Gothamist was a business model based on taking advantage of writers, we should move past it, not resurrect it
Last autumn, Gothamist and its sibling sites like LAist and Chicagoist were shut down by their owner, Joe Ricketts after the writers unionized. It was personal for me, because a lot of my writing is on that site. For over a year I was the Chicagoist Food & Drink Editor. At the time I was an outsider in the world of professional writing. And so I had no idea that when I took the “job” it was a mistake.
To say that the Ist publications took advantage of people was an understatement. At the time the journalism world was struggling, these sites made their bucks from underpaying or simply not paying naive or desparate writers. I was firmly in the former category. I was by profession a software developer, and this was my “side hustle.”
I had very little guidance and made a lot of mistakes. But here’s the deal. I was paid $500 a month for publishing 1–3 articles A DAY on weekdays. Some of these articles I wrote, some other writers did. We paid maybe 10% of the writers in my department. Otherwise I would try to reimburse them on expenses (the budget for that was $200 a month). You can dismiss us as foolish, but a lot of people still wanted to write for the site. It was a business model based on taking advantage of people, I just had to learn about it the hard way. I feel much remorse for being part of recruiting writers to write for free and sometimes convincing them that it was worth it.
There were a few full time salaried employees who were also pretty underpaid. The only people who seemed to make money off this were the owners — Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin. The business model was clearly to pay as little as possible for content and then rake in money from ads on it.
And weirdly while Joe Ricketts has been cast as a villain, everyone seems to have forgotten that Chung and Dobkin opposed the union too.
Not to say everything about the experience was bad. I met a lot of great people and learned a lot. But Gothamist was always at its heart a parasite taking advantage of an industry on the downswing. A time and place where writing was so devalued that people were desperate to write for free.
Chung and Dobkin ran a pretty amazing hustle. They cashed out to sell to Ricketts and opposed the union alongside him. Now they are getting their jobs back thanks to WNYC.
Even more galling, they now have a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to restart the site. Please, if you give money to upstart publications, give it to those run by writers like Block Club Chicago. Do not shovel more money into the pockets of these grifters.
It’s time to move beyond a business model that Gothamist was built on, not resurrect it.