owes less to its wide-ranging curiosity, diverse voice, and political commentary than to that billionaire bugbear of old: unionization.

The battle of billionaire vs. journos had been brewing for months. Editorial employees of Gothamist in New York had announced their decision to unionize right before the sale. According to the New York Times:

“When the DNAinfo and Gothamist New York newsrooms first moved to join the union in the spring, management warned that there might be dire consequences.

DNAinfo’s chief operating officer sent the staff an email wondering if a union might be “the final straw that caused the business to close.” Around the same time, Mr. Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, wrote bluntly, “As long as it’s my money that’s paying for everything, I intend to be the one making the decisions about the direction of the business.”

Just last week, reporters and editors of Gothamist voted to officially join the Writers Guild of America East, after a monthslong struggle with Ricketts, who refused to recognize the union, that ended up involving the National Labor Relations Board. (Ricketts supported Trump in the election and recently written a vociferously anti-union screed on his blog.)

That was a final straw for Ricketts, who was losing a reported $200,000 a month on the sites — despite attracting 9 million users per month — and who, like many moguls, had been unable to make an solely online advertisement-driven media model profitable. 

“The decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful,” said a DNAinfo spokesperson regarding the decision to shut down the sites and terminate 115 employeees, according to the Times. (The employees are receiving three months’ administrative leave pay and one month severance.)

Eve Batey, SFist founder and current writer for the site, referenced the original Gothamist founders in a statement to 48 Hills: “Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin built an amazing network of sites, and they changed countless lives and brought truth to power for 15 years — an eternity in the online publishing world. I’m privileged to have been part of that for so long. When they allowed Rita Hao, Jackson West, and me to start SFist in 2004, none of us knew what we were getting into. It’s been a wild, wonderful ride, and while I’m sad today at how things appear to have ended, I’m still happy that for so long it was such a big part of, I hope, so many of our lives.”

There’s much to be said here about the influence of billionaires on the media, the drive against unions that is keeping wages unlivably low for those who perform the necessary work, and the sheer cruelty of erasing years’ worth of work. There’s also much to be said about the importance of supporting local, independent media so that billionaire meddling can be avoided and a healthy environment can grow for writers to develop and thrive without constant fear of fiduciary retaliation.

But for now we mourn SFist and feel for our talented friends who are now out of a job.     

  • Do Something Nice

    This is one reason that I believe that twitter should be a government owned entity.

    • hailfromsf

      There’s nothing’s stopping our government from making its own social media website.

      • Do Something Nice

        lol! Yeah, twitter would just bend over. I’m sure their investors would spend millions to lobby to create a bullshit law preventing government entities from doing this.

        • hailfromsf

          Yeah. It worked for Intuit.

  • Tony

    Losing @200K per month is not a good business model…

    • Do Something Nice

      He just bought this ‘business’ in March, and shuttered them in November.

      As these were mostly progressive sites, my guess is that closing them down was his intention all along.

      • curiousKulak

        Losing $200k a month? … I’ll bet he saw a sure winner of a business opportunity!?! … maybe – IF it was his baby … but not if others are going to try to seize control.

        Wonder how much he paid for it?

        Maybe Tom Streyer would like a mouthpiece.

        • Do Something Nice

          Well, I’m sure there’s more than meets the eye. First, Ricketts isn’t an idiot, so I doubt he bought something that was losing so much money and I’m pretty sure they didn’t just start losing money. And they may not be losing money at all – he could be lying about that.

          And If what I read is correct, only the New York workers voted to unionize.

          He did have all the negative stories about him scrubbed just after he bought it, so maybe that was his motivation.

        • spencer_e9876

          “Losing $200k a month?”

          You’re assuming he’s telling the truth about that. I don’t believe for a second that he is.

  • Y.

    How’s Hoodline doing?

    • Rosh HoshHosh

      That’s what happens when you sell out. Dobkin sold out, plain and simple. Dudley too – hoodline is cooked.

  • bluepearlgirl

    So sad to see the SFist go. I guess i can understand the business model and want for control of one’s own company but i also know that some really great writing came out of that little local blog. It is one of 3 that i read religiously and will be somewhat lost without it. It is also a shame that all the past articles are not archived for us to at least reference back to. Hopefully the talented staff will go on and start something new by themselves if it is possible and all of that talent wont have to scatter to the wind. Best of luck and thank you for your years of good reading SFist. (so sad no more apartment sadness!)

  • Porfirio666

    Bruce Brugmann fired the staff at the SF Bay Guardian when it tried to unionize, and Bruce did just fine with scabs. “Publisher Bruce Brugmann claimed there were not enough funds to increase pay or benefits. The day after Thanksgiving, he fired five senior staffers who had helped organize the union effort.”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Bay_Guardian

  • Deff Valtez

    Here’s Mr. Rickett’s opinions on unions: http://blog.joericketts.com/?p=557

  • BRCitizen (Greg)

    Frankly the site stopped being worthy of reading since they imposed a fascistic level of censorship on the comment section. For many sites, comment sections are better than the sites themselves. I often learn more from the comments than from the articles. Comment sections create community.

    I used to tune in once in a while, until I found myself banned after raining on their Kamala Harris lovefest by posting a little history lesson of how she got her start in politics. The editors didn’t like that, so they banned me. No recourse.

    In time, it became clear I wasn’t the only one. I heard stories of others being banned, and when I checked in at one point later, the comment section had been eviscerated -a once vibrant forum reduced to almost nothing.

    While all of them losing their jobs is a little bit beyond karmic justice for the editors being little dictators, it’s hard for me to shed tears for them just the same.

    And while anti-union billionaires are certainly bad, no doubt about that, who sold it to an anti-union billionaire in the first place?

    • Porfirio666

      “Frankly the site stopped being worthy of reading since they imposed a fascistic level of censorship on the comment section.”
      –Yes, I noticed that too. I was banned long ago for some reason.