News.me

Getting the News — Jake Dobkin

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we sat down with Jake Dobkin, publisher of Gothamist, native New Yorker, and to date the only person to come in for an interview with typed up discussion notes. Gothamist is one of New York City’s go-to websites for city news, information, and generally speaking, what’s cool. But is it hyper-local? “I’m doing hyper-space-local news,” Jake explained to me. “Is it hyper local? I don’t know. But we’re hyper-excited about it!” Metro reporters are an old film noir standby — their dramatic stories and hectic schedules always makes for excellent cinema. Jake is the 21st century’s response to metro reporting.

Gothamist started in New York, but has since spread to a dozen other cities, rapidly populating the digital urban news space in a way that’s somehow cool, approachable, and newsworthy. Covering New York City is not an easy task. There are a thousand things happening at every moment in America’s biggest city. Gothamist has to be a nimble news force — finding news quickly, responding efficiently, and giving everything that razor’s edge of taste that makes it worth coming back to. But reading the news when you’re covering New York is its own adventure. Jake brings not just a rigorous work ethic to his news consumption, but also a philosophy refreshing to see in media. In spare time (which cannot be a lot), Jake takes landscape photographs at BlueJake.com and documents the graffiti scene at Streetsy.com and GrafRank.com. Oh yeah. Jake is a graffiti enthusiast. We told you he was a new kind of metro reporter.

What is Gothamist trying to do?

We’re trying to be the best independent source for news, arts, events, and food in each of our cities. Our parents had independent alt-weeklies, and a lot of those companies have gone out of business because they went out of print. I see ourselves the next generation to that kind of independent media. We want to be a trusted tell-it-like-it-is voice in each city. We don’t need to be comprehensive. My goal is not to be the New York Times Metro Section. It’s to tell you like what’s really interesting, most interesting, in each of these cities, each day. We are both meme-spotters and original news producers. On a good day, we’re do both of those functions really well. We are the best meta source for New York, because we probably read 2,000 sources for the city — no normal person would have that interest — and from that we’re pulling the best stories.

I really believe that aggregation, when done right, is a real skill. Pulling out the most important facts from the story, knitting them together, adding some original reportage on top — we do that. And then like any newspaper or magazine, we source our own stories. Our interest is probably a little different than most magazines. More interested in youth-friendly stories, things younger people are interested in. Some of the issues we cover — like a biker gets hit by a car — the New York Times would never cover that. But that’s a story for us — especially if they got hit in Williamsburg, or something.

So what’s your morning news routine?

I work half the day on the editorial side, and half on the publishing side, in business and management. But the mornings are editorial. So I wake up early, around 6:30am or 7am, and for about two hours, I work pretty consistently, trying to spot where the most interesting stories are in New York. My guiding principles are two things: First, like everyone, I want a high signal-to-noise ratio. I already have to sort this enormous sea of stories each morning to find the interesting stuff. I don’t want noisy sources that make that job even harder.

The second thing is a little more spiritual. The Buddhists have this expression: Don’t eat poison. As it applies to media, there are certain kinds of media that are bad for you, spiritually. Things that promote materialism, celebrity, the pain and suffering of others. Gothamist sites have a pretty positive voice. “Yay! We’re excited about being here. We want you to be excited about being here.” We’re not trying to revel in negativity, because I think that’s corrosive, spiritually. And I’ve done this now for eight or nine years, so I want to be a happy person. It would really hard to spend that much time doing something that covered celebrity stupidity or “buy this, buy that,” because those are not values that lead to happiness. I try to find sources that are both high-quality in terms of signal-to-noise but also high-quality in terms of promoting values that I believe in. So a lot of the sources I read are more heavily fact-based, or high-quality, longer-form journalism. I really try to avoid stuff that focuses on Hollywood.

I start with email. I get a lot of email, because I’m copied on the tips@gothamist.com emails in New York. People just emailing us telling us what’s going on. I’ll also have a ton of PR pitches that I ignore, and I get alerts from two wire monitoring services here in New York. They monitor police, fire, and government radio frequencies, and they send us alerts when anything’s going on, so it goes to my inbox overnight. We also get emails from the FBI, from most of the government agencies, and stuff. we just started getting emails from the police department last week. It took us eight years to finally fight them to put us on their PR list. We had to get press passes, which I now carry with me, just in case I walk into a story.

In a good day, I can get through email in about 20-30 minutes. By then, any really viral stories I might already be on to, because someone sent it to tips. But then I go through my “Core Sources” — that’s actually what I call that folder — which is Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, and a service called Stellar, which Jason Kottke started. It tracks people’s favorites. In each of those services, I have a signal-to-noise rule. I generally don’t follow more than 75-100 people at any one time. I’m always deleting people. I’ve deleted the Dalai Lama. I’ve deleted my best friend. As soon as somebody gets noisy, or starts talking a lot about what they’re eating, it’s like dude, I just unfollowed you. And then I’ll IM them, and I’ll be like, “Dude, I just unfollowed you!” And they’ll be like “Dude, that’s so hurtful, man!” and I’m like, “Dude, live with it. Tell me when you’re ready to stop polluting my channel.”

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