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

Mr. Ricketts, who owns a movie business called the American Film Company, was in France for the Cannes Film Festival

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 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, 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?”


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