Billionaire Trump donor shuts down local news sites after staff votes to unionize

More than 100 journalists are out of a job after the Trump-allied owner suddenly pulled the plug.

In this Feb. 16, 2005 file photo, Ameritrade chairman and founder Joe Ricketts talks to shareholders  in Omaha, Neb. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Weaver, File
In this Feb. 16, 2005 file photo, Ameritrade chairman and founder Joe Ricketts talks to shareholders in Omaha, Neb. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Weaver, File

In a blow to the labor movement and local news coverage across the country, two sites covering local news and politics in several major U.S. cities were shut down suddenly Thursday evening.

The sites, DNAinfo and Gothamist, were owned by billionaire TD Ameritrade founder, Trump donor, and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts. His decision leaves 115 journalists out of work in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Just last week, the staff in New York voted to unionize. Ricketts, who deleted negative coverage of himself when he acquired the Gothamist properties in March, has threatened to shut down the site in the past if the writers attempted to unionize.

On Thursday, he made good on the promise.

“The decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful,” a spokesperson for DNAinfo told the New York Times.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, laying off employees because they are engaged in union activity is illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that shutting down an entire business — like Ricketts chose to do Thursday — is one permissible form of retaliation.

Ricketts, who is worth more than $2 billion, also released a statement Thursday. In it, he claimed the decision to shut down the sites was because they weren’t profitable, despite the fact that the sites have consistently garnered 9 million unique visitors per month, according to Ricketts himself.

“DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” the statement said. “And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.”

If nothing else, the sites were making enough money to pay their reporters their full salaries for at least four more months; DNAinfo told the Times that the journalists who lost their jobs will receive four months of paid leave and three weeks of severance pay.

In September, Ricketts wrote in a blog post entitled “Why I’m Against Unions At Businesses I Create” that he believes “unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.”

Ricketts’ decision not only left 115 people without jobs, but, in a craven move, he also deleted DNAinfo and Gothamist’s archives, meaning the unemployed journalists won’t have access to their past work when they apply for new positions.

As Gothamist reporter Dave Colon, who helped lead the effort to unionize the New York newsroom, put it on Twitter, “Please be aware that a craven piece of shit billionaire killed journalism.”

“DNAinfo and Gothamist are being killed. We were the best in the game and I can’t put into words what a loss this is to NYC news,” DNAinfo reporter Noah Hurowitz tweeted. “This is an act of direct retaliation for our successful union effort. I have no regrets. We did the right thing, stood tall. I am proud.”

The move to shut down the sites was unexpected and sudden. One reporter said on Twitter that he had gone to the bathroom and by the time he came back, everyone had lost their jobs.

The shuttering of DNAinfo and Gothamist is a major blow to local media around the country. The sites delivered hard-hitting, neighborhood-centric news and worked consistently to hold local politicians accountable.