Because nobody should pay for content, and the people who generate it should work for free, right?

By Andrew J. Pridgen

One week ago, reporters and editors in the combined newsroom of DNAinfo and Gothamist, a pair of New York’s biggest digital-only local news orgs, popped $5 champagne from the CVS in victory—they had just voted to join a union.

On Thursday, they got fucking fired.

Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade who owned the company—which also operated local news websites in a variety of other cities including Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego and Washington, D.C.—shuttered them, without notice, without warning. There wasn’t even enough time for the reporters to pull clips.

With one pull of the plug, a billionaire who didn’t want to pay fair (or even minimum) wages for work, turned the whole operation off.

Ricketts—whose asshole spawn own the Chicago Cubs and appear at charity fundraisers to hand out big checks as if they’ve done fucking anything with their lives besides being the right sperm in the right tube—is worth about $2.1 billion.

Go check out one of the Gothamist sites this morning and there’s nothing but a chiding letter from Ricketts, a Trump supporter who recently wrote “unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.” C. Montgomery Burns doubled-down on his reference to an ‘80s juniors fashion line with a paragraph that starts with the six words only the Siths of Friday afternoon conference calls utter: “At the end of the day.”

The paragraph reads: “But DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure. And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded. I want to thank our readers for their support and loyalty through the years. And I want to thank our employees for their tireless effort and dedication.”

Translation: Our websites were producing good work, I just didn’t expect to have to pay for it.

With the mangling of the term “fake news” from the land’s highest office and a national crisis of folks being confused by the fragmented bubbles of their own social media feed, journalism in general is at a breaking point, especially print (which is what feeds TV.) Americans have for 2.4 centuries relied on this sort of internal compass sense of “we’ll figure out how to do what’s right” entitlement which tells us that we’ll always find true north, always make the diving catch, always surprise the world by pulling it out. Not so this time, I’m afraid. We’ve had chance over chance since 9/11 (through multiple regimes) to end predatory warfare, dismantle the corporate state (see: Ricketts) we’ve become and put a stop to Wall Street gambling… but we haven’t.

Now those in charge do not believe in the rule of law, or even paying a fair wage for a fair day’s work—and will continue to take advantage.

On a national level, the counter-narrative and the racist, xenophobic pandering and lies that helps keep these fuckers in power is rampant. Fox News last month had 190 million viewers, leading all networks, so there are massive, MASSIVE numbers of people out there who are actively engaged in magical thinking.

Meanwhile, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is the maniacal arm that brings you local news about how tax cuts will benefit the family of five who has to make a medium from Little Caesar’s last a week, has taken over local TV news.

And local papers, a handful of which I proudly wrote and edited for for the first 15 years of my career, are decimated, not just gone as in newsrooms are down to a handful of people, but gone altogether. The reason: no revenue. While the layman reader knows digital ads deliver a fraction of a penny in revenue per impression/click as compared to real dollars for print ads, I still feel the need to explain to people what that adds up to in real life.

I’ll use this site as an anecdote.

In September, Death of the Press Box experienced a major spike in traffic due mostly to this column and our weekly Pints and Picks feature kicking off. The site ended the month with almost 1 million unique visits, which is at once impressive-sounding and sort of the baseline numbers you have to show if you’re going to try to come up with a revenue model.

Unfortunately, during this moment, the site’s traffic overloaded the shared server it was on and was booted off it by the hosting company. Like, completely shut down. Our sister site was also taken out for the same reasons. After about four days of wrangling with the server folks non-stop, the site went back up, this time on a private server with a price point of more than 10x/month what we were paying prior to the traffic spike.

The sister site, which would also have had to have been moved to its own private server to return, was not redirected—which means it is dark to this day.

At the end of that banner month the site’s revenue from Google AdSense was $187.20. We don’t press our ads too too much mostly because we get just as annoyed as you do at miracle window cleaners and Asian brides staring us in the face. So, for the work we did, for the off chance that things would go viral, for the good readers we bring here, we actually ended up in the hole, by a pretty decent margin—and that doesn’t even take into account the time, energy, heartache, cease-and-desist letters, and font of never-ending patience shown by the domestic partners of Kyle Magin (also a former local newspaper reporter) and myself.

So, from a pure business sense, it MAKES NO SENSE to write or to have a website or to try to communicate with people in a meaningful manner, especially when it comes to stories which will appeal to narrower audiences because of their personal or regional nature.

The New York Times, in covering the Gothamist story, also admits as much in this chase for clicks over substance saying it “has also cut back on its local coverage of New York City, closing regional bureaus, for example.”

The problem extends far beyond this site or the NYT or DNAinfo’s 115 good writers and editors who suddenly find themselves ugly crying into their MGDs and adding adverbs to their LinkedIns because they wanted fair wages and a shot at healthcare. Because of the narrow margins gained through advertising, digital reporters are paid even less than print reporters (if that’s possible) and most are freelance or part-time. The move of Gothamist—which, by the way, migrated from its origins of vetting artisanal cocktails and excoriating servers with man buns to doing substantive community reporting to fill the vacuum major dailies have left, I wish I could show you examples—to join the Writers Guild of America East, emulated reporters from Vice and HuffPost and was the right thing, the fair thing.

…Until a billionaire overlord decided it wasn’t his thing.

Alphabet’s, Google’s parent company, Q1 and Q2 revenue in 2017 was $26.01 billion, up 21% year-over-year, and well above the $25.64 billion projected. The reason: content generated by folks who are willing to work for slave wages, or no wages or maybe a chance at wages.

But corporations, and their shareholders should know, this is not sustainable. This is going to end. And it’s not going to be the ending any of them or us want.

Till we can find a way to reinstate the guardrail of the 4th estate by doing something besides treating corporate oligarchs as the poor, put-upon folks in need of a government handout and start paying content generators a fair wage for a fair day’s work so they can perform a service to our citizenry—until we start taking the need for veracious information delivered in a timely manner seriously, as serious as the lifeblood of our nation, this American experiment is either diminished beyond recognizability or gone altogether.

Andrew J. Pridgen recently found out this terminally ill child’s dying wish is to get a handmade Christmas card sent to him. Stop what you’re doing and get out the construction paper and scissors, now. Send your cards to: Jacob Thompson C/O Maine Medical Center 22 Bramhall St Portland, ME 04102.

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