BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. For the last 20 years, the media business has been crumbling like a stale piecrust. Centuries of obscene profitability have given way to an ongoing struggle just to break even. So more and more both legacy media and digital newbies have looked toward deep-pocketed ownership with the fortunes to weather the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the business.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Chicago Sun-Times newspaper has been sold to a group of investors that includes a former Chicago City councilmember.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The newspaper assets of the Washington Post are being bought by none other than Jeff Bezos.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It appears Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson could be the new owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
BOB GARFIELD: This sometimes hasn't ended well. Real estate developer Sam Zell bought the Chicago Tribune and treated it like a shopping mall relaunch. Sheldon Adelson bought his hometown Las Vegas Review-Journal to stop getting nasty coverage in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
And now comes Joe Ricketts who, eight months ago, bought the Gothamist network of hyper-local online publications.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Billionaire Joe Ricketts shut down two of his popular local news sites yesterday, one week after his editorial staff voted to unionize.
BOB GARFIELD: Seven city-focused publications were simply turned off. Julia Wick was, up until that moment, editor-in-chief of one of those sites, LAist. Julia, welcome to the show.
JULIA WICK: Think you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Before you ever heard Joe Ricketts’ name, the Gothamist publications were a little nervous about the online publishing environment. What was happening at the time last March when the site was sold?
JULIA WICK: After Gawker, I think almost anyone who's at a small publication that doesn't have some giant corporate backing, you were scared because you suddenly were incredibly aware that one rich person not liking the content could see you into oblivion.
BOB GARFIELD: One way to inoculate against the whims of an angry rich person is to have a rich person of your own with deep enough pockets to fend off a lawsuit or at least not shut publications down in the face of litigation. So you are sitting in your office one day last March and get an email that the Gothamist network has been sold to this guy, Joe Ricketts. What was your thought?
JULIA WICK: We didn't know what it would mean for us. We didn't know what it would mean for the future of the sites. And we didn’t really know anything about Joe Ricketts. As terrified as I am of Peter Thiel, I felt just as scared about this guy.
BOB GARFIELD: And it didn't take long before things began to happen under the new regime that made you even nervouser. Prominent among them was deletion, not by the new owner but of the former owner, Jake Dobkin, of the references to previous stores about your new owner, Joe Ricketts. They were either changed or deleted off the site, altogether?
JULIA WICK: The rationale for that was like the Bloomberg networks, which don't cover Bloomberg. As a media entity owned by Joe Ricketts, we shouldn't cover Ricketts, which is reasonable enough, in theory.
BOB GARFIELD: Although not true, [LAUGHS] that Bloomberg does cover Bloomberg but you can kind of understand the theory behind it, I guess, except that doesn't include erasing previous reporting. What were you and your colleagues saying to one another when you realized right off the bat that that was taking place?
JULIA WICK: It was really scary to us because we didn't know whether or not it was going to be a slippery slope. We didn't know if this was the beginning of an Orwellian memory hall or if those were going to be the only things to disappear off the site.
BOB GARFIELD: And shortly thereafter, the staff began to think about, what can we do to protect ourselves against the erosion of the Gothamist way of doing things? What form did these conversations take?
JULIA WICK: Members of our New York office had already been talking about unionizing prior to the sale, but the sale really kicked it into overdrive and made it feel much more urgent. Right away, our New York office was met with a pretty strong antiunion campaign. Something our bosses told us was that Mr. Ricketts was philosophically opposed to unions and that should be kind of reason enough for the sites not to have any sort of unionization campaign, which seemed very unlike the Gothamist way of doing things, which would be to question authority, to probe further, to agitate for what we felt was right.
BOB GARFIELD: It all happened so fast.
JULIA WICK: Yes. They voted to unionize and a week later 116 journalists were all laid off.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any insight as to whether he made this move because it was going to turn a crappy business into an even crappier business or out of just pure spite or whether there's some third explanation?
JULIA WICK: I've never met Joe Ricketts, so I can't pretend to know what his motivations are for anything, but he had just bought the Gothamist network seven or so months before. He presumably spent several million dollars to purchase our sites, which were, at the time, profitable. To then shut them down a couple of months later seems a strange way of doing business.
BOB GARFIELD: On November 2nd, you get an email and your job has disappeared but that’s not the only thing that disappeared. Please tell me about the archive.
JULIA WICK: So we actually found out we’d all lost our jobs when the sites went down. Our archives were later restored, largely, I think, due to public outcry. But when the sites were first closed, all of our sites were just replaced with a letter from Joe Ricketts informing readers that he had made the very difficult decision to close Gothamist and DNAinfo. For us at LAist, 13 years of reporting were gone.
BOB GARFIELD: The archive disappeared, wiped from history.
JULIA WICK: On a personal level, that felt like retribution. You have 100-some fired journalists who are now all about to go look for work, with our clips wiped off the internet. But to me, that wasn’t even the really terrifying and horrific thing about the archives going down. We’ve been doing local reporting for more than a decade, exhaustively covering the minutiae of daily life in our cities and the minutia of City Hall, and the idea that in a couple of days when someone goes to Google something about a public official, all that reporting is just gone, like it never happened, it's really, really scary. It really drove home the fragility of all the new sites we rely on.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there's the ongoing coverage, which is no longer ongoing. What’s the effect, not only on your former readers but on the ecosystem for Los Angeles journalism?
JULIA WICK: We were a small site. We were pretty scrappy. But we also broke a lot of news in LA. The LA Times unendorsed a City Council candidate who was very charismatic and very popular and poised to unseat an incumbent after LAist found and published his crazy history of online comments. We were the first ones to cover Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, an LA father who was detained by ICE while dropping his young daughters off at school. Those are just a couple of examples, but it's coming at a time when a lot of other media forces in LA are also fragile or having their own struggles.
Our friends at LA Weekly were sold two or three weeks ago by Voice Media to a newly-formed LLC, and all that’s known about it is it's associated with a weed lawyer. They don’t know who owns them, which is scary. And the LA Times is actually having their own unionization campaign that's been met with a lot of union-busting tactics from their corporate owners.
BOB GARFIELD: And what about you? A week ago you had a job, now you don’t. What’s next?
JULIA WICK: The ground hasn't quite settled yet. It’s been kind of a crazy few days, but the last couple of days I've gotten dozens of text messages and Facebook messages and emails from sources on stories, checking in and thanking me for whatever I had written about them and saying that the fact that we covered it mattered to them. I hope to find another reporting job where I can keep telling their stories and other people’s stories.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Julia, I wish you the best of luck, and thank you very much for joining us.
JULIA WICK: Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Until a week ago, Julia Wick was editor-in-chief of LAist. We contacted Joe Ricketts for comment but received no response.