Joe Ricketts Credit: Via

When Joe Ricketts suddenly shut down the DNAinfo and Gothamist network of local news sites on November 2, two reporters I know lost their jobs. Ted Cox, who covered City Hall for DNAinfo, had contributed sports essays to the Reader for years; his gifts were no secret to me or longtime readers. But Alisa Hauser didn’t work in editorial for this paper; she was a display ad sales representative. When she joined DNAinfo at its inception, covering Bucktown and Wicker Park, her talent and energy as a reporter were a revelation.

But it’s another revelation of which I write. I’m amazed at Ricketts. The Nebraska billionaire who founded TD Ameritrade, Ricketts launched DNAinfo in New York in 2009 to cover hyperlocal news there, and brought the operation to Chicago in 2012. He consistently lost money, but he underwrote first-rate journalism in both cities, and although he’s by no means apolitical, he let his staff do its work unimpeded by his politics. 

This, after all, was the man who in 2012 commissioned a 54-page strategic plan called “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” A ham-handed attempt to make Obama’s first term his only term, it accomplished nothing beyond making life more difficult for son Tom, who as chairman of the family-owned Chicago Cubs had to deal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff.

If the strategy Joe Ricketts commissioned showed him playing out of his league, as owners of the Cubs the Rickettses seemed to know what they were doing—certainly compared to the team’s previous owner, the Tribune Company. When the focus of the comparison shifted from baseball to journalism, the family still looked good. DNAinfo was a modest operation, but it was useful and reliable. No Sam Zell, Joe Ricketts seemed to get it: journalism in the Internet age was unprofitable and imperiled, but it was still indispensable.

However, Ricketts just dispensed with it. He closed DNAinfo and the Gothamist blogs—among them Chicagoist—without even giving his editors a heads-up, shut down the websites (later restored in archive form), and posted a statement asserting that “businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure.” He went on, “I’m hopeful that in time, someone can crack the code on a business that can support exceptional neighborhood storytelling.”

In all, 115 people lost their jobs, many of whom, I suspect, believed Ricketts had cracked the code: neighborhood storytelling sustained by a billionaire willing to lose a few million sustaining it.

What makes Ricketts’s action appear not just abrupt but petulant is the vote the New York staff had taken a few days earlier to join the Writers Guild of America East, a move Ricketts bitterly opposed. On his personal blog, in September, Ricketts explained why he despised unions. After nodding at their “historical importance,” he let them have it.

I know that businesses constantly face a barrage of obstacles to survival—never mind success—and, in the face of that, everyone at the company needs to be pulling together or that company won’t make it. I know that keeping a company growing and thriving requires focus and tireless effort by everyone. Indeed, in my opinion, the essential esprit de corps that every successful company needs can’t exist when employees and ownership see themselves as being on opposite ends of a seesaw. Everyone at a company – owners and employees alike – need to be sitting on the same end of the seesaw because the world is sitting on the other end.

I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed. And that corrosive dynamic makes no sense in my mind where an entrepreneur is staking his capital on a business that is providing jobs and promoting innovation.

That’s why the type of company that interests me is one where ownership and the employees are truly in it together, without interference from a third-party union that has its own agenda and priorities. I’m not interested in any agenda at any company I start, other than working together to deliver something exceptional to consumers and doing it as everyone pulls shoulder-to-shoulder tackling whatever the marketplace throws at us.

It is my observation that unions exert efforts that tend to destroy the Free Enterprise system.

I suppose Ricketts felt shutting down DNAinfo was a small price to pay to preserve the free enterprise system.

Nebraska has never seemed so far from Chicago. Chicago is, as they say, a union town. Which doesn’t mean that everyone here who works is in one (I’ve been out more than I’ve been in over my working life) but that few people panic when the subject is raised. Ricketts sounds hysterical. And that’s the revelation I’m getting to. No doubt unions complicate the workplace, but the us-against-them dynamic I’ve observed during media contract talks (recently concluded at the Reader, by the way) don’t destroy esprit de corps so much as invigorate it. (After all, each side has just declared its brand of unstinting fidelity to the product superior to the other’s.) By comparison, paternalism, Ricketts’s preferred atmosphere, is boring and corrosive.

But America is full of people who don’t see it this way at all.

Out in Nebraska, where his son Pete is governor, Joe Ricketts doesn’t understand unions remotely as I do—and possibly not much else about America either. He and his wife, Marlene, gave millions of dollars during the primary last year in an effort to stop Donald Trump. After Trump became the Republican nominee anyway, Joe Ricketts gave another million dollars to elect him. Better Trump than the deluge Ricketts must have thought he saw dead ahead with Hillary. Thinking about Ricketts makes me suppose billionaires are like anyone else: Beyond the roots that hold them erect, the world is unfamiliar. And they’re afraid of it.