News & Politics

The Death of DCist Wasn’t Just a Labor Decision. It Was a Digital Book Burning

DCist's restored homepage on Friday.

On Thursday, DCist, the publication I gave nearly two years of my life to, vanished because its billionaire owner decided snuffing out journalism was preferable to recognizing some of his employees’ decision to form a labor union.

An archived version of the site, of which I was an editor from 2011 to 2013, was published early Friday afternoon. There’s a lot of anger to be flung around when a guy like Joe Ricketts—who bought DCist’s parent company, Gothamist LLC, in March with intention of combining it with his other local-news operation, DNAInfo—chooses to pull the plug instead of facing a round of collective bargaining. A guy who’s worth a reported $2.1 billion, founded an online brokerage firm, donates wads of cash to Donald Trump, and owns the Chicago Cubs is a worthy target for outrage from anyone incensed by a knee-jerk anti-labor move.

Beyond canning 115 people across the country because a couple dozen of folks in New York decided they wanted a fairer shake in how they’re treated at work, what was just as infuriating was the brief decision to zap more than a decade’s worth of content. It’s difficult to say how many articles DCist published since its 2004 founding. If I was able to crank out 3,067 items in roughly 20 months, according to my old author page, we’re probably talking about a number of articles in the hundreds of thousands.

Many, if not most of those articles were published when DCist was—like all of Gothamist’s sites—aggregation-driven. But there was always a ton of great, original stuff in there, too. DCist, branded in my day as a “website about Washington, DC and everything that happens there,” could actually present comprehensive coverage of the entirety of its hometown, but at any given moment, it was a window into the local zeitgeist.

Being a digital-only publication that morphed from communal blogging to a small shop hungry to do original journalism allowed DCist to be fun and ambitious without any of the fussiness of legacy media. Every iteration of the site celebrated DC, but nothing about the city was ever considered too precious not scrutinize. There were two guiding principals: give people interesting stories about their communities, and tell congressional interlopers to bugger off.

But now all that material lives on only through the benevolence of an owner who does not appear to show much capacity for that human quality. That includes stories about workplace harassment at the Library of Congress, a Loudoun County official who co-opted a New Jersey couple’s engagement photos for an anti-LGBT campaign in Colorado, Uber’s rough and controversy-filled entrance into the DC market, and the time Andrew W.K. got mixed up with the State Department. And those are just a few of my bylines. Just as tenuous is Sommer Mathis’s coverage of DC’s transformation in the post-recession development bubble; Martin Austermhule’s series on medical marijuana, statehood, and the federal investigations into corrupt local politicians; Sarah Anne Hughes’s dogged work on the city’s woeful homeless shelters; Matt Cohen’s work on the search for Relisha Rudd, who’s been missing since 2014; Rachel Sadon exposing shoddy infrastructure at schools and parks; and Rachel Kurzius translating the city’s mood in the age of Trump.

And there’s so much more that made DCist a purveyor not just of fine journalism, but fine journalists, thanks to its roster of freelancers. Pablo Maurer, in addition to being one of the few beat reporters covering DC United soccer, expanded into a series of photo galleries and essays about abandoned places in DC and beyond. Maurer’s been able to sell the photos to other publishers, but he now needs to find new editors to print the accompanying words. Pat Padua’s biting, often contrarian film reviews going back to 2010 have led to gigs with the Washington Post. Heather Goss‘s corralling local photographers into a community with annual exhibitions took her to Smithsonian magazine. There are too many others to fit in one article, let alone the many whose contributions preceded or followed my employment with DCist.

Not long after Ricketts announced he was killing Gothamist and DNAInfo, many people suggested looking to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or downloading content through Google’s cache. Those were noble recommendations, but would have been incomplete. The Wayback Machine requires knowledge about URLs, and versions stored in Google’s memory banks do not last long enough. And, sure, many of the subjects DCist wrote about were covered by others, but not all of them, and certainly not with the attitude with which the site approached the world.

As an archive gathering digital dust, DCist will at least remain functional for former employees who want to review their work or save a writing sample. It’ll maybe generate enough lazy ad revenue for Ricketts to cover the cloud server. Most important, it’ll let readers revisit a chapter of Washington’s recent history. I can’t speak for the other cities’ reactions, but the only heartening part of this has been the response from people who read DCist for years to get another slice of how this city works. That includes people who often came under the site’s scrutiny, like Mayor Muriel Bowser, members of the DC Council, and members of Congress.

Still, even a corpse version of DCist that exists only to pop up in Google searches and provide Ricketts with a few extra bucks will be a brutal reminder of how quickly online-only publications can be extinguished on a billionaire’s whim. A newspaper going out of business is tragic, but when it happens, we don’t torch the old issues or yank the microfilms from the local library. Gawker’s remains linger, like an online graveyard, only because they’re owned by a bankruptcy estate. But, as the Wall Street Journal reported last month, even that could go away after further litigation or a forced asset sale.

So here’s hoping the taxidermy versions of DCist and its deceased siblings bring in enough money to keep the servers running on neutral. Because there’s nothing else to stop a miserly 74-year-old billionaire in Omaha from removing them again and carrying out a digital book burning.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.