Yesterday a family of local news websites — including DNAinfo and Gothamist — shut down with no warning. I didn’t read these sites (they covered New York), but judging from my friends’ tweets they were beloved. Why would popular news sites shut down abruptly? A company spokesperson explained: “The decision by the NY editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful.” So this was a financially-motivated decision. Much of the coverage I’ve seen has focused on the fact the sites’ owner — Joe Ricketts — is a billionaire. The implication seems to be that it’s not fair for him to pull the plug on these ventures because he has a lot of money.
I won’t comment on the way the shutdown was done other than to say it seemed abrupt, with no warning to employees or readers, and this aggravated reactions. The point I want to get across is that as owner of these enterprises, Mr. Ricketts has the right to do with them as he pleases. If they’re not performing up to the standards he expects, it’s his prerogative to shut them down. Even though these websites provided information that brought communities together, they were not community assets. They were private information environments, and the people who used them were guests there — not financial stakeholders.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The internet is neutral with regards to business models; it can host sites owned by private companies equally well as sites owned by the community of people who use them. We gravitate towards the former. Why? For one, familiarity: private ownership is the way it was done in pre-internet days when spinning up a publishing business was an expensive proposition. For another, the people who take the initiative want to be remunerated for their work, and the means our society has for doing that is through private enterprise.
Current infrastructure allows us to explore alternatives to private ownership. Online publishing is cheap and ubiquitous, and cryptocurrencies make it possible to establish different ownership and remuneration structures. Local news information environments can be a central component of healthy, resilient communities; places where we convene with our neighbors to develop shared frames of reference. What would an information environment that provided local news and was owned by its community look like?