An Elegy for DNAinfo, Local Media’s First Responders

We were the watchdogs, showing up when no one else did.

DNAinfo reporter Ben Fractenberg speaks to writers, journalists, and labor activists at a protest at City Hall. The site was shut down a week after its employees voted to unionize. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Danielle Tcholakian

If you haven’t already read about it, on the afternoon of November 2, DNAinfo New York and Chicago, as well as Gothamist and all its sister sites in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. were shut down by their owner, billionaire Joe Ricketts, a week after 25 employees in New York voted to join a union. Ricketts had founded DNAinfo in 2009, merging it with the older, more profitable Gothamist sites this spring, shedding staff and catalyzing the union effort.

The end came quickly. One employee returned from the restroom to find that he and all of his colleagues had been fired, and the site’s archive had been removed from the internet. (The archives have since been restored after a public outcry.) Shutting Gothamist and DNAinfo meant 115 people lost their jobs that day.

Many outlets have written about the closure, including The Onion’s sister-site ClickHole, which announced that it’s employees had voted to “Debase Ourselves In The Most Humiliating Ways Possible To Please The Billionaires Who Could Destroy Our Website On A Whim.”

I spent more than three years at DNAinfo New York, learning some of the most important skills I have as a journalist. I loved the pieces that paid tribute to the great work done by DNAinfo staffers in New York and Chicago, appreciations from the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board and The Trace. The founder of a national gun violence database told the Trace that DNAinfo, “filled in the blanks, especially when legacy media has already moved on,” and I thought, yes. The Sun-Times wrote that “a great city is served best by a multiplicity of news organizations, all competing hard. The more the better, especially if they are of the caliber of DNAinfo Chicago,” and I thought, yes. Chicago Tribune columnist Robert Reed wrote, “in Chicago and other big markets, DNAinfo proved there’s a desire for solid, important community journalism that speaks to the neighborhoods,” and I thought, yes. 

Tribune reporter Eric Zorn wrote about getting a news tip from his daughter only to find that a DNAinfo Chicago reporter had already written it. “Like so many stories that [the reporter] and her colleagues wrote for the online service, it was fast, accurate and vital,” he wrote, and my chest swelled with pride and heartache. He continued:

Publications like DNAinfo Chicago are an important part of the media ecosystem. When they go away, the loss reverberates. Accountability wanes. Ignorance and indifference metastasize. Even those who never looked at hyperlocal news will ultimately feel the impact.

They are as much or more a public good as a symphony, a college, a zoo, a museum, a social action agency or any of the many other causes that rely on charity to stay afloat.

HuffPost senior reporter Andy Campbell wrote a lede about the day in a life of a DNAinfo reporter that made me laugh through tears:

Who in their right mind would, after a full day of work and with a family to feed, trudge to their local community board meeting and listen to hours of minutiae, simply for a shot at developers who promise to bring affordable housing to the poor?

Who in their right mind, indeed?

Of the website’s demise, Campbell wrote, “Society just lost some of its last watchdogs.” We were watchdogs, and we took that responsibility seriously. We sat through hours and hours of meetings, showed up when no one else did — not just at community board meetings, but city agencies and small entities you might not know are legally bound to hold public meetings. But we knew, and we went, because we believed in accountability, no matter how small the issue might have seemed.

You get some of the best stories at these meetings, and you learn about the really important ones by embedding in a neighborhood and becoming a person residents really trust. I broke the news that New York restaurant and institution Pastis was reopening because I went to a meeting with developers that only residents were invited to. It was the residents who insisted I be allowed to attend.

We covered local news in a way most publications had ceased to do. HuffPost highlighted DNAinfo reporter Katie Honan’s coverage of disgraced politician Hiram Monserrate’s attempt at a political comeback, and the Village Voice flagged Honan’s coverage of rebuilding in Rockaway after Hurricane Sandy. On Twitter, city workers and local politicians said over and over that the rebuilding would have been much slower without Honan’s diligent, dogged reporting.

A public relations specialist interviewed by HuffPost also highlighted the stories by DNAinfo education and real estate reporter Amy Zimmer during the confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, which lay out how new Secretary of Education could reshape city schools, saying that Zimmer’s reporting served to “take these issues and boil them down, and really show readers that it does have huge implications on the local level.”

That was a big part of what we were there to do: show people exactly how every action, big or small, impacted their daily lives in the neighborhoods they lived in and loved.

I ached while reading my former colleagues’ quotes in these stories. After they won their union vote, Katie Honan told The New York Times, “If this is the future of journalism, it should be a career for people, not a postcollege hobby.” The Times also spoke with Ben Fractenberg, a phenomenal photographer and breaking news reporter:

Ben Fractenberg, who joined DNAinfo in 2010, said that the hope was that as local newspapers around the country foundered, DNAinfo would create “a new business model” for local news. “We were all united on that,” Mr. Fractenberg said. “And that never wavered.”

Maya Rajamani, who did some amazing, unforgettable live-tweeting of a City Council hearing in which costumed characters from Times Square showed up to speak, told the Columbia Journalism Review of the site’s shutdown, “It’s devastating. This wasn’t The New York Times, but for me it was a dream job. What we were doing was so important. It’s a huge loss for New York City.”

***

I’ll be honest: It didn’t always feel it like what we were doing was important. There were days when you felt meaningless and insignificant. You spent all day every day running around the city, then spent multiple evenings a week at hours-long community board meetings, and you wondered if it really mattered. You work hard on a complicated zoning story and instead all the page views go to a viral story about the Museum of Ice Cream and you’re convinced everything you do is a waste. The Associated Press freed slaves!

Maybe that’s why our staff was so close. When the site shut down, I felt grief. I hadn’t been part of that outlet for seven months, but the loss felt personal and painful. It felt like someone had just erased my family. I’ve been told it’s dangerous to see your coworkers and bosses like this, and that’s probably true. But if you’ve never experienced having the place you devote the vast majority of your waking life to feel like a family, I’m sorry for that, because it is such a wonderful, joyous thing.

At DNAinfo New York, most of the reporters were out in the field every day, running around on our own, reachable by phone and email but generally expected to be doing the work of reporting. It’s odd that we had such intense love for one another, considering how rarely we saw each other. I used to joke with our managing editor, Mike Ventura, that they had to schedule our all-hands staff meetings on Friday afternoons because a lot of us were useless afterward, giddy like hyperactive kids at holidays with their favorite cousins they rarely get to see. We would chatter, compare notes about different agencies and spokespersons, vent, praise each other’s stories. It felt like a rare and beautiful gem, that rush of love for people who understood your daily life in an intimate way no one else really could.

Danielle Tcholakian Reporting for DNAinfo New York

In classic DNAinfo reporter stance, the author sits cross-legged on the sidewalk to file a story about a protest at NYU.

Getting to collaborate on a story with a colleague felt like a gift. Rosa Goldensohn and I worked together investigating a shady developer when the city cracked down on the contractors running one of their sites after a young worker was killed. Amy Zimmer and I got deep in the weeds about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial housing plan, churning out explainers and pulling in reporting from community boards all over the city, thanks to our network of scrappy, diligent colleagues. I got to team up with Jeff Mays when he covered Bill de Blasio. Even now I think about that, how unbelievably lucky I was to get to share a byline with some of the best reporters this city has ever seen.

We had all-stars like veteran police reporter Murray Weiss and investigative machine Jim Fanelli. You might assume they would be territorial, or too busy to indulge questions from young, unsure reporters, but they never were. I came to DNAinfo anxious that by taking a neighborhood beat, I would lose the police sources I’d made at my previous job. To try to maintain them, I would jump in on weekend crime stories. Murray was always pulled in on any crime story, and once when I filed notes from my sources, an editor sent me back notes from Murray. I had gotten all the same information he had. Rather than boxing me out of the story, or any future stories, Murray applauded me and told me to keep it up. If Murray Weiss believed in me, how could I not believe in myself?

Jim Fanelli’s work speaks for itself. He’s without a doubt one of the best reporters in this city. He’s also unbelievably generous. He encouraged all of us to do investigations, but also understood that the demands of our beats meant we didn’t have a lot of time. I used to go into the office just to use a desk near Jim and Jeff Mays and eavesdrop on the two of them making reporting calls. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard Jim start a phone call by saying, “Sure, I get that you don’t want to talk, but will you just take my number in case you change your mind?” and then still be on the phone with that same person an hour later.

When editor-in-chief John Ness was brought in with little warning, but had the guts to immediately face a roomful of skeptical reporters giving him stink-eye, one of us asked John what of DNAinfo’s reporting he liked. A Park Slope resident, he cited the longtime local reporter there, Leslie Albrecht, possibly the most beloved neighborhood reporter to ever report. After he praised Leslie, Jim asked the next question, and introduced himself as Leslie’s husband. We all laughed openly, loudly, like terrible children in a movie. Poor John took it in stride.

John! John came in as a reviled outsider and did an incredible, commendable job of winning over our trust and affection, ultimately becoming part of our weird, ragtag little family. He was hired above Mike Ventura, our beloved newsroom dad, and we reacted like children being introduced to a new, extremely unwanted stepparent. It didn’t help that his mandate was to fix us, to make us profitable. He introduced initiatives we resented, and we made our resentment clear. But he never lashed out, never responded with anything other than patience and encouragement. Most of all, he respected our devotion to Mike, and adored him himself. I remember cornering him at some celebration sometime, and tipsily telling him how impressed I was that he had become part of our family, even though we had all hated him so much in the beginning. He laughed, then hugged and thanked me.

Mike was our newsroom dad, and Nicole Bode was our newsroom mom. From the first day I met Nicole, I was in awe. We rode an elevator together and I was too shy to speak. She has tremendous posture, which I find awe-inspiring and intimidating. But most of all, she exudes calm competence. Countless reporters and I have said to one another that we would walk through fire for Nicole. I learned so much about how to be a good manager just by observing her. She is empathetic and fun, organized and driven. A former tabloid reporter, she has a hunger for justice that is so valuable (and occasionally frustrating) in an editor. You could file a pretty benign story, and then your phone would ring, you’d see “Nicole Bode” and breathe, “Uh oh.” You’d pick up and Nicole would be audibly energized, absolutely certain she had found a villain who needed to be held to account.

Nicole believed strongly in straight journalism as a means to justice. This is one of the things that bound us all together: a steadfast belief that with just the facts, with good reporting alone, no “takes” needed, journalism was a force for good. We didn’t think our readers needed to be told what to think, or be hit over the head with how bad something was.

With Twitter’s recent extension to 280 characters, I’ve been thinking about what brevity meant to DNAinfo reporters. The unwritten rule at DNAinfo was if you wanted to file a story over 500 words, you better make a case for it. My first editor, Julie Shapiro, taught me so much, including how to write short, and clearly. I learned a new way of writing that wasn’t my nature but was hugely valuable. We were the inhabitants’ of this city’s eyes and ears, and part of that responsibility meant having the savvy to distill what actually mattered in an hours-long community board meeting. No play-by-plays of boring meetings allowed; the pain of sitting through that was ours and ours alone.

Julie also chaperoned me through some tough stories. Once, while getting a police blotter, I noticed an item accusing a man of animal abuse. A source in the precinct told me the guy who they charged was a homeless man named Jimmy Tarangelo who lived in a van nearby. So I met Jimmy and talked with him. The police had seized his dog, who was sick but being treated, and all he knew now was that the dog was in ASPCA custody.  I started calling and emailing the NYPD and ASPCA, and when I told the NYPD that the ASPCA said they wouldn’t comment because it was a police matter, someone at the NYPD reached out to the ASPCA and said they knew me personally and if I didn’t get a clear answer, I was going to become a problem. So the ASPCA wrote me back and said they’d euthanized Jimmy’s dog without telling him.

I panicked, burst into tears and called Julie. She told me I had to tell Jimmy. “He can’t find out because he reads it in your story. You understand that, right?” She wanted me to do it over the phone instead of in person. It was one of the worst phone calls I’ve ever had to make. I ended up accompanying Jimmy to all of his court dates, staying on the story, even though some people dismissed it as meaningless. This, to me, was a story of injustice, and Julie understood that.

Danielle Tcholakian Reporting for DNAinfo New York

The author’s beat for DNAInfo was Greenwich Village and Soho. Here she is interviewing Kingsley Rowe, a formerly incarcerated NYU administrator.

Mike Ventura took me on as one of his direct reporters after Julie left. Mike is the editor of every writer’s dreams. When he’s finished with your copy, it still sounds like you, but better. I once told him I wanted to try writing about a community meeting “in a literary way,” and instead of asking me what the fuck that meant, he told me to go for it. He noticed people enjoyed my live-tweeting of community board meetings, and convinced me to use Storify to turn them into actual posts. (I remembered this just the other week when the New York Times published one of Rukmini Callimachi‘s Twitter threads in print.)

As the managing editor, Mike also made our family. He picked all of us, weirdos and people who have the capacity to love weirdos. I think about that all the time, when I remember all the many kindnesses he and my other colleagues did for me. While I was at DNAinfo, the antidepressants I’d been on for eight years stopped working. Before I realized it had happened, all I knew was I was miserable and excruciatingly sensitive. I cried every morning, harder if I had mean emails or comments from readers. When I lashed out at a company meeting about the comment platform allowing users anonymity, and was suddenly, embarrassingly, near tears, my colleagues didn’t look away or tell me that mean comments are part of the job. They agreed with me that the comments were hurtful, and reassured me of the basic tenet all reporters know: if you’re pissing people off, you’re probably onto something.

I finally asked to meet with Mike and told him what was going on. He asked me how long I’d been feeling bad, and said I could have told him sooner, then immediately corrected himself to tell me that I didn’t have to tell him anything I didn’t want to. I broke down crying. “I wanted to tell you, but you have to protect the company,” I said. He looked at me like I was speaking in tongues, shook his head, and handed me a box of tissues. He made a game plan for us to get through the next few weeks or months — and told me it might take months, and that was okay. “I want you to call me every morning. You don’t have to have pitches, I just want to know you’re alive. Is that okay?” I say often that Mike Ventura saved my life and it’s not an exaggeration.

That’s why I couldn’t write about DNAinfo right away. That’s why I couldn’t think of anything smart to say about a once-benevolent dictator erasing years of reporting in an instant, or about the under-appreciated importance of local reporting, or about politics or unions. Because this was my family.

When Mike was laid off a few months before I was, I cried hysterically. Everyone — including Mike and his wife — comforted me as much as they did Mike, who was out of a job he had devoted his life to. When I was laid off a couple months later, it hurt in a personal way beyond the instability of sudden unemployment. I felt like a baby bird pushed out of a nest. My former colleagues assured me I would never stop being part of their family, and it meant the world to me.

Joe Ricketts wrote that he opposed unions because he believes they “promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.” Per Merriam-Webster, esprit de corps refers to “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group.” I think this also describes the feeling that moves some workers to unionize. Caught off-guard by layoffs and mergers and acquisitions, they realize the business they thought was a family is actually a business.

I am wishy-washy at best about unions; I have a reporter’s skepticism of all institutions. But I think often, and maybe always, the people who lead union efforts do it not necessarily because they want to be a paragon of leftist ideals, but because they are fighting for the survival of something — and of people — they love. One of the common themes in struggling media businesses is an endless parade of older white men brought in to fill just-invented vice president positions at huge salaries, while lower-level staffers’ suggestions and ideas go ignored. When you think about it like that, it’s not hard to understand why workers turn to unions, hopeful that some outside entity can help them keep fighting to make the thing they love viable, sustainable, lasting. We fight for what we love.