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After the fall of DNAinfo, it’s time to stop hoping local news will scale

After years looking at this problem, here’s the only answer I see.

Joe Ricketts, owner of the now-shuttered DNAinfo and Gothamist
Joe Ricketts, owner of the now-shuttered DNAinfo and Gothamist
Kris Connor/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions

Now that Joe Ricketts has shut down DNAinfo — the neighborhood news operation he had launched and owned for eight years — the site’s readers are shocked. Media folks are wondering: Is there any way that a digital news org in 2017 can pay for the “unparalleled skill” that DNAinfo brought to its coverage of New York and Chicago?

It’s a question I’ve spent a few months thinking about: I was editor in chief at DNAinfo for two years, up until Ricketts acquired Gothamist in March. (The blog, a New York fixture since forever, was also shut down Thursday, Nov. 2.) After I left DNAinfo, I went wandering around trying to figure out what to work on next, and disagreeing with much of the advice I got.

A journalism professor at Ohio University told me the only way to make neighborhood news work would be to work out how it would benefit from economies of scale. But it doesn’t, really: You need a reporter for every 70,000 people or so. And they need an editor. Maybe other things can scale around them, but you need them.

So then I went to talk to the CEO of a successful app. You would not believe how many people use his product and how few people work for his company. This is the kind of thing you should be thinking about building if you want to be serious about taking care of your family, he said. And I am serious about taking care of my family!

But I am also serious about wanting local digital neighborhood journalism to work, and not just because I’m stubborn. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood with a well-supported digital neighborhood reporter, you understand why. (Thank you for your love and support, people who do.)

If you don’t live in a neighborhood or town with a well-supported digital reporter covering it, you probably don’t feel a deep need to get one. But here’s what you probably do feel: The news that you and your friends and family consume has become intangible. No one particularly wants to agree on what happened yesterday and what it means.

I think people understand that this sensation of unreality has a lot to do with the platforms that deliver our news, because Facebook and Google package journalism and bullshit identically. But I’d argue that it also has a lot to do with the death of local news to a degree few of us recognize.

Consider: In an interview with DNAinfo’s Crown Heights reporter Rachel Smith, no less a titan of local journalism than WNYC’s Brian Lehrer speculated that “Fox News watchers” probably looked at DNAinfo’s unbiased reporting and dismissed it as “liberal media.” Well, no. They generally didn’t.

People have their complaints about DNAinfo’s coverage, but when a house is on fire in your neighborhood, when there are shady real estate developers on your block, or beloved businesses are being rent-hiked out of existence, grand conspiracies about what this reporter’s agenda is don’t dominate the conversation. If neighborhood news couldn’t reach Fox News viewers, I wouldn’t have given years of my life to it.

As recently as 20 years ago, the most important journalism was the local newspaper that landed on your doorstep, with a front page that bundled tangible local news and reporting on faraway things. Until we regain a local news reality we can all agree on, I doubt we’ll come closer to a wider reality we can all agree on.

But here’s something real: At a bar on the Lower East Side last night, hours after they were laid off, some DNAinfo New York reporters started receiving Venmo payments from their fans. One showed me that as of around 10 pm, he’d received over $900 from people he didn’t really know. DNAinfo Chicago’s fans donated over $1000 to the newsroom’s bar tab. This is not unheard of in digital local news: People pay to drink with the investigative reporters at The Lens in New Orleans and to watch Steelers games with the staff of The Incline in Pittsburgh.

A co-worker at Vox Media speculated on Friday that “there’s gotta be another billionaire” who wants to swoop in and be a hero for DNAinfo and the cities it served. I hope there is. Or I hope blockchain can miraculously solve this problem. But I suspect either would only be a temporary solution.

After years looking at this problem, the only answer I see lies in convincing people to help pay the tab before the goodbye drinks are necessary.

John Ness was editor in chief of DNAinfo until March of this year, and before that was a News Director and editor in chief of Patch. Today he is Director of Team Brands at SB Nation and founder of Local Standrd, a nonprofit neighborhood news startup.

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