Owner Joe Ricketts has closed local news sites that are part of the Gothamist network. Gothamist and DNAinfo newsrooms voted to unionize last week. Ari Shapiro talks to Julia Wick who had been editor-in-chief of LAist.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
TV networks and newspapers have scaled way back on their coverage of local news, so many people turn to websites for that information. And yesterday, a major network of local news sites shut down without warning. The list includes Gothamist in New York, DCist here in Washington and many others. CEO Joe Ricketts posted an open letter online saying that even though the sites had more than 9 million visitors a month, they were not financially successful enough. His decision comes a week after New York staff voted to unionize against management wishes.
Julia Wick was until yesterday the editor-in-chief of LAist and joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks for being with us on what I imagine is a pretty difficult day.
JULIA WICK: Thank you so much for having me, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How did you learn the news yesterday? And how did you break it to your staff?
WICK: I wish that I had been given the courtesy of breaking it to my staff. We pretty much found out when you did. I had taken my lunch break. I had gone downstairs to get some food. And a co-worker in New York texted me at 2 p.m., check your inbox. And simultaneously, inside of our office, a writer who'd actually started with us last week noticed the site had gone down. And so another writer went to help her. And for some reason, her post wasn't previewing, a post she had been working on that morning. And after finally getting the page to refresh, what pulled up wasn't her post but rather the same note from Joe Ricketts.
SHAPIRO: The one that I quoted from just now.
WICK: Yes. So that's how they found out.
SHAPIRO: And how did everyone in the office react?
WICK: It was really a shock. I walked back into the room, and I just started to cry and told them I was so sorry that I didn't have any more information. I felt so terrible that I hadn't at least been able to sit them down and give these three incredibly hard-working, dedicated journalists at least the courtesy of telling them nicely that they had lost their jobs.
SHAPIRO: I know you have many more questions than answers right now, but do you see this as retaliation against the New York staff's vote to unionize?
WICK: Make no mistake. This was a political decision, not a financial decision.
SHAPIRO: What makes you say that?
WICK: In March, the five Gothamist sites were purchased by Joe Ricketts. And those five Gothamist sites - we were profitable. We didn't make a ton of money. We're local news. But we ran in the black.
SHAPIRO: And the management had threatened to shut down the sites if the staff voted to unionize.
WICK: Exactly, if our New York office had waged a successful union campaign. They knew this was an option. But to be frank with you, we had thought he was bluffing.
SHAPIRO: I saw a lot of posts yesterday from people saying, if it weren't for this website, I wouldn't have had any information about the crime that happened down the street from me or the building that was suddenly demolished or whatever the local thing was that might have seemed too small for the big paper to cover that didn't seem too small for this website to cover.
WICK: Exactly. Those small things often are part of larger patterns or part of larger stories. One thing that LAist has covered really doggedly has been attacks on local sanctuary cities from anti-immigration groups, these groups that come to these small cities usually about 10 miles from LA in southeast LA County and try and disrupt their city council meetings with really horrific, racist attacks. And when one of those anti-immigration protesters pulled a gun after a city council meeting, I was the only reporter there. We ended up sharing our photos with all the other outlets. And if you don't have local news sites like LAist, who's going to be there? Who's going to be telling those stories? And ultimately, who's going to be protecting our democratic institutions if we don't have anyone covering the small things happening?
SHAPIRO: That's editor-in-chief Julia Wick. Her website, LAist, was shut down yesterday along with several other local news sites that were owned by Joe Ricketts. Thanks so much for joining us.
WICK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.