Halfway through 2021, Christopher Robbins had had enough. Fired from a job close to his heart after witnessing the collapse of several New York media outlets over the years, Mr Robbins was ready to break free.
“There’s just a vanishing amount of good jobs out there,” Mr. Robbins, 36, former Gothamist editor, said in an interview. “And the pitch of freelancing is so brutal.”
His frustrations were shared by Nick Pinto, 44, and Max Rivlin-Nadler, 34. All three said they either chose to leave or were kicked out of various jobs over the years due to a combination of mismanagement, lack of funding and budget cuts.
“There has to be a better way, because these organizations can’t keep bleeding journalists,” Rivlin-Nadler said.
The group kept coming back to a tantalizing idea: what if there was a lean, nasty news publication owned and operated by the journalists themselves, beholden to no hedge funds, advertisers, for-profit corporations or billionaires? A point of sale whose sole mission was to write great stories about one of the greatest cities in the world? How hard could that be?
In the end, there were a few hurdles to jump through. The first step was to build a good team. After sending dozens of local freelancers and reporters en masse, Mr. Robbins, Mr. Pinto and Mr. Rivlin-Nadler persuaded nearly 50 reporters to meet on a freezing day in late January at the 9th Street Community Garden in the East Village. Armed with pizza and beer, the group pitched their idea.
Their enthusiasm was contagious, hooking Sydney Pereira, 27, who quit her job at Gothamist last August just months after Mr Robbins was fired. Ms Pereira was working in a cafe between two freelance assignments, feeling deeply jaded by her career. But when she spoke with the three men about their new project, she felt some of her old enthusiasm returning.
“If you’re passionate about journalism, it can be hard to get excited when the industry is crashing and you’re often desperate,” Ms Pereira said. “So they kind of made me realize, ‘Wait a minute, this is a really fun job I have. “”
With the addition of Esther Wang, 39, a former Jezebel reporter, the quiinfecta was complete. Thus was born Hell Gate, a rambling news blog named after one of the city’s strongest bridges over one of its murkiest waters. The site, which launched a paywall on Wednesday, has racked up more than 8,000 free newsletter subscriptions in the two months since its soft launch this spring.
So what is a Hell Gate story? If you ask the owners, a Hell Gate story is that thing every New Yorker has encountered walking down the street, that fleeting moment, unique to New York, that everyone wonders but doesn’t understand. Nutcrackers are $15 now? It’s a Hell Gate story. Why are New Yorkers now making eye contact with strangers? Put it on Hell Gate.
The writers often imbue their reporting with a clear, sly, and humorous voice that becomes the hallmark tone of Hell Gate. They tend to tell very specific stories that can invoke a sense of acknowledgment of a shared New York experience, the residents’ kind jokes or grunts in equal measure.
Along the way, there are also sharper surveillance pieces on the most powerful in the city. Hell Gate was the first to report that New York City police officers broke a grandmother’s arm during her arrest, which they did while she was trying to get paperwork for a new glucometer.
The story went viral and ignited social media, catching the attention of Jumaane D. Williams, the city’s public attorney, who called on the police department for answers.
“For a city that has so many outlets and is filled with so many journalists, for a while I feel like there’s been a real lack, I think, of the kind of work that we we’ve done, which is sometimes irreverent, very vocal, it’s often funny,” Ms. Wang said. “But also really wants to hold those in power to account, right? And in a way that doesn’t is not dry.
Journalists try to balance the heavy with the light. On Hell Gate, stories criticizing the city’s criminal justice system for wrongfully convicting a man are just as common as a semi-regular column noting public restrooms across New York or pointing out the likeness of the new congressional district. with a penis.
“We would do stories in my previous life about redistricting, or something like that, and they would be really good stories,” Mr. Robbins said. “But very few people would read them because it’s such an incredibly difficult subject – sort of grab someone by the backhand and say, ‘Yo, like you, your reps just changed! And so our way of doing that was like, ‘Yo, they just redrew the cards, and one of those cards looks like a penis. And you should check that.
“And now we’ve had someone read about redistricting.”
This laid-back, carefree appreciation of the city’s more eccentric side has already set Hell Gate apart from the city’s more serious media in its first two months of publication. And it’s this same attitude that some major news outlets have already noticed.
In a newsletter sent out early last month, the Hell Gate writers poked fun at several outlets they claim have published stories based on their own reporting without crediting them.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for The New Yorker said the magazine’s editors actually assigned their story before Hell Gate published its own, and that the similarities were coincidental.
“We were on the case the morning of the announcement,” the spokeswoman said in the statement. “But it turns out we’ve been beaten to the punch – and Twain-ism – by the talented upstarts of Hell Gate, which seems to confirm another Twain-ism, that all ideas are second-hand.”
Mr Pinto said the experience was “a testament to the fact that even if other places don’t necessarily engage the power of the person or the type of creative brain space to find these kinds of stories, someone one in these publications recognizes that they are important and that there is an appetite for them.
“It confirms our sense of the media environment at the moment,” he added. “There are things on the table to grab, and we grab them.”
Still, there are hurdles the team must overcome. The five co-owners wear many hats, simultaneously acting as writers, editors, publishers and social media strategists on a daily basis.
Their eyes were also opened to the darker realities of running a media outlet.
“The challenge – which we all knew coming in – the challenge is to make money,” Mr Robbins said.
Until this week, Hell Gate was free to read for anyone who signed up for their newsletter. Generating enough money to fairly compensate Hell Gate’s five existing writers, their growing network of freelancers, keep the website running, and the lights on in their new office in the East Village is a heavy rocker, and they’re still looking to to balance.
“It’s a huge challenge, even if you do a very good job,” he added. “It gave me pause and made me question some assumptions I had in the past about the business side of the business.”
Hell Gate’s financial woes are just one indicator of the state of journalism itself, the authors said, and of the constant struggle many news outlets face to stay out of the red.
“It’s like asking for the cure for cancer or something,” Mr Robbins said, raising his arms in the air during his interview. “Really, I’m just like, ‘Hey, I’d like to pay five to eight journalists $60,000 a year to do some fun journalism.’ And like, the fact that it’s so difficult shocks me.
So they decided that a paywall had to be put in place. On Wednesday, Hell Gate introduced a new paid model, with monthly and yearly subscription tiers starting at $6.99 per month or $70 per year, which the team says will directly help keep the website fresh. flood, its journalists paid and insured.
One thing they said has kept them going for the past few months is the sense of joy their ideas bring, like their profile of Leh-Boy, who New Yorkers may recognize as the man who rides a bike. around the city balancing soccer balls and garbage cans. her head. It’s the sense of excitement and inspiration that they’ve been sorely lacking in their careers and that they continue to seek with every story.
After years of bouncing from job to job, wondering why they were still hanging on in the field, Hell Gate sent their agency back to work and reminded them why they did what they did.
And, they said, it was good to write about New York in the way they wanted.
“You can never fully comprehend or comprehend the whole city, and I think as a reporter, as a journalist, that makes it endlessly fascinating,” Ms. Wang said. “You always find something new.”