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 BrownAs on many blogs, the comments section is a combination clubhouse, graffiti wall, jury room, and kill zone — a group exercise in venting and verbal marksmanship whose favorite targets are yuppies, hipsters, and out-of-towners. Race-baiters and other sociopaths turn up reliably to fling dung, but other exchanges can be illuminating: a discussion of the unsolved murder of a Brooklyn café owner reads like a postmodern detective novel, in which the shrewd deductions of armchair sleuths accumulate into an intriguing literary document, and a post about a forty-two-car police escort speeding up First Avenue to Bellevue after a cop was shot in Bushwick prompts audience tidbits on NYC trauma centers and the art of the rolling roadblock. And where else would a snarling subway marsupial be hailed as “one tough-ass NY ’possum,” since, as a reader points out, your average country opossum, when confronted, rolls over and plays dead?

Chung and Dobkin met at Columbia in 1995. Both were transfer students — Dobkin from SUNY Binghamton and Chung from Smith College, where she was friends with Jake’s twin sister, Molly. Jake and Jen became friends, and after college they and their circle would chat during the workday via e-mail and instant messaging. This was during the dot-com bubble of 1999–2001. Chung was doing brand consulting and marketing, and Dobkin, who had been premed at Columbia — and who, in 1999, attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons for ten days before deciding he wasn’t long for hospital life — was working as an IT consultant.

One day in early 2002, Dobkin saw a blog for the first time, a site called Kottke.org, run by the pioneering blogger Jason Kottke. Dobkin’s immediate thought was, “I’d like to do this.” So he created a personal website where he could post his photographs, writings, and links to things that interested him. Chung would leave comments and supply her own links. Other friends joined in. Dobkin, seeing potential, tracked down blogging software that allowed multiple authors to post on the same site. This was the great leap: Chung and others could now post their own items about goings-on about town. Later in 2002, Dobkin moved the blog to a new domain, which he named Gothamist. “The first year, it was still very casual and conversational, maybe ten or twenty of us posting links,” he says. “I was surprised that pretty quickly, into 2003, we started seeing a few thousand visitors a day.”

What Chung and Dobkin would really like is for “Gothamist” to become both the best aggregator and the best original news source.

The following year, they landed their first ad, which paid for a new laptop for Chung. They got to know other New York bloggers and attracted a core of contributors who were willing to write for free. They also began to introduce the model to other cities. In 2005, Dobkin, having graduated from business school at NYU, decided he wanted to “do a startup” and make money. Gothamist was a fun hobby, but now Dobkin considered it from another angle. What if he devoted himself to it? Could Gothamist be the one? Dobkin called Chung, and the pair formalized a partnership. In June 2005, Dobkin went to work full-time on the blog. Chung, essentially working two jobs, quit her marketing gig in 2008 and committed herself wholly to Gothamist.

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