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Sept. 6, 2022, 1:47 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“We can’t just cover the same old shit”: How worker-owned Hell Gate is bringing the alt-weekly voice back to New York City

“I wouldn’t want any readers to get the impression that we have, like, millions of dollars in venture capital that we’re [spending on] sushi Thursdays.”

If you read The New York Times’ profile of Hell Gate NYC — the new worker-owned local news outlet covering New York City — you likely noticed the staff portraits in the story taken inside its spacious-looking office in the East Village.

The founders wanted me to manage your expectations. They can’t afford to pay rent.

“It’s actually an old Capital One bank branch on Avenue C that’s been vacant for some time,” co-publisher, editor, and writer Christopher Robbins said. “We are in it by the grace of the landlord and the Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, who has somehow finagled it a way [for us] to be in that space. I wouldn’t want any readers to get the impression that we have, like, millions of dollars in venture capital that we’re [spending on] sushi Thursdays.”

Hell Gate — named after the steel arch bridge over the East River that connects Queens and Randalls and Wards Islands — first started publishing in May 2022. Frustrated by the instability and cycles of layoffs in New York City media, Robbins and founding members Max Rivlin-Nadler, Esther Wang, Nick Pinto, and Sydney Pereira gathered 50 freelance journalists in January 2022 (outdoors, in 15-degree weather, with the promise of pizza and beer) to brainstorm what a worker-owned local news outlet could look like.

“Every journalist-slash-blogger talks about starting something themselves. The thing that we wanted to start was something that centered the journalists and the writers,” Robbins said. “We wanted to see if we could start from scratch and have the journalists control the stories, the business model, and the brand. The thing that’s most important to us is making good journalism that people want to read.”

Though NYC has more journalists than anywhere else in the U.S. — 12% of all newsroom employees in the country live in the city, Pew found in 2019 — some feel the five boroughs themselves are under covered. The New York Times long refocused on national and international news as it set its sights on selling subscriptions to “every curious, English-speaking person” on the planet. There are many local newsrooms, including The City, WNYC/Gothamist, and City Limits, hyperlocal neighborhood publications, along with a rich ecosystem of community media.

But Hell Gate sees an opportunity for a publication, as the About page puts it, that’s “trenchant, playful, outraged, irreverent, and useful to readers.” (“And never a chore to read.”)

Esther Wang — who covers state politics and fishing in the city’s polluted waters, among other topics, for Hell Gate — was previously the senior politics reporter at Jezebel and was working at the Gawker Media sister site when the newsroom came under the new ownership of G/O Media in 2019. The ordeal made her interested in trying something new.

“It was exciting to [look at] all these new kinds of independent newsrooms that are opening up, and think we could do it for New York City. It’s a place where there’s a lot of news and there’s a lot of outlets, but something felt missing — something that was critical and fun,” Wang said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do with Hell Gate.”

Hell Gate reads a little like a local news version of Defector, the worker-owned sports and culture publication founded by former Deadspin staffers. (Hell Gate and Defector use the same company to manage their websites, and Hell Gate lists Defector, along with Discourse BlogRacket, and the Colorado Sun, as inspiration.)

The site’s overall voice and tone are reminiscent of the heyday of Gothamist, where Robbins, Rivlin-Nadler, Pinto, and Pereira all previously worked. In the early- to mid-2010s, it ran stories like “Soda Ban Has Burped Its Last: NYC Loses Final Appeal,” “The NY Times Is ON IT (Pubic Hair),The MTA’s Making Up For Lost Time With Changes On The 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, A, C, E, F, J, L, M, N, Q & R Trains This Weekend,” and “Why Emma Watson Should Skip Buying, Go Straight To Living With Me & My Parents In Queens” alongside more straightforward stories on crime and local politics. But writers were allegedly underpaid and overworked. Billionaire Joe Ricketts, who also owned DNAinfo, bought the site in 2016, and in 2017, Gothamist and DNAinfo were both abruptly shut down a week after the staffs announced plans to unionize, effectively laying off all of their employees. In 2018, WNYC acquired Gothamist and relaunched it, and the pubic hair headlines of yesteryear are gone. (In the straightforward Gothamist of 2022, recent headlines included “Hudson River tunnel project will cost $2 billion more, take longer to complete, following further delay,” “NYC leaders will use pension funds to push Mastercard, AmEx to help flag gun sales.”)

“[We’re] writing from a perspective where certain things are givens, like [that] housing and health care are human rights,” Robbins said. “The Village Voice used to be full of columns with a perspective and a sense of righteousness and also a sense of wonder about New York City. That sort of writing and reporting had bite and perspective and was compelling. We felt that was being crowded out by a lot of the important work being done by nonprofits across New York City. But it’s not the same thing. They can’t write the same way.”

Hell Gate initially launched with $25,000 and $50,000 from The Harnisch Foundation and the Vital Projects Fund respectively, two New York-based organizations that support the arts. In July, Hell Gate launched a paywall with tiered subscriptions and recently gave readers a “peek behind the curtain” to explain that it’s counting on subscriber support. In the update, the co-owners told readers that their operating costs are about $20,000 per month and that they’re aiming to pay the staff of five $4,000 per month per person. (“And since we live in a corner of the world where health care is not a right but a prohibitively priced privilege, we would also like — if it’s possible, no worries if not! — to have a little health insurance,” they wrote.)

“Our target audience is people who really care about the city,” Wang said. “A lot of our current readers are city employees, teachers, public defenders, people who are already very much enmeshed in the functioning of the city in their day-to-day lives. Our broader audience is really people who just love New York City — people who know it can be much better than it is now and care very much about that future, and care very much about maintaining the animating spirit of the city.”

A basic annual subscription to Hell Gate is $70 and provides access to all published stories. The Supporter tier ($100 for one year) comes with the ability to comment on stories and a sticker. For $200 a year, readers get all of the above along with entry to “exclusive events” and “swag,” like a Hell Gate baseball cap. (For comparison, The City NY’s lowest membership tier is $120 annually while the highest costs $1,250 per year. Gothamist and WNYC’s Monthly Sustainers donation program starts at $10 per month and goes up to $100 per month. All three publications are free to read and don’t have paywalls.)

Roughly a month after launching the paywall, Hell Gate has around 1,000 paying subscribers, Rivlin-Nadler said. About 10,000 people subscribe to the newsletter. Given that not-insignificant email list, they’re looking into adding advertising as a revenue stream down the line.

To serve the most populous and diverse city in the country is a tall order. When asked about how Hell Gate thinks about diversity, Robbins and Wang said they knew firsthand that inclusion efforts in other newsrooms can be a form of lip service. As worker-owners at the helm, they’re in a unique position to define what Hell Gate’s values are and how those play into coverage. Robbins said that means they’ve spent hours deliberating decisions that often slow down Hell Gate’s production process, but knowing that in this growth stage, each choice can influence the next.

“There has been a growing awareness at a lot of media outlets that we can’t just cover the same old shit,” Wang said. “We have to broaden our perspectives and cover the entire city and all of its residents. Just to give an example, one of my fishing columns focused on the question of whether the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is unfairly targeting Chinese-American fishers in this city. For me it’s about what is an unexpected way to do this kind of coverage. I think it’s hard because we are a very small newsroom, but that’s how I’m trying to think about it.”

As worker-owners, they’re wearing “different hats every hour,” Rivlin-Nadler said. For the first time, they’re the reporters, editors, human resources, accounting, sales, and customer service, all at once. Their decisions are colored and informed by the often traumatic reality of working in New York media.

“One ‘luxury’ we have is that when venture capital or large investments or even large institutional partners enter into local news reporting, there’s a real pressure on return on investment in a place that is not very profitable,” Rivlin-Nadler said. “We are building it one brick at a time. We are working on getting this to be sustainable for a small newsroom, and we have the time to do that. So now we’ve got to figure out what is a good mix of stories for the amount of subscribers we have and the people that want to read the site and then the people who want to subscribe, as opposed to how can we grow the fastest and the quickest and monetize this as quickly as possible.”

Photo of men playing cricket under the Hell Gate Bridge in New York by Rob Zand used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 6, 2022, 1:47 p.m.
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