The Eyes of Gotham

How did Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin, cofounders of the New York blog Gothamist, turn a simple message board among friends into the hottest news source in town?

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2012
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Photograph by Nicole BrownThere have been other watersheds for the blog. Remember Hurricane Irene, when the city was going to be destroyed?  Gothamist featured a map of evacuation zones and got tens of thousands of new visitors after the servers for NYC.gov and NY1.com both went down. But if you had to pinpoint Gothamist’s breakthrough, its CNN/Gulf War moment, it would have to be the Great Gotham Pancake Syrup Mystery. In October 2005, and sporadically in the following weeks and months, an odor suggestive of Mrs. Butterworth after a hot-yoga workout pervaded much of the city, and Chung’s breaking coverage of the phenomenon spread thickly through the blogosphere.  Gothamist even whipped up a map so that people could identify the locations of the “smellings.” So central was Gothamist’s role in the affair that in 2009, when Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference at City Hall to announce, after years of investigation, the source of the smell (a fenugreek-seed processing plant in New Jersey), Chung was invited to attend.

One problem: real reporters don’t have to wait for invitations — a press pass is their entrée.  Gothamist, with its history of original reporting, had been trying to get press credentials from the NYPD since 2004. After months of delays, the department informed Gothamist that websites weren’t eligible. It wasn’t until 2010 that Dobkin could even apply for what he calls “this basic tool of doing news.” He was rejected. The same thing happened in 2011. For another year, Gothamist was kept on this side of the barricades.

Photograph by Nicole BrownIn the meantime, there were stories that the mainstream media weren’t covering that Gothamist could. “I’m always looking for a story with larger meaning than the story itself,” says Dobkin. “A bicyclist getting hit by a car: that may not sound like much, but it speaks to the conflict between young and old, rich and poor, people who bike and people who own cars. If a bicyclist is killed by a car in Williamsburg, it might not be news for the Times’s Metro section, because they have a news hole that can fit only twenty-five stories a day, but to us, it could be a real story. Who was the bicyclist? How did the accident happen?” 

Gothamist doesn’t always have to look far for material. Half the blog’s content is aggregated from other sites and retold in the Gothamist voice, or else supplied by camera-toting tipsters, often in the form of some serendipitous video, such as a rat in a subway car running across a sleeping man’s face. “Recently, someone sent us a picture of a hawk in Madison Square Park eating a pigeon in the most disgusting way possible,” says Dobkin. “But what was remarkable was that he wasn’t the only person to send us that picture. We got it from three or four people. What are the chances?”

The rest of Gothamist’s goods are homegrown: photos, video, and on-the-scene reportage. Amid the spectacle, there’s also a strong public-interest aspect that can be traced to Gothamist’s birth in 2002, when Chung realized how little she knew about her city. “How many twenty-somethings in New York know who their city councilperson is?” she recalls thinking. So she educated herself, and now writes many of Gothamist’s pieces on crime and local politics, with headings like “Hello, Gerrymandering: NY’s Sucky Proposed Redistricting Maps Will Probably Get Vetoed” and “‘I Am Not the Catwoman,’ Wails Convicted Robber.” Posts usually run from one hundred to three hundred words.

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