Local Hero: News Futurists DNAinfo Replicate Across the Outer Boroughs and Chicago

Another bit of genetic makeup that DNAinfo shares with its tabloid ancestors is a billionaire at the helm. The New York Post has Rupert Murdoch, the Daily News has Mort Zuckerman, and DNAinfo has J. Joseph Ricketts. Mr. Ricketts, 70, is a founder of online brokerage TD Ameritrade. In 2009, he cracked the Forbes 400. Last month he stepped down from the board to focus on other investments, although his family still owns 15 percent of the company.

But unlike the news products of his fellow billionaires, DNAinfo never looks like a vanity project, in part, because Mr. Ricketts already has a handful of those. Since stepping down as Ameritrade’s CEO in 2001, Mr. Ricketts has been an adventurous investor and entrepreneur.

In 2008, he founded the American Film Company, a production studio dedicated to making movies about heroes of American history. The company’s first film was The Conspirator (2010), about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Forthcoming features are about Paul Revere’s midnight ride and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Like fellow media mogul Ted Turner, Mr. Ricketts has a bison ranch. In 2004, he founded High Plains Bison, “the official lean meat of the Chicago Cubs.” (Mr. Ricketts has also been a coowner of the team since 2009.) In a video on the High Plains website, Mr. Ricketts rides into the frame on a four-wheeler ATV in front of a mountain range in order tout the health benefits of choosing low fat, low cholesterol bison over beef.

About DNAinfo, however, he tends to keep quiet.

Mr. Ricketts is an active political conservative. Last year he founded Taxpayers against Earmarks, now known as Ending Spending, and Ameritrade’s PACs fund Republican congressional campaigns. But compared to some other New York media moguls, Mr. Ricketts and his politics are far from DNAinfo’s pages. The site doesn’t even have an editorial page.

In early 2009, he reached out to Columbia Journalism School digital media professor Sree Sreenivasan for guidance. He wanted to invest in new media, and he wanted to do it on the local level. Mr. Sreenivasan, who teaches a remedial Twitter class for journalists, was impressed by Mr. Rickett’s interest and grasp of where journalism was headed technologically.

They weren’t wedded to the idea of launching DNAinfo in New York. It seemed ludicrous to launch another Manhattan media company when the city’s legacy institutions were folding. But with an unprecedented pool of available journalism talent, the timing was too propitious to pass up.

Although Mr. Ricketts had no experience in the media industry, he understood information revolutions. In its sensible, bubble-proof way, the Omaha-based Ameritrade had led Wall Street in figuring out how to integrate consumer technology like the touch-tone phone and the Internet to brokerage services.

At DNAinfo’s launch in December 2010, Mr. Ricketts told Crain’s that founding a media company felt akin to “running into a burning building,” but he seems determined to find a sustainable business model for news.

According to company literature, Mr. Ricketts founded DNAinfo on the following principles: “News stories should be told by journalists who rely on facts, not spin”; “News reporting should be useful, fun, and fearless”; and “A nimble news operation available across all digital platforms can attract viewers and make money.”

The fatal flaw of the hyperlocal model is that local business display advertisements, for the most part, can’t fund journalism. Small businesses can’t afford ad agencies, so they are difficult to reach without serious man power on the sales side and are easily lured toward the quick cash flow of local deals sites. But perhaps not for long.

According to Ms. de Kretser, DNAinfo’s locally embedded reporters are its best marketing tool. It’s often after interfacing with a DNAinfo reporter that a local business inquires about advertising opportunities. And as small businesses grow disenchanted with Groupon and its competitors, which have been less successful at breeding loyal customers than in unleashing a firehose of coupon clippers, there is an opening for DNAinfo. The site’s display advertising promotes special deals at the salons and restaurants in the neighborhoods they cover

DNAinfo’s rates are low, but Ms. de Kretser, who also serves as DNAinfo’s publisher, said the precise targeting pleases advertisers and the click-through rates are “quite amazing.”

The company is also developing a paid content revenue stream, in its Crime and Safety Reports, for which it charges $3.99. That’s pretty steep for data routinely offered up by The New York Times, but their interactive report is much more comprehensive and contextualized. In addition to raw data (robberies up, murders down), the report includes a timeline of famous New York crime, news stories about local crimes in each neighborhood, and neighborhood demographic histories that should be required reading for gentrifiers as they peruse Craigslist sublets.

“When rapper Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] Smalls was growing up on St. James Place, few would have pegged the neighborhood as the next destination for yuppies,” says the Clinton Hill neighborhood crime report. “A few years back, Biggie’s old apartment building went condo. The price for the rapper’s childhood flat? A cool half-million bucks.”

The next project is a directory of businesses in New York. Even if it’s as rich and readable as the crime report is, at $3.99 per report, it’s not going to save the news business any time soon. Despite promising growth in traffic and clout, DNAinfo will likely all be dependent on the benevolence of its wealthy owner for a long time, just like its newsprint rivals. According to Mr. Sreenivasan, still a DNAinfo columnist, that’s not such a bad thing.

“This is a time of great flux in the media industry,” he said. “We need as many different business models working at the same time as we can get.”

kstoeffel@observer.com

Comments

  1. Sending this out to all my journalism students and alums – great piece, Kat.