The Killing of SFist: How Wealth Dictates Local News

by on November 7, 2017

Last week, billionaire Trump supporter Joe Ricketts closed down SFist, the entire Gothamist network, and New York City’s DNAinfo. This occurred after the latter’s workers voted to unionize. After buying the Gothamist sites in March, Ricketts felt free to not only terminate the sites but to erase their archives.

If such an action had occurred in Venezuela, the United States media would be up in arms over this politically motivated silencing of a free press. But the political agenda behind Ricketts action was largely ignored. His closure of the sites was only treated as news in the cities where Gothamist operated.

But Rickett’s action has far broader significance.

He showed that nothing can stop billionaires from buying media outlets and then closing them down.  Ricketts shut down the entire Gothamist network even though only a 27-worker bargaining unit at DNAinfo voted to unionize;  this raises questions as to whether he bought Gothamist to shut it down.

Ricketts action also revives a common question: why do conservative billionaires like Ricketts and Rupert Murdoch buy media outlets while wealthy progressive people do not? Do wealthy progressives not recognize the importance of media?

A lot of folks have been asking this question for decades. Ricketts firing of 150 staffers and a new generation of young reporters should force us to examine this question again.

The Loss of SFist

SFist took a fun, snarky tone toward local news coverage. The site attracted millennials who do not regularly read the SF Chronicle and boosted their civic engagement. People liked to talk about what they read on SFist and that is always a good thing.

Beyond Chron stories picked up by SFist got a lot more readers. I am sure the same is true for stories in other news outlets. The once vibrant media echo chamber is ever shrinking these days, and the loss of SFist will further reduce it in San Francisco.

Ricketts clearly wanted to hurt unions by showing workers that voting for a union could cost them their jobs. But why fire Gothamist reporters unconnected to the union drive at DNAinfo?  Why didn’t Ricketts just put the Gothamist network up for sale?

Ricketts had to want to kill Gothamist and prevent its revival under new ownership. Like Trump,   Ricketts apparentely sees all media he does not completely control as the enemy. If he and his allies could buy and close down NBC, CNN, the New York Times and national media networks, they would do that as well.

Facebook, Twitter and Local News

The immediate question is what the killing of these sites means for local news. Unfortunately, it is a big and potentially transformative loss.

DNAinfo was New York City’s best daily neighborhood news source. It covered stories on activists’ campaigns in Crown Heights and other neighborhoods that other media did not. SFist did not focus on daily coverage of breaking stories but, as noted above, the site brought city news to readers who do not read other news sites. Its absence will leave people less informed about San Francisco.

Funding a local news operation is not cheap. It costs money to have reporters cover public protests, press conferences, or public hearings. Reporters sent to cover a hearing often must wait hours for the agenda item to come up, or for public testimony on the specific item to begin.  This raises the cost for media outlets.

Today’s online news cycle requires events be covered right after they occur. The days when progressives waited until the Bay Guardian came out with the progressive spin on the past week’s events are long gone. At last week’s opening of a special exhibit on the Tenderloin Times at the Tenderloin Museum, speakers addressed the challenges a monthly publication faces in today’s online world.

I think the killing of SFist and similar  sites increases dependency on Facebook and Twitter for local news. Facebook and Twitter “solve” the problem of hiring reporters. People attending news events post photos with comments as the experience unfolds, and they get their “stories” out even before the next day’s newspaper.

Does a Facebook post written by an event participant have the same impact as a news story in which the reporter quotes from public testimony? Of course not. Nor do live tweets from those attending protests or events match an actual news story.

But this is where we are headed unless wealthy progressives decide to start investing in local news.  This is the reality of what Joe Ricketts’ outrage has reminded us.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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