Why Local Reporting Really Is the First Draft of History

Gothamist and DNAinfo were vital to the people that research New York


When Joe Ricketts shut down DNAinfo and Gothamist late Thursday after their staffs had voted to unionize, it did more than cost dozens of journalists their jobs. In a fit of anti-union pique, Ricketts initially forced all DNAinfo and Gothamist URLs to redirect to a letter announcing the websites’ closure. And though archived articles were restored the following day — after the sites’ blackouts had terrified hundreds of reporters that their work had been destroyed — the extensive political and neighborhood coverage provided by the sites, as well as sister outlets in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and San Francisco, will not return.

While many of the sites’ readers were local residents and neighborhood activists, another key constituency was academics like me. I’m a geography Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and I study the politics of urban planning and real estate in New York City. While major outlets like the New York Times and Daily News cover big developments and major rezonings, it would often fall on sites like Gothamist and DNAinfo to report on the political minutiae, which is often where the most telling details lie.

Right now, for example, I’m writing about the successful campaign to stop a Business Improvement District from expanding along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens. This was an issue I followed closely when I lived in Elmhurst and was a minor participant in the fight. There were a couple of stories in the Times and the Daily News, but the real trove of reporting was from Katie Honan at DNAinfo. She went to all the meetings — including many I couldn’t make — and reported on the tit for tat between the local politicians (who were often portrayed in major media accounts simply as “progressives,” without any exploration of their deeper contradictions), nonprofits (who were often treated simply as “do-gooders” elsewhere, with no exposure of their conflicts), and grassroots organizing projects (who were usually just ignored by the citywide papers). My co-author and I cite Honan three times in the article we’re working on, as well as DNAinfo reporter Paul DeBenedetto and former Gothamist reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler.

I didn’t always agree with what they wrote, and there was plenty wrong with Gothamist and DNAinfo. Just because they’re gone, there’s no need to glorify these outlets, which too often betrayed the same boosterism as other more obviously business-friendly publications. But they offered something that’s hard to come by: not only information, but verification for scholars like me who need evidence that what we write about actually happened. Several fellow researchers told me that if it weren’t for DNAinfo and Gothamist, a lot of the batshit things that go on in Community Board meetings would go totally unreported and uncited in academic studies.

Leigh Graham, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the CUNY Graduate Center, similarly relies on hyperlocal news to help guide her research. Graham, who studies the tensions between post-Sandy resiliency and growth in the Rockaways, tells me, “The granular reporting by DNAinfo, often by Katie Honan, a beat reporter who grew up in the Rockaways, has been indispensable for my research. I have more than sixty DNAinfo articles about the Rockaway peninsula saved as sources.” These stories, on issues that may have seemed trivial to others, provided Graham with insights into the micropolitics of global phenomena like climate change and real estate investment. “I’m devastated and angry to lose such an essential resource for research on New York City development politics,” she says.

It’s not just New York scholars who are missing this reporting. Steve Sherman, a Ph.D. candidate in regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, “I’m working on a paper about urban renewal, planning, and policing in Hyde Park, Chicago. The most accurate and diligent reporting on Tax Increment Financing” — a public finance scheme premised on rising property values, much like the one Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to employ for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector waterfront streetcar — “within Chicago has come from the staff at DNAinfo and Chicagoist. However, since Ricketts closed those sites and their archives, researchers like me (and everyday Chicagoans) now don’t have access to crucial reporting on public finances. Thursday was a really good day for those avoiding government oversight and public accountability.”

Joe Ricketts’s monumental temper tantrum shows just how precarious journalism is — as an occupation, certainly, but also as a record of history. Web publishing may be ubiquitous, but it is also ephemeral. There are others doing this work to varying degrees, including of course the Village Voice, though many of these — such as the Indypendent, Voices of NY, City Limits, Gotham Gazette — rely on tenuous private foundation support.

Even when Gothamist and DNAinfo were going strong, a lot of important stories went unreported, and plenty of bullshit got published. We’ve lost two important resources, and must now support efforts to rebuild a better local media — which could mean developing a worker-owned or community-controlled model for this kind of reporting. The future of socially engaged and politically relevant academic study depends on deep and sustained neighborhood reporting. We need it — as neighbors, as activists, and as researchers too.