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Billionaire CEO Joe Ricketts shuts down DNAinfo and Gothamist, including Los Angeles operations

DNAinfo, the 8-year-old hyperlocal news website, abruptly shut down Thursday afternoon and ended operations of related sites, including LAist.

Joe Ricketts, chief executive officer of DNAinfo and recently acquired Gothamist, announced the decision in an online letter to readers.

“I've made the difficult decision to discontinue publishing DNAinfo and Gothamist,” Ricketts said. “Reaching this decision wasn't easy, and it wasn't one I made lightly.”

Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, launched DNAinfo in New York City in 2009, “at a time when few people were investing in media companies,” he said. DNAinfo Chicago came online three years later.

In March, DNAinfo acquired Gothamist, a 14-year-old network of news sites in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. As part of the deal, Gothamist's sister site Chicagoist was designated the official blog of DNAinfo Chicago.

The neighborhood news coverage in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other markets drew more than 15 million visits per month, Ricketts said, but it was not enough to make the business model viable.

“While we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn't been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded,” Ricketts said.

The Ricketts family also owns the Chicago Cubs.

There are 116 employees overall between DNA and Gothamist. Last week, the New York newsroom of DNAinfo and Gothamist voted to join the Writers Guild of America East. On Thursday, the journalists learned they would be out of a job.

“The decision by the NY editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful,” a DNA spokesperson said in an email.

While the company isn’t disclosing specific financial information, DNAinfo has lost money since its launch.

Publication was suspended Thursday, and the business will close in 90 days. Beyond the online letter from Ricketts, all DNAinfo and Gothamist employees were sent emails Thursday evening notifying them of the decision to wind down the business.

In his online letter, Ricketts praised the “tens of thousands of stories that have informed, impacted, and inspired millions of people,” but the stories themselves disappeared from the websites Thursday.

The company said the stories will not be lost to history.

“DNAinfo will be preserving and archiving all DNAinfo and Gothamist stories,” a DNA spokesperson said. “The details of that are among the issues the company will address in the coming weeks.”

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

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