In March, Manhattan news site DNAinfo.com broke a big story about accused Upper East Side madam Anna Gristina. Media critics noted that the site had gotten to the story before the city’s tabloids, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, which tend to have first dibs on such copy. Wrote Joe Pompeo of Capital New York:
Both papers got beat by DNAinfo.com, a scrappy newcomer that has been nipping at its elder print counterparts’ heels for about the past two years.
Yes, DNAinfo.com beat the tabs, though it doesn’t consider them the competition. Or anyone else, for that matter. “We don’t really have direct competition in New York because we’re the only people who focus on the neighborhoods,” says DNAinfo.com Editorial Director and Publisher Leela de Kretser. We’ll have to see what the Queens Chronicle has to say about that.
After breaking the classic Manhattan story, DNAinfo.com is now going after classic Queens stories, classic Brooklyn stories, classic Bronx stories and classic Staten Island stories. It’s going after them with bodies, too: Fifteen new journalists are coming on board to accomplish its quadri-borough build-out, which is platformed on a redesigned site that just debuted. According to de Kretser, DNAinfo.com will have about 40 reporters and editors and a total staff of 65.
Good ratios and trends lines right there. Any local news operation that hires 15 people to do anything in the year 2012 invites eyebrow-lifting from media watchers. That’s because the usual headline moves the opposite way, that of laying off 15 editorial staffers. Or many more. In this industry, a hiring spree for local news is sort of like hearing a whimper under the rubble of an earthquake: Has someone figured out how to survive this thing?
De Kretser argues that DNAinfo.com has found a bona fide way out of the mess. The idea is relentless neighborhood news and relentless neighborhood sales. Just the way that the site’s reporters pound the streets for stories, that’s the way that the sales people pound, too. “Our reps ... are just as devoted to their neighborhoods as the reporters; they re definitely part of the neighborhoods,” says de Kretser. The result, she says, is New York’s commercial streetscape transposed onto a Web site: “I’m pretty sure we had 150 advertisers on the site in first quarter alone,” says de Kretser. DNAinfo.com hasn’t gone after national advertisers but may in the future.*
Characterizing the editorial product requires a Journalistic Genre Mixmaster. It has the neighborhood culture stories you might expect from a Dupont Current (if the latter would just invest in a Web site, that is); the crime obsession of a tabloid; and a food-drink-events component reminiscent of an alt-weekly/city mag like Washington City Paper/Washingtonian.
Says Tony Ortega, top editor of the Village Voice: “They seem to be doing well with the ‘hyperlocal’ thing that everyone was advocating a couple of years ago. By doing well I mean that they are breaking stories like a local tab and seem to be getting better readership,” writes Ortega via e-mail. De Kretser says the site has been tallying more than a million unique visitors per month for more than a year. “When you consider that Manhattan has 1.5 million people, that’s amazing,” she says.
The competition may not see anything particularly transformative in DNAinfo.com’s neighborhood strategies. Mark Weidler is the president and publisher of the Queens Chronicle, a publication that covers a single borough not with seven but eight separate editions. When apprised of de Kretser’s boast about her site being the only New York outlet committed to neighborhood coverage, Weidler responded, “Well, I don’t know if that person was referring to Manhattan, but if they’re referring to Queens, plain and simple I’d say it’s ridiculous, . . . Maybe they didn’t do any research in Queens.” For the record, I checked with de Kretser, and she was indeed referring to Manhattan, Queens and the whole lot. These DNAinfo.com people have moxie.
The “QChron,” says Weidler, has an editorial staff of 10 and a circulation of
150,000 160,000 (unaudited). If DNAinfo.com is looking to see how a traditional news source corrals cash, perhaps it should behold the Chronicle: 95 percent of the outfit’s revenue, says Weidler, comes from the print product.
DNAinfo.com launched in November 2009 and drew my interest not long after. In early 2010, I took a job as editor of start-up local news site, TBD.com, a creation of the Allbritton Communications Co., publisher of Politico and operator of the Washington area’s ABC affiliate. One contrast between the two operations is that we at TBD.com launched with a deep community-engagement team of six staffers, who were charged with building relationships with local bloggers and otherwise getting community content onto TBD.com. The site also gorged on links supplied by a squadron of contract aggregators equipped with a long list of local news sources.
DNAinfo.com’s staffing model draws its inspiration from a time before journo-buzzwords. “We do a lot of journalism for the citizens in the community but it’s not so much citizens doing journalism for us,” says de Kretser. “We do a lot of engagement, but we didn’t believe that what we needed was citizens reporting on the neighborhood. They needed professionals.” That surely sealed an endorsement from the International Brotherhood of Newsroom Curmudgeons.
Another contrast between DNAinfo.com and my former roost relates to staffing history. TBD started big (more than 30 editorial bodies at launch) and went small (anyone still over there?); DNAinfo.com started small (a dozen editorial people at launch) and is going big (after this round of hires, its staff will be in the 40s).
The growth is good for the people at DNAinfo.com, good for the communities it covers and good for media critics. Whether it’s good for all of journalism is something we cannot know. When asked whether the site is sustaining itself or even coming close, de Kretser does what most top officials at privately held operations do. “I can’t comment on that,” she says.
What we do know is that the site is owned by a guy who can afford the asphalt for a long, smooth runway. Joseph Ricketts is the founder of Ameritrade and is commonly referred to as a billionaire. “His investment allows us to do this.. . . He wants a profitable media company, and that’s what I think we’ll be,” says de Kretser. Ricketts has not responded to a request for comment, though his commitment is clear: DNAinfo.com is not only sprouting in the boroughs but in Chicago as well.
Hopefully Ricketts & Co. will produce a long-term winner that other news entrepreneurs will follow, once they gather the cash to deal with early losses. They may not want to copy everything about the model, however. “Honestly, the thing that has puzzled me the most about it is the name,” says Ortega. “Sounds like a medical or science site. I mean, I just don’t get it.”
*Originally said that the site is “eschewing” national advertisers.