DNAinfo, the local-news organization owned by right-wing billionaire Joe Ricketts, announced today that it has purchased Gothamist LLC, a network of web sites covering cities from New York to Los Angeles. (In advance of the acquisition, DNAinfo laid off a slew of experienced editors and reporters.) At some point either before or after the acquisition, Jezebel has learned, Gothamist deleted critical coverage of Ricketts from its New York and Chicago sites.
The acquisition was first reported by Politico, followed by an announcement on Gothamist. The news came as a shock to DNAinfo reporters, two of whom spoke to Jezebel on the condition that their names not be used. “Nobody seems to know what’s going on,” one said. “Our editors want to give us information, but I don’t think they even know.”
Ricketts—whose family is heavily involved in politics and who dropped at least $27.5 million in political spending in 2016 alone—was an occasional subject of coverage on Gothamist and Chicagoist. Jezebel has identified at least five posts mentioning the new boss—four of them about his efforts to defeat Barack Obama—that have been deleted from from Gothamist LLC’s web sites, going back to 2010.
The cached versions for most of the stories are still accessible on the Internet Archive:
- “Billionaire Joe Ricketts Supports Anti-Obama Book, Film, Everything,” Gothamist (May 26, 2012)
- “Billionaire Cubs Owner Joe Ricketts Commissions Study To Destroy Obama,” Chicagoist (May 17, 2012)
- “DNAinfo’s Billionaire Founder Really Wants To Crush ‘Barack Hussein Obama,’” Gothamist (May 17, 2012)
- “Tom Ricketts ‘repudiates’ those race-baiting attack ad ideas that his dad allegedly commissioned,” Chicagoist (May 17, 2012)
- “Ricketts Are Against Government Borrowing, Except When They’re For It,” Chicagoist (November 16, 2010)
Chicagoist has not wiped its Ricketts coverage entirely: most of its stories on Joe Ricketts’ son Todd, who owns the Chicago Cubs, are still live.
“Just as Bloomberg doesn’t cover Bloomberg, we don’t plan to cover Joe Ricketts and so we decided to take down our coverage of him. No one asked us to do it,” Gothamist co-founder Jake Dobkin told Jezebel. “It was a decision made solely by Jen [Chung] and me.” (In fact, Bloomberg frequently covers Bloomberg.)
If the posts were scrubbed in an effort to avoid angering Ricketts, it doesn’t bode well for the editorial independence of the newly merged news organization. “As far as I know there is no formal editorial firewall,” a DNAinfo staffer told Jezebel. “But we have a crew of excellent editors, including and starting with [editor-in-chief] John Ness, down to the news editors who deal directly with reporters on stories, who would never stand for meddling from Ricketts. I think our coverage, especially in the months following the election, is a testament to our editorial independence.”
During the Republican primaries last year, the Ricketts family spent at least $5.5 million trying to stop Donald Trump from being nominated and at least $4 million supporting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
In May, the family apparently decided that was a lost cause, and Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts—son of Joe—endorsed Trump. Shortly after Trump was elected, he picked Todd Ricketts to serve as deputy secretary of commerce.
About a half hour before news of the acquisition broke, Joe Ricketts sent his employees the following memo:
Today, DNAinfo acquired Gothamist’s popular network of city news sites in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. By joining forces with Gothamist, DNAinfo will be able to do an even better job of bringing people the most relevant and interesting news and information about their neighborhoods.
The initial plan is for Gothamist to become the official blog of DNAinfo New York, handling city-wide events, viral stories, and lighter fare like food and arts coverage, while DNAinfo’s reporting staff continues to focus on neighborhood news. In similar fashion, Gothamist’s sister site, Chicagoist, will become the official blog of DNAinfo Chicago. At the same time, all the Gothamist sites—including LAist in Los Angeles, SFist in San Francisco, and DCist in Washington, DC— will maintain their existing URLs, integrating relevant content from DNAinfo. Gothamist’s current executive editor and co-founder Jen Chung will become vice president of New York editorial for DNAinfo, overseeing content for both DNAinfo New York and Gothamist, while Gothamist publisher and co-founder Jake Dobkin will be named DNAinfo’s vice president for strategy and expansion. Both will report to Dan Swartz, who has been promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer of DNAinfo.
Please join me in welcoming Jake, Jen, and the rest of the Gothamist team, and in congratulating Dan Swartz on his promotion.
Ricketts doesn’t grant interviews, and he did not respond to a request for comment from Jezebel. He did, however, provide a statement to Politico, saying of Gothamist: “Their experience in developing multiple city blogs fits right in with our vision for future expansion. We think the result will be the most potent online source of neighborhood news and information available anywhere.”
If you have any information about the situation at Gothamist and DNAinfo or about the Ricketts family, please get in touch.
Update, 3:45 pm – Dobkin responded to a follow-up question from Jezebel about when they deleted the Ricketts posts: “Jen and I made the decision when our discussions with Mr. Ricketts were starting to get more serious; about a month ago.”