A few weeks ago, in a small, lofty office in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, the publisher of Gothamist — the 11-year-old blog about New York City that now has similar sites in eight other cities — was in a reflective mood. Tall, thin, white, and bespectacled, Jake Dobkin grew up in and still lives in Park Slope, with his wife and his children, 3 and 5 years old. And as the city has changed over the last decade, he has been there, faithfully chronicling it from a perspective that would be familiar to any overeducated professional twenty- or thirtysomething living in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods (bike lanes; green markets; Momofuku Milk Bar; The National=good; Murray Hill=bad; Barclays Center=at first bad, now good) and eventually, he would argue, influencing the direction that the city was moving in.
“I really do feel like Gothamist and sites like it have pushed the city in a more humanistic, liberal, cool direction over the last 10 years,” said Dobkin, who has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and an MBA from NYU. “I think the issues that we’ve raised, especially the youth issues, they were not being widely covered before Gothamist came along. By drawing attention to it we forced other sites and New York Mag and the New York Times to spend more time on those things. And all together all media led to [Mayor Bill] de Blasio and all the good stuff that’s happening now. I feel lucky that we got to play a part in that.”
Dobkin and fellow Columbia grad Jen Chung launched Gothamist in 2003 into a New York local news media landscape that looked like this: Gawker, founded the previous year, was a blog focused almost exclusively on Manhattan media. There was no Daily Intelligencer on nymag.com, no Runnin’ Scared on the Village Voice’s website, no New York Times City Room. The Daily News and the New York Post had websites, but couldn’t really figure out how to master the web fast enough (the Post even had a mandatory log-in screen for a short period of time in 2005). The New York Observer barely had a website; Capital New York did not exist. Gothamist had the field pretty much to itself.
The site was initially a hobby that turned quickly into a full-time job for both Dobkin and Chung; the focus in the first few years was on quick-hit news aggregation. Gawker was their inspiration for starting the site, and they never thought it was possible to become writers full time until running the site was proving to be more than a little workday distraction. They thrived mostly off the free contributions from others.
“In the beginning there was a lot of volunteerism,” Dobkin said. “The idea that people would ever blog for free is crazy now, but none of us had any money.”
But now the field is, somewhat surprisingly, relatively open again. These are, after all, tenuous times for local news operations: In January, AOL shut down most of Patch, its national experiment in local blogging, which at its height employed hundreds of people running 900 blogs across 23 states. Gawker and Daily Intelligencer have expanded their scope to become national reads, with the occasional story of local interest; the Daily News and the Post have likewise increased their traffic with a national focus online, and both received website redesigns in the past year that push bigger national stories on their homepages. City Room publishes very little new, original material that hasn’t appeared elsewhere in the newspaper, and has become essentially an expanded version of the “Metropolitan Diary” column. After selling to Politico, Capital NY has expanded its efforts to Albany, and the Observer and Runnin’ Scared have decreased in relevance, thanks in no small part to staff reductions.
Even some old wounds have healed. A Felix Salmon blog post from 2004 explains the bubbling fight between Gawker’s Nick Denton and Weblogs.com founder Jason Calacanis — a trio of early ’00s media titans. Several New York blogs had an unofficial “no-linking to Gothamist” policy around 2010. But a Gawker post published earlier this month credits Gothamist with the find of a video and starts off — “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Gothamist, for bringing us Kalan.”
The only place nipping at Gothamist’s heels is the website DNAinfo, launched in 2009 and funded by Ameritrade founder and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts; it’s like Gothamist with a bigger checkbook and more original reporting. Although it does half the traffic, DNAinfo has three times as many boots on the ground as its Dumbo competition and constantly delivers scoops — a large number of which get aggregated by Gothamist. (DNAinfo and its editor Mike Ventura declined to comment for this story.)
Still, Gothamist has kept plugging along. Gothamist.com alone currently gets 9 million monthly unique visitors, according to Quantcast (numbers Dobkin called reliable), and Dobkin and Chung both said this year’s traffic has been higher than ever before. A typical mix on the site is a story about a long line for the latest micro-food trend or Instagram-worthy art opening, a viral subway video often sourced from the New York City subreddit, or perhaps a bit of aggregation from that morning’s New York Post. Dobkin himself often chimes in with commentary, such as his observation, after a riot at the Supreme store in Soho in April that the New York Police Department lost control of, that “Sneakers are one of the main tools capitalism uses to distract young minority men from revolting against the oppression they experience daily.”
But how influential, really, are these neoliberal aphorisms and stabs at political relevance?
New York Times Metro Editor Wendell Jamieson scoffed at the notion that Gothamist had in any way influenced the newspaper’s local coverage. “I’m a fan of Jake’s and of Gothamist but the Times is edited here in this building for its readers,” Jamieson said.
The Times’ Michael Powell, whose long-running New York news column “Gotham” ends this July, said he enjoyed Gothamist but wouldn’t quite support assumptions on its larger impact. “My default position is that we’re better off being humble about the impact we have on larger societal political trends in the city,” he said. “The minute we say this happened because of us, we risk having an event prove us wrong.”
To be sure, Dobkin has always seemed to have had a one-sided relationship with the Times. After the paper published a profile of Curbed Network founder Lockhart Steele in March 2010, Dobkin wrote, in a since-deleted tweet, that he “didn’t realize that the Times was allowed to feature blowjobs this explicit!” Earlier that year, he posted to Facebook that the Times’ City Room coverage was a “ripoff” of Gothamist.
And de Blasio campaign spokesman Dan Levitan did say that Gothamist was a bit earlier to cover issues like stop-and-frisk that bigger New York news sources eventually picked up on. But Levitan was likewise weary of where the site stood relative to more established media.
“They’ve been at it for a long time and they’ve got a real voice,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re quite at the level of the print papers some of whom who have been around for hundreds of years.”
Perhaps that is, in fact, asking too much of the little local blog that could. Gothamist has succeeded because it does one thing — blog about New York City — well enough to keep a staff of 15 employed, many of whom have been with the site for years. Just this weekend the staff was all over the sudden closing of Dumbo’s reBar, and broke some news about the owner’s multi-thousand-dollar debts by talking to former employees.
And maybe this is the secret to success in 2014: either get extremely large, like the Huffington Post, or stay extremely lean, never taking money from outside sources, like Gothamist or The Awl. In 2010, Gothamist was reportedly close to getting acquired by Cablevision-owned Rainbow Media, a deal that allegedly fell apart because of fallout related to Dobkin’s tweet about the Times profile of Steele.
And now, Dobkin said, “We’re not planning on selling and there are no discussions ongoing. I’m not interested in, you know, pulling a Daily Candy and destroying it just to make some money.”