The News Business Was Always Run By Rotten Bastards

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst walk into a bar.

In hell, of course. What kind of story do you think this is?

Pulitzer and Hearst walk into a bar in hell and order the finest whiskey they have, and proceed to get gloriously, exuberantly, luxuriously shitfaced. Like, undergraduate drunk, the kind of drunk where you not only make out with a co-worker but declare your undying love.

Stumbling back to the cave where they dwell together in torment, they pass a pay phone and, giggling, ask the operator to ring up Joe Ricketts. They leave him a one-word voicemail:



It is worth being clear about exactly what happened here, so that no one gets too smug. DNAinfo was never profitable, but Mr. Ricketts was happy to invest in it for eight years, praising its work all along. Gothamist, on the other hand, was profitable, and a fairly recent addition to the company. One week after the New York team unionized, Mr. Ricketts shut it all down. He did not try to sell the company to someone else. Instead of bargaining with 27 unionized employees in New York City, he chose to lay off 115 people across America. And, as a final thumb in the eye, he initially pulled the entire site’s archives down (they are now back up), so his newly unemployed workers lost access to their published work. Then, presumably, he went to bed in his $29 million apartment.

News of the shutdowns spread across Chicago Twitter, where Chicagoist and DNAinfo are beloved, in part because they covered urban communities and stories often overlooked by downtown/TV media focused on the suburbs. And we all read a lot of this:

Which approaches, but doesn’t explicitly state, a structural problem. For years we’ve been hearing about how journalism needs a new revenue stream. It doesn’t need a new revenue stream, it needs a whole new ecosystem.

You all reading here know that subscriptions have never paid for news. And back when ads paid for media companies, that money rarely, if ever, made it to the city desk, even before the dastardly internet came along.

Smug business analysts like to chide journalists for not understanding how to run a business, but you tell this clueless journalist something: If you enjoy double-digit profit margins and times of plenty the likes of which even Wal-Mart can only dream, why would you not bank some of that cash in case (I know this is far-fetched) the good times don’t last forever?

Okay, you’re not in the money-warehousing business. Why would you not invest it in marketing your product, expanding and then solidifying your distribution network, shoring up your customer base, rewarding brand loyalty?

(I’m not even bothering to suggest you reward your employees. That’s just crazytalk.)

Why would you, instead and in order: blow all the money you’re not actively stealing on multiple levels of corporate functionaries doing “branding studies,” invest your profits in things that have nothing to do with your core business, weaken your product with acquisitions and load your company up with debt? Why would you make your product worse and shit on customers who object?

All the subscription money in the world, all the new revenue streams in the world, don’t matter if the money goes into the same contaminated sewage plant.

You give a guy like Joe Ricketts a profitable enterprise, he will find a way to fuck it up.You give a guy like Joe Ricketts an unprofitable enterprise that serves the public good, he will find a way to fuck it up. We’re letting the wrong people run this.

There are a lot of models out there that can work, subscription revenue or no. Nonprofit, employee ownership, co-ops, etc. These have existed for years before corporate owners got involved. There are people out there who keep saying they want democracy to live in the light instead of dying in darkness.

Time for them to put their money where their small-d democratic mouths are.