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Oh Hi: Gothamist

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Our first office door, 2008. (Jen Carlson/Gothamist)

And, we’re back! It’s really terrific to see you again. (Not that we can literally see you through the camera in your computer or smartphone; it’s just an expression) (You look great though.) Anyway, congrats on that thing you finally finished! Man, what an achievement. Anything else noteworthy happen in the last five months? Please let us know in the comments, which are wide open once again to provide a forum for an enlightening and respectful exchange of ideas. (As always, you can send us hot tips to tips@gothamist.com.)

For those of you just joining us: What even is Gothamist?

Gothamist is a website about New York City and everything that happens in it. We also produce pizza bagel instructional videos. In addition to marveling at the daily absurdities of life in this marvelous city, we believe a functional democratic society relies on an informed, engaged citizenry—if nothing else, Gothamist aspires to serve that mission on a local level. We are committed to telling the truth, dutifully reporting facts worth knowing, and shining light on the most pressing problems faced by all New Yorkers—telling vital stories about those who are struggling, and holding those in power accountable.

After getting shut down last November, Gothamist has been acquired by WNYC, a non-profit institution committed to strengthening local journalism. So far, eight former Gothamist staffers have rejoined the team to bring Gothamist back, and with your support, we hope to make Gothamist a more expansive, resilient publication.

We’ve come a long way. Jen Chung and Jake Dobkin cofounded Gothamist, a self-described “New York Group Blog,” in February 2003. This was the Dawn of Blogs, and the possibilities of instant Internet publishing were new and exhilarating. Gothamist evolved organically in these early years, with no investors or revenue stream, gradually becoming more professional and journalistic without losing its informal, eclectic style. Chung often said she wanted Gothamist to feel like it was written by a friend who was sharing what they found most fascinating about life in New York. That personal approach to examining the news of the day online was fresh at the time, and became an enduring part of Gothamist’s popularity.

As we embark on a new era at Gothamist, it seems appropriate to take a moment to look back at how Gothamist started in those early days. Below, some historical notes from Editorial Director Jen Carlson, Gothamist’s first full-time staffer, and Editor in Chief John Del Signore, the site’s second hire.

JEN CARLSON

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Me and my posture at our first office, 2008. (Photo by Katie Spence)

Almost exactly fourteen years ago, in the spring of 2004, I met up with Jake Dobkin at a bar called The Room on Sullivan Street. Gothamist was still very new, and was really just being run by him and Jen Chung at that point. I was being brought on to build an A&E section; it was not a paid position (for anyone), but my regular 9-to-5 job at Conde Nast, where my boss spent her days playing online Scrabble, was incredibly slow. In fact, it was there that I taught myself coding and built a personal blog on Geocities, which became my entry into this whole blogging thing.

There was a small group of NYC bloggers back then who connected online, and one night around this time we decided to meet each other in person at Pianos, a night that changed the course of blog history (for details on this event, and more about those early days of blogging, please give me a book deal). I threw all of my energy into Gothamist, I asked some of those bloggers to write for us (others already were!), and I knew we’d grow this thing into something bigger… it was already feeling bigger with each passing day, and friends in other cities started reaching out to launch their own -ists.

Soon after that first meeting with Jake, I got a Gothamist email address, access to Movable Type (the CMS we still use to this day), and was instructed to “put a team together… handle the organization and tone of the blog…” and deliver 15 posts a week. Once I was all set up, I worked on Gothamist whenever I had time, usually utilizing my nightstand as a desk and sitting on a duffle bag stuffed with clothes in my tiny Lower East Side apartment, which I shared with Jessica Coen, who was 10 feet away writing Gawker.

Before Gothamist had an office (before we even got our first ad — from Nike, a 300 x 250 banner), Chung held editorial meetings over group AIMs, and we would otherwise connect via chat and email. It was all very loose, but still felt legit, somehow. (I even went down to SXSW in 2005 to launch Austinist with Ben Brown, who would be editing that site, all before this was even a real job for me).

We also met up pretty frequently IRL, mostly for drinks. We had some joint parties at Nick Denton’s place on Spring Street (here’s one invite), but typically we’d host happy hours with our readers, our many contributors, and other local bloggers. These were almost exclusively held at The Magician, or at the Movable Hype shows that I started organizing for us—these each featured a lineup of three local bands, and were usually held at the old Knitting Factory on Leonard Street.

I asked comedians to host the music shows (usually this was Aziz Ansari, or John Mulaney and Nick Kroll) before I started a comedy series, called Laughable Hype. These events were a great way to manifest our presence in the city offline, but they were also a way to connect with our readers, and showcase bands and comedians who were up-and-coming in NYC. We made no money from these, every dollar went to the people who were on the bill that night.

Bloggers meeting up at LES bars? Blog-hosted shows? These things may have become life as we know it, but it was all brand new back then.

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Rob Huebel, Nick Kroll, Jessi Klein, Paul Scheer, Aziz Ansari, (not pictured: Chelsea Peretti) at the first comedy show I booked: Gothamist’s Laughable Hype at Tonic (RIP), May 2005. (Jen Carlson/Gothamist)

We wanted Gothamist to be “a school newspaper for New York City,” or at least that’s what I remember calling it at the time. A little bit of everything delivered with a voice — this voice has evolved over the years, and was never monolithic, but it’s always been some eclectic mix of unabashed enthusiasm, sardonic skepticism, and pure friendliness (in those early days Gothamist was called “nice” a lot, in a time when “snark” had become a default online buzzword).

It was the Wild West of a new New Media Era. Public relations companies started to form new departments to deal with online outlets like ours. The “Is blogging journalism?” debate had yet to take off, and I’m not sure any of us really knew what lay ahead at this point… we were just obsessively trying to build something we wanted to build, and that we thought was needed. We didn’t know anyone who worked in journalism, or even near journalism. Yet we were unwittingly about to help shape a new media landscape along with some other bloggers.

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When I covered the VMAs in 2006, along with Scott Lapatine from Stereogum (pictured), we made this sign explaining we were from The Internet. Red carpets hadn’t seen many blogs yet. (Jen Carlson/Gothamist)

Not that I thought about it at the time, but this was the first major shift in media since the underground newspapers of the 1960s. Radical papers and publications like Rolling Stone magazine began taking over the media landscape during “one of the most spontaneous and aggressive growths in publishing history,” according to Louis Menand (in Smoking Typewriters). Most newspapers were still owned by a small group of megarich individuals (sound familiar?), but the counterculture movement was becoming louder, production costs were becoming cheaper (thanks to photo-offset printing), and soon anyone could print their opinion. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne once claimed, “It is the genius of these papers that they talk directly to their readers.”

Many of those papers, like The Other Paper in the East Village, didn’t last, and it gutted me last year that this thriving publication we created wasn’t going to last either. That our voice and ability to speak directly to our readers was dead. We were the eyes and ears of the city, and one of my favorite things was relaying what we’d seen, heard, and what interested us as New Yorkers—from discovering bucolic cabins hiding away on Manhattan rooftops to tracking down the old CBGB awnings to trying to figure out if the World’s Fair Underground Home is still down there to calling out rude subway behavior… We even brought bands to NYC spots we loved for little pop-up shows:

It was a miracle we managed to be independent for so long, and it was nothing short of another miracle when WNYC gave us our voice back earlier this year.

I’m beyond thrilled that the spirit of Gothamist is still the very same spirit that I knew it to be back in 2004. And that some of the original core team who nurtured and grew that voice is still here, including our now Editor-in-Chief John Del Signore, a whip smart blogger I knew back in those early days who went from contributing theater reviews to our A&E section, to helping hone that Gothamist voice. And Chris Robbins, the relentless reporter and editor who also helped bring more feature reporting to the site. And Ben Yakas, who can write beautifully about anything from nail clipping on the subway to the Fast and the Furious franchise.

Onward, etc.

JOHN DEL SIGNORE

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A rapidly aging John Del Signore stares into the abyss in Gothamist’s first office. (Photo by Jen Carlson/Gothamist)

I started writing for Gothamist in 2006, in my East Village bedroom with a fake wall, during a time when my desktop PC was already so old it could not handle the Internet. I would bang out freelance assignments on the bulky machine, save my precious content to a 3½‑inch HD microfloppy, and head over to The Bean on First Avenue and Third Street (now a Starbucks, obviously), where I would rent one of their grimy computers to upload the Microsoft Word file and email it from my Yahoo account to Carlson. It was kind of a hassle, but it got me out of the house.

Carlson, an indefatigable fount of ideas, was the site’s first editorial employee and, from my perspective, was living the dream: working from home, writing and assigning stories about pretty much whatever interested her, and getting paid. I started at $14 per post, and was grateful for the opportunity: back then Gothamist was a weird labor of love produced by a handful of New Yorkers who were excited to use the new medium of online publishing to chronicle life in their city. Most of them had scant reporting experience and few contacts in the established media world, but who needed that when you had blogs, which at the time were still an unruly mode of self-expression.

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Even David Byrne had a blogroll. (Screenshot taken by Jen Carlson, for posterity, in 2007)

It is difficult to adequately convey how differently the Internet manifested itself fifteen years ago. It felt big but it was so much smaller. Twitter did not exist. Facebook was the exclusive domain of college kids and had no News Feed. The iPhone had not debuted. (When I started at Gothamist I did not even own a cellphone, and when I finally got one the thing was not smart.) Back in the old blog days, when you found a weblog you enjoyed, like Heart on a Stick or Vanishing New York, you just added it to your bookmarks and revisited it periodically. Sometimes you even manually typed the url into your browser. Most bloggers maintained helpful blogrolls in a sidebar, linking to curated destinations in the “blogosphere.” Here, step back in time to Lindsayism, one of the blogs I enjoyed reading during breaks at my job in the basement of a Lenox Hill cancer hospital, where I assisted a big robot that pulled drugs for all the patients.

After a year of writing freelance arts and culture blog posts for Gothamist, Chung offered me a full-time blog job, and I took it without hesitation. It was 2007, and Gothamist wouldn’t have an office for another year. But by then I had inherited a new computer with reliable Internet access in my home like some kind of futuristic tech king, and spent my days online with “the Jens” and Jake writing about New York City. We had many impassioned arguments and Gchat flame wars, but by and large Gothamist was sustained by a general consensus that the “best idea wins.”

Gothamist blogged about strange maple syrup smells and police brutality and forgotten New York and the war on bike lanes. We became adept at covering breaking news. The first big hit under my byline came out of a rare telephone interview with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, scheduled by chance on the day the band’s new album In Rainbows was digitally released. Radiohead was not really doing any press to promote it, aside from Greenwood talking about his orchestral side project with Rolling Stone and… Gothamist?

This was a huge get for us, and I nervously pretended it was normal. At the appointed hour, I called Radiohead’s management office in England with my flip phone, which is when I learned that you couldn’t just call anywhere in the world with a cellphone. In a panic, I ran outside in my pajamas to the nearest bodega and frantically bought a handful of prepaid phone cards, hoping I’d purchased enough for the call to go through, which it miraculously did. I was late, but Greenwood was still available, and when we published the Q&A later that day, Gothamist’s traffic exploded. I recall Jake noticing the dramatic spike and telling Carlson to book more interviews with Radiohead. People seemed to be interested in those guys.

This was how Gothamist grew, with breakthroughs and mistakes committed by enthusiastic young writers who loved New York City and didn’t let their lack of experience stop them from writing and publishing. Some might view this as a recipe for disaster, but ultimately I think it was fun watching Gothamist’s daily DIY exploration of what the news could be. At least, it was fun for us. Most of the time, anyway.

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This is me. (Movable Type)

Gothamist always maintained a sense of wonder about New York, and no story was ever too small to convey that spirit. We were sardonic but tried not to be strident, skeptical but not cynical, insatiably curious and eager to explain. Over the years, Gothamist grew to a scale and level of quality that made me proud. With the help of civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, we forced the NYPD to issue press credentials to more digital media outlets. We were cited in a Supreme Court case. Along the way, we exposed horrible landlords; broke major news like the L train shutdown; shed light on the NYPD’s abuse of civil asset forfeiture; probed the city’s affordable housing crisis; reported on worker exploitation, homelessness, and climate change; got weird on a daily basis; and poked into the dark shadows the Trump administration was casting on New York.

When Gothamist was suddenly shut down last year, I still felt like we were just getting started. Now we have an unheard of new opportunity to pick up where we left off and go further, with the help of WNYC. Gothamist is now in large part a reader-supported enterprise, and we’re asking those of you who appreciate the site to join us in this new chapter by donating to our Kickstarter campaign.

And a huge thank you to everyone who has already donated! We’re humbled and inspired by this outpouring of support. We are just getting started.

For a visual look back at the early days of NYC blogging, check out this photo gallery.





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