New York City now has its very own nonprofit news website.
The City launched on Wednesday morning, six months after the project was first announced. The lead story was about the spending habits of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.
The project describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.”
There are versions of this model cropping up all across the United States, partly in reaction to the struggles of old-fashioned local news sources. Some of these nonprofits are brand new, while others have been around for years.
But The City, at thecity.nyc, is getting extra attention because it is launching in the nation’s media capital and because it is financed to the tune of $8.5 million by foundations and individual donors. It’s also very New York. Its homepage on Wednesday has headlines on local pols, subway congestion and social justice. Its logo features an image of a pigeon. The site is seeking reader suggestions for what to name it.
Here, The City’s editor in chief Jere Hester and chairman of the board Ben Smith field questions about what the new newsroom is setting out to accomplish. This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
What’s the launch day plan? What do you want people to take away from the first day of The City?
Jere Hester: “We’re hoping to make a splash with what we’re confident is a slate of top-notch stories that will grab attention in the halls of power and on the streets of the city. We want New Yorkers to know from Day One that there’s a new journalism outlet in town that’s here to listen to their concerns, dig into them and deliver high-impact journalism. We also want people to know that we have no paywall: We’re here to serve.”
What’s the financial model? Will you be trying to turn your neighbors into “City” members?
Ben Smith: “The City relies on the support of foundations and endowments, corporate sponsors, events and, yes, members, a successful model for places like The Texas Tribune and NPR and its member stations. This nonprofit model allows The City to make its stories available to the public (including fellow local journalists and news outlets across New York) at no cost.”
Do you intend for this site to fill some of the void left by the closing of DNAinfo, the shuttering of The Village Voice, and last year’s mass layoffs at the New York Daily News?
Hester: “Closings and cutbacks have greatly diminished the flow of local news in New York and beyond. We’re aiming to bring an infusion of strong enterprise, beat and neighborhood coverage to the five boroughs. And we’re proud to have hired a team of reporters and editors who truly represent the city we cover. But we’re not looking to replace anyone as much as add to the local news ecosystem. We see ourselves as really new players in a largely post-competition landscape. We’re here to collaborate: Our work will be free for other news organizations to use. We’re also open to teaming on stories. Our view, especially during this crisis period for local news, is that we’re all in this together.”
There’s a growing number of these nonprofit news startups in cities and towns across the country. What have you and your fellow board members learned from the others?
Smith: “One big lesson is that you need to come in hot and play at the highest level… Another is that it’s vital that your team reflects the diversity of the city you cover, and I’m so excited about the team at The City on that front, as many others. Finally, The City is very focused on making sure we run a first-rate, efficient business and are good stewards of every dollar. We’ll spend the vast majority of that money on the salaries of journalists.”
The name suggests big ambitions, but you’re starting with a small team. Do you look at other nonprofit news websites as model for growth? Which ones?
Hester: “We find endless inspiration in nonprofit outlets like ProPublica, The Marshall Project, The Texas Tribune, Chalkbeat, The Hechinger Report and more. We’re just getting started, but we’re vying to build on the model — and hopefully become a model ourselves for urban nonprofit journalism as we grow. Yes, we’re a relatively small team of 18 journalists. But we’re aiming to punch above our weight as we produce hard-hitting, people-and-data-driven reporting that serves New Yorkers.”
You previously said you planned to start publishing articles in January. What took longer than expected? What have been the most difficult parts of the pre-launch phase?
Hester: “We’ve actually been publishing articles since late January, via Twitter threads, and through the Intelligencer site at New York magazine. We have a great partnership with the New York magazine folks, who have been an incredible resource, especially on the design and tech fronts. We’ve got an amazing team of journalists, who came together over about three months. The most difficult part of the launch phase has been staying patient as the site and all the other pieces needed to start a news organization from scratch have come together. We can’t wait for the city to experience the full breadth of The City’s work.”
Ben, you have a very busy “day job” running BuzzFeed News. Why take this on?
Smith: “Like a lot of people who started out in local news — most journalists I’d say — I’m obsessed with it, petrified by its decline, and really glad to be able to help this project. But Jere and the team are doing the editorial work here, I’m just a volunteer.”
There was some “backstage drama,” as one of your rivals, the New York Post, put it last month: The site’s executive director Kai Falkenberg quit, citing unspecified “concerns.” What happened?
Smith: “I would like to thank Mr. Murdoch for the New York welcome. Honestly, I’m thrilled the Post sees The City (rightly!) as an important new entrant and is throwing this very traditional kind of elbow. (They may not have totally caught on to Jere’s collaborative spirit.) In fact, we parted with Kai with lots of respect, nothing outside the usual of what happens in any startup. Our current publisher, John Wotowicz, has been in place since December and is leading an incredibly strong and nimble business side.”
What does success look like for The City?
Smith: “The City will succeed by playing a role injecting energy into the whole news ecosystem, holding public officials accountable, and getting demonstrable action on the stories its reporters bring to light.”