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 Brown“We’ve been trying to build a real company, which you now see around you,” Dobkin says. “No one ever gave us any money. We paid for all this out of our profits.”

Gothamist now gets two million unique visitors per month. The Times, Gawker, Huffington Post, and thousands of other sites link to Gothamist regularly. The New York Times Book Review called the blog “marvelous, not-to-be-missed . . . a crystal ball that reflects everything worth knowing about this city.”

You can see how rumors get started.

Dobkin was born and raised in Brooklyn “around a lot of militant leftists — ex-Weathermen, hard-line Stalinists — the normal crowd you’d find at the Park Slope Food Co-op,” he says. His mother, an RN, works for the Nurse-Family Partnership in Harlem, and his father, a lawyer, defends the poor in housing cases. “Growing up, there was this idea that doing something meaningful and positive was much more important than making money. Making money was very much frowned upon.” Dobkin smiles, a little guiltily. “I’ve always had a complicated relationship with money. Very complicated.”

Chung, the daughter of a businesswoman and a civil engineer — immigrants from Hong Kong — seems less conflicted on that count. She grew up in northern New Jersey (“I always had New York envy”), and the family took frequent trips to the city: the Guggenheim, Radio City, and Chinatown for dim sum and groceries. At home, the Chungs received the New York Times and the local paper, as well as Time and Newsweek. Chung consumed it all. When she was thirteen, her parents bought her a subscription to a new magazine called Entertainment Weekly.

Now, in her thirties, Chung is costar of a media extravaganza that has traveled to nine other cities: there is an LAist, a DCist, a Chicagoist, a Shanghaiist. (None roll off the tongue as nicely as the original, and there is not yet a Minneapolisist.) For the three foreign sites (Shanghai, London, Toronto), Gothamist LLC gets a licensing fee in exchange for domain use and tech support. The US sites are run through the New York office, and the “-ists” of LA, Chicago, and San Francisco are the most popular independent blogs for those cities.

Photograph by Nicole BrownThat’s a lot of crystal balls (actually, a lot of editors — another dozen full-timers outside New York), but, then, Chung and Dobkin have always had a big vision for the business. While they value their role as news aggregators (“It’s an essential function and always has been,” Dobkin says), what they’d really like is for Gothamist to become both the best aggregator and the best original news source. The dream got a little closer to reality this March, when Dobkin and reporter Robbins, with the help of former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel, finally attained press credentials. You could almost hear the jitters at the Post.

“I’m a really big believer in original news, and increasingly, as we hire editors, we look for reporting experience,” says Dobkin. He smiles, and a wink of sunlight flashes in his glasses. “Imagine what we could do with twenty reporters.”

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