The Gothamist / DNAInfo Shutdown

What Happened?

A pair of internet news/local blog sites, DNAInfo and gothamist, voted to unionize.  A week later, their owner shut them down.

Why You Care

This is a “trending topic” combining media freedom, the obligations of the rich and politics.  It pits the creatives against the capitalists.

It also builds upon the Gawker controversies… for two reasons:

  1. Gawker was the first digital media company to unionize.
  2. A year later, Gawker shut down, bankrupt after losing a Peter Thiel funded case for invading Hulk Hogan’s privacy.

Gawker’s shutdown was unrelated to unionizing, but Gothamist did purge negative articles about Ricketts when negotiating to be purchased.  Which may seem a related form of censorship.

More Details

Joe Ricketts started DNAinfo in 2009.  It was never profitable.   In March 2017, he acquired Gothamist which was running just over break-even (before unionizing.)

In April, the New York workers agreed to join the Writers Guild of America East union.  Ricketts refused to “recognize” the union,  warning that he would stop investing if it unionized.  His refusal to recognize the union necessitated the vote.

After the vote, he shuttered all sites of the company.  Despite the warnings, his workers and some of the media is stunned by this action, worrying that by shutting down the company after it unionizes, this could “chill” unionization efforts.

Who is Joe Ricketts

A billionaire who founded discount stock brokerage TD Ameritrade (he stepped down from the board in 2011) and several other businesses and…

Ricketts politics were largely non-partisan; he gave $500,000 to the Campaign for Primary Accountability super PAC, which targeted members of both parties, as well as over $1.1 Million to to the Ending Spending Fund against Congressional earmarks.

Joe Ricketts is a registered Independent, not fond of either major party.

Did Joe Ricketts support Donald Trump?

This doesn’t really seem relevant to the primary topic, but somehow is pulled into many of the media posts. So here’s the Reality Dispatch…

Joe Ricketts opposed Trump and supported Scott Walker, to the tune of $6 Million initially. Trump also threatened Ricketts… saying…

I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!
(Feb 22, 2016)

Subsequently, Ricketts gave $1 Million to the Trump PAC, Our Principles, far less than to Scott Walker’s campaign.

 Has Media Coverage Been Fair?

Fair is a matter of perspective.  The media leans pretty far left.  Many of the articles paint Joe Ricketts as a “Billionaire Trump supporter“, as an intended slur.

Some sites have been more corrosive; Concourse headlined with cusswords against Joe Ricketts, as did DeadspinBusiness Insider referred to it as a “shut down a chain of beloved local publications without warning,” despite the fact that they acknowledge the warnings in the article. Oddly, Business Insider did not refer to Ricketts as “beloved“.

The most common theme seems to be that because Ricketts is a billionaire, he has an obligation to continue the gravy train even after the writers unionized.

Was It Illegal?

Probably not. Ricketts shut down the entire business, including Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Shanghai. 116 employees were let go. But, and this is the important part… it was the entire business, not just those who voted to unionize. That matters legally. In Textile Workers Union v. Darlington Mfg. Co., 380 U.S. 263 (1965), the courts found that shutting down the entire business can be done for any reason, even an anti-union one, while closing part of it may be illegal.

Any appeal by the union would go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), whose decisions generally “tend to more closely align with the politics of the party in the White House than do the actions of most other federal agencies.”  Under a Democrat, this would likely win, while under a Republican it will almost certainly lose.

But why only a likely win under a Democrat?  Because the NLRB itself states you can shut down the entire business.  Specifically,

However, you may, for example, …

  • Choose to go out of business entirely, even if your decision to do so is motivated by antiunion considerations.

That’s pretty clear and specific.

Why Didn’t He Sell?

Media sites aren’t an easy sale, and DNAinfo was never profitable.  Plus being union makes it a harder sale.  The Washington City Paper is for sale and its fate is unclear if a buyer isn’t found. The City Paper in Baltimore just published its last paper. Patch has largely gone away. The Village Voice in New York ended its print publication. Borderstan, a hyperlocal blog, shut down last December.

Doesn’t Unionization Protect Workers?

The Huffington Post recently laid off 39 staffers represented by the Writers Guild of America East. This included David Wood, the only Huffington Post Pulitzer Prize winner, for his 2012 series on severely wounded soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A quote from the Huffington Post massacre stated, ““The company didn’t seem to be making any money; there’s no ad sales team”.


Leave a Reply