Did union vote prompt billionaire Joe Ricketts to close down digital news sites?

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A bolt out of the blue, with few traces now left behind

Joe Ricketts was just a kid in Omaha when Woody Guthrie was adapting "You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union" from the gospel classic, "Lonesome Valley." It's safe to say that Ricketts, the multi-billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, didn't know the words, and certainly doesn't care for their thrust:

You gotta go down and join the union
You gotta join it for yourself
Ain't nobody here can join it for you
You gotta go down and join the union for yourself

Brother's going down to join the union
He's gotta join it for himself
Ain't nobody here can join it for him
He's gotta go down and join the union for himself

Last week workers at Ricketts-owned DNAInfo and the Gothamist in New York voted to go union with the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO (WGAE), which represents such wild-haired, left-leaning, government-hating, revolution-seeking fellow travelers as writers at "The Daily Show," "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," "Law & Order SVU," the ABC and CBS broadcast news, and public TV shows such as "Sesame Street."

Yes, it represents those obviously anti-establishment provocateurs who put words right into the mouths of Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert and Oscar the Grouch. The FBI should be lurking.

 And then there are the digital news staffs at VICE, HuffPost, The Intercept, Gizmodo Media Group (Splinter, Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, The Root, Lifehacker, Kotaku, io9, Jalopnik, Earther), ThinkProgress, MTV News, Thrillist and Salon. It's a small group that was joined by DNAInfo and the Gothamist, which hoped to thoughtfully and understatedly bargain a first labor contract.

"We look forward to working with management to come up with a contract that safeguards workers and ensures the editorial and financial future of both outlets," their organizing committee declared last week. "This vote came after a long campaign for voluntary recognition, and we want to thank everyone who supported our effort to protect the workers of DNAinfo and Gothamist, which have been widely recognized as indispensable to local and neighborhood news in New York City.”

Well, in a move that smacks of both turn-of-the-century (the 19th century) robber baron disdain and current media complexities, Ricketts said screw it to all that and announced that he was shutting down the New York operations, as well as ones (that hadn't voted for unionization) in Chicago, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. A total of 115 employees, including journalists and ad salespeople, are now out in the cold.

"DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure," Ricketts said in a formal statement.

This insight is notable for both its apparent banality and timing, so soon after a vote surely displeasing to a notoriously conservative entrepreneur and despite the reality of his having lost money on the enterprise since it opened.

He intensely disliked President Barack Obama and caused a furor when publicly linked to a 2010 plan to spend $10 million in anti-Obama advertising, which he then disavowed amid obvious embarrassment to some family members. First and foremost, there was a daughter who is a diehard liberal, Obama partisan and openly gay. Her siblings include the Republican governor of Nebraska, the (very nice guy) chairman of the Chicago Cubs and a suburban Chicago bicycle shop owner who was improbably picked by President Trump to be a top Treasury Department official (he later opted out of the nomination process).

Oh, in an act that coincided with the shutdown, "The sites were scrubbed clean, wiping out years of reporting and making it impossible for DNA journalists to find links to their stories." An official of DNAInfo told The New York Times they would be "archived online."

This would appear to be the brainchild of a marketing graduate of the Joseph Stalin School of Management, perhaps employed by a man who was not big fan of President Trump either, or at least not until late in the 2106 campaign when it became clear no Republicans would upend him. Then he started writing big checks. Anybody but Hillary Clinton for him.

Ricketts had started DNAInfo in 2009 and this year merged with Gothamist. It's done terrific work. In Chicago, it broke lots of stories and covered many neighborhood happenings no longer a priority to the primary media. Mark Konkol, a Pulitzer Prize winner at the Chicago Sun-Times, left DNAInfo last year but not before several years of solid work, including big scoops.

My favorite was his beating the pants off the sports media, notably ESPN, by disclosing the cheating by the leaders of an  African-American team of Chicago kids who won the U.S. championship and made it to the Little World Series championship in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Remember? They were  a bonanza for ESPN and an inspiration to boys and girls nationwide. 

Then came whispers, a rumor or two and, finally, word of cheating: Apparently some team members were from outside its region's geographical boundaries. The Jackie Robinson West team was stripped of its title and litigation ensued. Here's a link to his work. Oops, I forgot. It doesn't work anymore. Nothing's there beyond Ricketts' announcement.

Well, you can read this: 115 people are stripped of work in covering and selling such stories. Their exits won't change the world (The New York Times alone has an editorial staff of 1,300). But it's an interesting footnote to the decline of old media and the fitful rise of new.

The Onion or The Washington Post?

"President Trump's Twitter account was deactivated for 11 minutes Thursday night by a company employee on the last day on the job, Twitter said, raising serious questions about the security of a tool the president uses to set major policy agendas, aggressively go after his critics, and connect with his core voter base."

Close call, for sure, but The Post.

Might AT&T-Time Warner deal get spurned?

Writes The Wall Street Journal, "The Justice Department is laying the groundwork for a potential lawsuit challenging AT&T Inc.’s planned acquisition of Time Warner Inc. if the government and companies can’t agree on a settlement, according to people familiar with the matter."

"The department’s antitrust division is preparing for litigation in case it decides to sue to block the deal, these people said."

Mother Jones' David Corn subject of internal investigation

I was emailing Andrew Seaman, a digital editor at Reuters in New York City who chairs the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, about an SPJ piece he's done on the current spate of harassment disclosures at media and the need for journalists to speak out. I joked about the relief of having gone all day without any new disclosure about a prominent journalist. He agreed, then later emailed, "Spoke too soon."

He attached this Politico story on David Corn, the smart and aggressive Mother Jones Washington bureau chief who had been investigated internally for inappropriate behavior. Some issues had come up several years ago, were looked into and remedied, say his superiors. Now some other emails have surfaced, and the hierarchy will inspect their crux.

While I had him, I asked Seaman about the role of management in all this, especially in at times being rather spineless. Yes, it's great to underscore the need of victims to come forward but what about bosses who may sit on their butts?

"The actions of management are big components in creating a good and safe newsroom culture. Newsroom leaders and managers need to be aggressive in informing their employees about policies and programs that foster such a culture. Of course, they first need to create those policies and programs. Most companies probably have policies to deal with allegations, but there needs to be more than just words on a piece of paper."

"Unfortunately, I think most companies only deal with policies and programs in the aftermath of events. They're not proactive. The reason my blog post doesn't really address managers is that I usually aim my messages to everyday journalists, who I think represent the majority of SPJ's membership. I also think they are — unfortunately — the ones who need to push their managers to make their policies and programs a reality. Journalists should also lobby to be part of the creation process to ensure the policies and procedures are customized for a newsroom's individual needs. Also, this may be off topic, but I think this approach to proactive policymaking should be extended to other issues, including how newsrooms handle online harassment from trolls and trauma."

The morning Babel

As new records in the Mueller investigation show that Chicago's George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to Trump who has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, "had frequent discussions with Russians in 2016 and trumpeted his connections in front of Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions," as put by The New York Times, the MSNBC and CNN spotlight was on the trouble this presents Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As John Heilemann (now flying solo without professional partner Mark Halperin) put it on "Morning Joe:"

"Jeff Sessions has repeatedly lied to Congress about administration contacts with Russia. ... Everybody related to the Trump campaign when they are asked about this lies about it and, when they are found out later, their immediate instinct throughout is to disassemble — whether their role is innocent or whether their role might have some nefarious overtones to it. This is the heart of the problem for them politically, and legally."

"Trump & Friends" went heavy with Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee interim chief, declaring that the Clinton campaign engaged in "unethical" contact that compromised party integrity by the campaign effectively taking financial control of the committee. It's a level of collusion that has even forced Fox-wary Clinton acolytes to do a double-take. Florida congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom Brazile replaced, comes off as a complete toady, with this further reaffirmation of how the political system is rigged.

Kicking a guy while he's done

Writing in The Weekly Standard, acerbic longtime essayist and academic Joseph Epstein takes on Washington literary lion Leon Wieseltier, who was felled by bad personal behavior that prompted Laurene Powell Jobs to kill plans for a new tony magazine he'd edit.  And he takes him on with no small relish.

"What made it all so rich, of course, was the Tartuffian quality of its perpetrator, Leon Wieseltier, the earnest young man who wrote to me from Oxford some 40 years ago. The great humanist turned out to be inhumane, the tzaddik wore no tzitzit but all these years was mentally undressing and offending his female co-workers. Untoppable, such a story, as Molière recognized nearly four centuries ago."

"Soon after the story of Leon Wieseltier’s years of sexual harassing broke, the wealthy widow canceled his new magazine, the Brookings Institution stripped him of his fellowship, the Atlantic dropped him from its masthead, other journals on whose boards he sat found him, to put it gently, an embarrassment."

"I, for one, shall miss Leon in, as he might say, the public square, or rather I shall miss his act, which over the years has been a source of high amusement for me, who viewed it as a one-man intellectual sitcom at the spectacle of which I may have been the only one laughing. In his middle sixties, now that he has been publicly shamed and self-confessed as a creep, the Leon Wieseltier Show would seem to be over. No comeback for its star, surely, is possible, or so one might think. But I wouldn’t bet on it."

Another day, another bleak newspaper earnings call

Poynter was among a small crew (once upon a time there was a real audience) that listened to Gannett's quarterly earnings call where one heard (again), "The revenue picture for USA Today and Gannett's 109 regional newspapers and digital sites was bleak. On a same property basis, total revenues were down 11 percent year-to-year. Print advertising was off 18.7 percent — roughly the same as at the New York Times Co. or fellow regional publishers Tronc and McClatchy."

"But circulation revenues were a problem too —- down 7.9 percent on a same property basis.  Digital audience grew to 125 million monthly uniques. However, except for gains in ad placements from the new marketing subsidiary, ReachLocal, digital advertising revenues were down 5.9 percent."

Trump's tax plan

Says The Wall Street Journal: "Heirs, Some Business Owners Are Winners in Tax Plan —
Highly paid employees in high-tax states and people who take medical deductions stand to lose under proposals in Republican bill."

And Bloomberg: "The Latest Unfinished Republican Tax Plan — You'd think no one could make the tax code worse. You'd be wrong."

Teen Vogue says bye to print

Conde Nast will ditch the print version of Teen Vogue, which has been very edgy in recent years, and try digital alone. It's part of a bunch of changes, notably layoffs and cutting down on print magazine frequency throughout most of the company, very much akin to what Time Inc. recently announced.

And while the bastions of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired, Brides and The New Yorker, are not expected to suffer frequency changes, others will. They include GQ, Glamour, W, Allure, Architectural Digest and Conde Nast Traveler. WWD reported around 80 layoffs, which is still relatively modest, or about 2.5 percent, in a workforce of about 3,000.

Ingraham's early days

Laura Ingraham's first week piloting the 10 p.m. slot at Fox News has included White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and last night the president himself (can't believe they bumped me for him). He bashed "the fake news" and asserted that no president has accomplished as much in as short a time. And that's before his tax plan changes our lives (and may shaft a lot of lower-income folks, but we shall see). And he posed with the host's new book, which should have it moving up those New York Times nonfiction rankings rapidly. Today's "get" will be a U.S Trade representative in advance of a big presidential trek to the Far East. A solid first week for Ingraham, and a lot easier to take than bombastic Sean Hannity, who had the slot and is now an hour earlier as the cable news leader navigates its post-Bill O'Reilly-Megyn Kelly prime time landscape.

A tweet storm on whether ISIS is tied to New York attack

Rukmini Callimachi was an intern at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights,, Illinois, unable to fulfill a dream and even get the time of day from the Chicago Tribune she craved to work for. She's now a fearless and ace terrorism reporter for The New York Times whose latest tweet storm involves whether there was ISIS involvement in the New York City truck attack. The group now claims that's the case but there's been reason for her to wonder, given how and when they've claimed credit in the past for incidents.

It was different. But the past may not be prologue in assessing its possible handiwork. "Several of its media emirs have been killed. It's possible we're in a new era where structures & patterns of past 3 yrs no longer hold," she emailed.

And she passed along a tweet from "a particular ISIS Guy (who) sometimes calls me Oinkmini Fatmachi. (Lol — he figured out I’m sensitive about my weight)." Yes, she routinely communicates with ISIS. And it usually doesn't bother her except when, of late, there's a "weird car idling outside my house in a deserted suburb."

A World Series post-mortem

It was fitting that the key hit in the deciding game of the Astros-Dodgers classic was a home run. A record number of homers were hit both during the regular season and in the series. What really is the deal? A "juiced" ball. Juiced players? The increasing use of metrics or changing batting strategies of hitters? Or lousy pitchers. I tracked down ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn who said:

"The consensus seems to be that no one really has a clue. I've seen arguments that the balls HAVE LESS DRAG, but with MIXED evidence behind it. Another is that the new stye of swing — that violent uppercut so many young hitters have — has contributed (a high risk/high reward strategy), which has more plausibility to me. And there are rumblings that the players are juiced again. I don't discount that so quickly."

"There is a new generation of drugs that are nearly impossible to detect and stimulate the body's ability to produce growth hormone and testosterone. I've seen some putatively smart people express outrage that anyone could suggest such a thing without hard evidence, but in the '90s it was clear something was going on and it took a while to gather evidence then. I can't look at any one of these guys and say I think he's a doper, but collectively, at the same time so many pitchers throw mid-to-high 90s, I don't think you can discount that something might be out there."

On the topic of the Astros, check out this short video of fans lining up to get a print version of the Houston Chronicle's coverage on Thursday.

Going after Mueller

The Onion or The Washington Post?

"Swerving hard as it sped away down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump’s limousine reportedly gunned it around a corner and through the streets of the nation’s capital Thursday in a frantic attempt to throw special counsel Robert Mueller from its roof."

Ah, this one is The Onion.

* * *

That's it for the week. There's a 13-year-old's' — oops, time flies! — 14-year-old's' birthday today, two birthday dinners, several soccer games in the 'burbs, a choir recital and a high school open house to check out. And Halloween candy wrappers to find in the oddest places around the house.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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