Was Gothamist Ever in Exile?

A week after the editorial staff of DNAinfo and Gothamist voted to join the Writers Guild of America East, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of the websites, discontinued all online publishing activities ending a long run of two popular local news and commentary digital-only platforms.

When the decision was announced inside the combined DNAinfo and Gothamist newsroom, shock and confusion quickly settled in. According to The New York Times, one of the reporters, David Colon, shouted at the lawyer who was making the announcement on behalf of the management. At the same time Chris Robbins, Gothamist city editor, tweeted “I just walked back from the bathroom to find out that everyone at @Gothamist and @DNAinfoNY has been laid off.”

As the newly unemployed staffers began licking their wounds and thinking about their next move, some began plotting a wild and futile scheme to fight back.

Within 24 hours a renegade website under the name Gothamist in Exile began publishing articles with the tagline “seizing the means of production,” a socialist motto in resistance to Ricketts’ decision to close shop instead of allowing the unionization of his newsroom.

Externally, Gothamist in Exile seems to be a protest publication run by former editorial staffers and in response to management’s decision to halt publications — A bold move to try to continue reporting and producing the same quality articles for free in dissent of their former tycoon boss.

However, the exile website was the brainchild of JB Nicholas, a freelance journalist and a contributor to Gothamist, and Vlad Teichberg, a former derivatives trader turned activist with a background in coding. Nicholas and Teichberg posted a statement of their own in an attempt to garner widespread support. Their intention was to join forces to create an idealistic publishing utopia by the people and for the people.

In 2011 Teichberg led a group of tech savvy media activists to set up a network of live-streaming videos from Zuccotti Park propelling the Occupy Wall Street movement into the national spotlight. Nicholas’ last article for the Gothamist, an expose about the New York state prisons, was published on the same day as Ricketts’ announcement and remains on the site’s homepage today.

Adapting the same approach as the Occupy Wall Street media team, they intended to use technology to respond to what they saw was an injustice by a conservative industrialist. Nicholas and Teichberg took the DNAinfo and Gothamist brand and its icon, and redirected it against its union busting owner.

What was missing from the the exile endeavor were former staffers. Some freelancers expressed interest in the insurgent publication while a few others had already begun contributing.

However, none of the former writers and editors contacted had any nice comments to say about Gothamist in Exile nor did they want to go on the record about it. “I just don’t want to give this site any oxygen,” said one anonymous editor, expressing his anger over the website’s exploitive name and its reporting quality.

The fact was that the former staffers still had to negotiate severance packages with the management. Some worried that the exile site might complicate the proceedings.

Robbins displayed his displeasure of the exile website with a tweet stating the lack of association by former Gothamist’s staffers. Hundreds of people including John Del Signore, former editor in chief at Gothamist, retweeted it and liked the tweet.

Seven days after launching the Gothamist in Exile, an embattled Nicholas resigned from the project, but took no responsibility for his former partner and Teichberg’s future plans. “While these cry-babies were …, worried about securing severance payouts from the oligarch who just fucked them, Vlad and I fought back, and went right to work that night to keep reliable local news flowing to all New Yorkers” says Nicholas. Blaming the site’s downfall on sabotage and public opposition by former staffers an exasperated Nicholas continues, “They were invited to participate from day-one. Instead, they decided to piss on a project that could have benefited everyone.”

Neither Nicholas nor Teichberg foresaw the obstacles that were facing newly unemployed staffers. Aside from losing their jobs and bargaining for severance packages, former editors and reporters had to agonize over losing all of their work, which only existed in cyberspace. On the day of the announcement, Ricketts had literally pulled the plug on the site’s servers. Every digital bit seemed wiped out except Ricketts announcement letter.

Later the archive of DNAinfo and Gothamist came back online. Poynter reported that Ben Welsh, a data editor at the Los Angeles Times, created Save My News, a site that helps former reporters find their digital clippings. The Washingtonian magazine lamented over the loss of their archives in an article titled “... it was a digital book burning”, none of which were a concern for Teichberg and Nicholas.

Concurrently to these events a curious GoFundMe page appeared to be crowdfunding under the same “exile” banner for the former employees. The fundraiser is set up by Victor San Andrés, who works at a rental prop shop in Long Island City, Queens. Over the phone, San Andrés explained that he wanted to help raise $10,000 for DNAinfo and Gothmist’s unemployed staffers. When pressed about how he had planned to distribute the funds, San Andrés who has no experience in raising funds conceded that he wasn’t sure. “I haven’t really thought about it …” explains San Andrés. With no connection to the industry or any association to individuals in the newsroom or the Gothamist in Exile project, his motivation seems questionable.

With Gothamist in Exile now on it’s own exile, it is clear that Nicholas and Teichberg did not orchestrate this project thoroughly. They clearly did not have the blessings of those directly involved. They speculated that their project would be a radical experiment in crowd-sourced news gathering, and funded in the same fashion by donations. They envisioned a council of stakeholders as publishers, whose collective voices will shape the editorial content of Gothamist in Exile. This leaderless concept has it’s root in the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps influenced by Teichberg’s background. While it was an idealistic concept it has led to it’s downfall. The Gothamist in Exile published it’s last article on the same day that Nicholas resigned.