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.
Mr. Ricketts, who owns a movie business called the American Film Company, was in France for the Cannes Film Festival and unavailable for an interview. In an email exchange with The Observer, he explained that he started DNAinfo here-and not in, say, Jackson Hole-because he loved Manhattan neighborhoods and believed, in general, that there was an “under-served market for concise, factual, original local content.”
John Sutter, the longtime publisher of Community Media, a network of local newspapers and Web sites in Manhattan, including Downtown Express, The Villager and Chelsea Now, disagrees. “The easiest thing to do in publishing is to spend money,” he said. “The hardest thing to do is to earn money to pay for your operations.”
Mr. Sutter said that in recent months, he has lost a number of talented employees to DNAinfo and (what he believes to be) their higher salaries. “A charismatic benefactor has opened his wallet and attracted serious journalistic talent,” he said. “We’ll see if this exercise can transcend into a media property capable of supporting its journalism. When they do develop a revenue model in cyberspace, they’re going to find that it is a very crowded space. They’re going to confront some of the people that they think they’re moving ahead of, like us-traditional newspapers with very viable Web sites.”
Currently, the only advertisement running on DNAinfo.com is for High Plains Bison (“Buy 4 Bison NY Strips, Get 2 Extra Steaks” $69.99, free shipping)-a company owned by Mr. Ricketts’ family.
MS. DE KRETSER said that DNAinfo recently expanded its sales team, and Mr. Ricketts is keen on profitability. “He comes to New York all the time,” said Ms. de Kretser. “It’s not a vanity project. He genuinely cares.”
For years, hyper-local news-gathering on the Web was dominated by small-time players-neighborhood-gadfly types dedicated to their blogspots. Recently, however, larger investors have begun launching professionally staffed sites, muscling in on the field. In Washington, Allbritton Communications, the owner of Politico, is pouring money into a new Web-only local news venture, TBD.com. And AOL recently revealed plans to spend up to $50 million over the next year to expand Patch, a network of local-news neighborhood sites, with operations in communities around the country.
New-media consultant and author Jeff Jarvis told The Observer that CUNY research has found that hyper-local bloggers today, who were covering neighborhoods and towns of 50,000 people, were bringing in $200,000 in annual revenue. With a few tweaks, he said, there are profits to be made.
But he cautioned that New York is the grand exception to all rules. “We have many papers and a highly contested marketplace,” he said. “The rest of the country is not like that.”
Nevertheless, he said that Patch (for whom he has consulted) is on its way into this market. “I just don’t think they’re going to try New York as a whole,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities here. DNAinfo just has to find its place.”
For the foreseeable future, DNAinfo will continue to try and lure in larger local audiences with writing and reporting that is straightforward and to the point. For the most part, phrases don’t turn. Narratives don’t arc.
“We try and have some fun with stories,” said Ms. de Kretser. “There’s no reason to bore people to tears. But I think people want to read something for the information and to know what’s going on. There are already established leaders in narrative journalism. Why would you get into that?”
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