Los Angeles news site LAist, along with sister publications in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, were shut down abruptly this afternoon. A note from CEO Joe Ricketts greeted visitors to the sites:
“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'm hopeful that in time, someone will crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling for I believe telling those stories remains essential.”
The New York staffs of Gothamist and DNAinfo recently unionized, an action that could have hastened Ricketts' decision to shut down the media empire. In September, the Trump supporter wrote, “Unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.” And in spring, DNAinfo's chief operating officer warned staffers against unionizing, stating in a memo that it would be “the final straw that caused the business to close,” according to The New York Times.
A source with knowledge of the company who didn't want their name used believes Ricketts would have continued bankrolling the news sites had staffers in New York turned away union organizers. The source said the local site was sustainable years ago but that corporate spending likely put it in the red.*
Gothamist was launched in 2003 by Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung. LAist, Chicagoist and other city news sites followed. The Los Angeles site became a centralized gathering place for local news buffs. It contained many of the city's cultural happenings along with stories created from aggregated original reportage by traditional journalism organizations. Ricketts apparently took over the network that includes Gothamist and LAist earlier this year.
As LAist expanded into original reporting, food coverage and essays, it became a Los Angeles Press Club award winner. It produced journalistic successes, including editors Zach Behrens, Tony Pierce, Carolyn Kellogg, Emily Gallegos and its last editor, Julia Wick. In its last months, the upstart publication regularly got shout-outs from The New York Times.
Pierce worked as LAist's editor in 2006 and 2007 before leaving for a stint at the Los Angeles Times. He called the shutdown “terrible” and lamented that so many writers who worked for free would lose the one thing they were promised, so-called “clips,” or digital versions of their articles. For now, the archives at Gothamist, LAist and their sister sites are nowhere to be found.
Sasha Anawalt, director of USC's Arts Journalism Masters Program, said via email that she was “really sad to hear” about LAist's demise.
“It’s part of the evolution toward figuring out the business model,” she said. “We’re not there yet. Joe Ricketts gave it a good shot. The news on many fronts for arts and culture journalism is grim these days, but the magazines offering in-depth thoughtful stories by divinely inspired writers are going strong (the Atlantic, New Yorker, to name a few). Who knows if content and financial health will ever connect as they should.”
*Correction at 5:03 p.m. Nov. 2, 2017: Our source believes that LAist was sustainable even with paid staff. We reported that expanding and paying the staff could have led to its demise, which the source says is not the case. The source clarified that the corporate takeover earlier this year could have drained resources. We changed the story to reflect this.