Three Birds, a Billionaire and the Hyper-Local Future of News

joe ricketts Three Birds, a Billionaire and the Hyper Local Future of News

On the morning of Monday, May 17, a Web site called DNAinfo.com published a story about a rooster named Napoleon Bonaparte and two hens, named Lucy and Apple. The story was a classic nugget of neighborhood reporting: a concise anecdote about how officials had made life better for an abandoned bird, which spoke to the broader renaissance within the park.

There are scores of community news sites in the city, but DNAinfo is particularly improbable: It’s the brainchild of Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and owner of the Chicago Cubs, who grew up in Nebraska and now lives in the wilds of Wyoming.

Why would a billionaire plainsman want to get mixed up in Lower East Side bird poop?

‘It’s not a vanity project. He genuinely cares.’ —Managing editor Leela de Kretser, former Newser employee

Like seemingly everyone else these days, Mr. Ricketts wants to figure out the future of news, and he has chosen the streets of New York to conduct an experiment of sorts. The name of his venture may sound more like a bio-genetics company than a earnest news site dedicated to zealously cover community board meetings and the like, but Mr. Ricketts chose the name (which stands for Digital Network Associates) to reflect the organization’s multimedia ambitions.

DNAinfo.com is now up and running, cranking out daily videos, brief articles and slide shows, focusing on the tick-tock-zoning disputes, fires, crimes, restaurant openings, transportation disputes, roosters-of 22 neighborhoods throughout Manhattan. The sleekly designed Web site went beta in November 2009 and is still finding its audience. According to estimates from Quantcast, DNAinfo.com was visited by slightly fewer than 35,000 unique visitors over the last month. 

In New York, Leela de Kretser, an Australian-born journalist, who previously assisted Michael Wolff in writing his biography of Rupert Murdoch and later worked at Mr. Wolff’s aggregation site Newser, oversees the editorial operations.

According to Ms. de Kretser, DNAinfo now has roughly 25 editorial employees and is continuing to hire. In addition to embedding reporters in specific neighborhoods, the site also has a handful of reporters covering beats such as politics, courts and crime. The organization, said Ms. de Kretser, incorporates social media, but it wants its professional, compensated writers to start the neighborhood conversations.

“Free content can be really interesting, particularly if you get enough of it that you can be choosy,” she said. “You set the tone of the conversation reasonably high with well-done news stories, and then add the free content-not the other way around.”

 

TYPICALLY, SELF-MADE businessmen buy media properties in New York to establish themselves as society players. But since starting DNAinfo, Mr. Ricketts has done little to puff up his profile here. There have been no lavish launch parties. No poaching of big-ticket writers. No hiring of celebrity columnists.

“Never heard of him,” said blogger-about-town David Patrick Columbia.