On Thursday, they lost their jobs, as Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade who owned the sites, shut them down.
At 5 p.m., a post by Mr. Ricketts went up on the sites announcing the decision. He praised them for reporting “tens of thousands of stories that have informed, impacted and inspired millions of people.” But he added, “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure.”
All other articles promptly vanished from the sites; an official at DNAinfo said they would be archived online.
Mr. Ricketts wrote that he founded DNAinfo in 2009 “because I believe people care deeply about the things that happen where they live and work,” and he thought he could build “a large and loyal audience that advertisers would want to reach.” DNAinfo and Gothamist, which Mr. Ricketts bought in the spring, attracted more than 9 million readers a month, in New York and other cities where they operate satellite sites, DNAinfo said.
But in the financially daunting era of digital journalism, there has been no tougher nut to crack than making local news profitable, a lesson Mr. Ricketts, who lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence, is just the latest to learn. In New York City, the nation’s biggest media market, established organizations such as The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily News have slashed staff or withdrawn from street-level reporting. The Voice stopped publishing its print edition in September.
For DNAinfo and Gothamist, the staff’s vote to join the Writers Guild of America East was just part of the decision to close the company. A spokeswoman for DNAinfo said in a statement, “The decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful.”
The decision puts 115 people out of work, both at the New York operations that unionized and at those in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington that did not. They are getting three months of paid “administrative leave” at full salary, plus four weeks of severance, DNAinfo said.
The news took the newsroom by surprise. David Colon, a reporter for Gothamist, said that a lawyer for DNAinfo was present when the staff was told, but that he “didn’t really” take questions.
“Very classy,” Mr. Colon said. “I yelled a lot and somebody told me to stop. Now we’re all trying to figure out what to do.”
Merging DNAinfo and Gothamist was intended to ease some of the financial strain. But the two sites were an odd mix. DNAinfo specialized in street-level reporting on neighborhood issues not covered in other media, including real estate developments and crime. Gothamist brought a puckish attitude to articles that were sometimes original, sometimes based on news published elsewhere.