“The Alumni Behind Gothamist.com,” from Columbia College Today


How people get their daily news is a matter of preference: Some listen to the radio, others prefer newspapers (print or online) or television. But for a younger generation, the morning newsfeed is increasingly coming via blog reading. One influential type of blog (short for Web log) could be called a news and information blog a form of online media updated daily with many short entries, each a few paragraphs, with links to longer articles on other websites and a snappy and opinionated introduction.

Gothamist.com, launched by Jen Chung ’98 and Jake Dobkin ’98 in February 2003, is one of the older and better-known New York blogs. Offering about 15 entries a day, the site, which receives about two million visits per month, or about 58,000 visits per day, features summaries of intriguing stories from major New York papers as well as original reporting and a daily feature interview.

Chung describes the site as an ultimate insider friend, “that friend who knows what’s going on in the city, the friend who knows all the news stories.” Gothamist also has a comments section, where readers can respond to each post, making the site as much a conversation about living in the city as it is a news resource. Chung says the site is akin to “trying to keep a diary of what’s happening on a particular day. We’re hardly definitive. We’re just trying to give people a sense of what’s going on.”

The site started as an online dialogue between Chung and Dobkin, who have been friends since they met at the College. Dobkin had a website where he would post links to interesting material, and Chung would comment. (When Chung describes the voice of Gothamist as “that friend who knows what’s going on,” Dobkin jokingly interjects and says, “Jen was my friend like that.”) After a while, the two decided that there was a wider audience for the material they were discussing, and Gothamist.com officially launched.

Chung works at an advertising agency and Dobkin works full-time on Gothamist. Chung squeezes in her editor responsibilities before and after her regular work hours. On a typical day, Gothamist, which was voted best New York blog by New York Press readers in 2004, and which was nominated in the same category by New York magazine readers the same year, might detail how to recreate a dish from Per Se, report on a live game of Pac Man, offer a discussion of local politics and spotlight an interview with a local artist.

Though Gothamist has scooped the major New York papers on a few stories, neither Chung nor Dobkin view blogs as a replacement for print media. Instead, they view their job as amplifying smaller stories and commenting on bigger stories. “Gothamist wouldn’t exist without mainstream media,” Dobkin says, “but I think we do give something back, which includes spotting weird stories.”

Jodi Kantor ’96, a reporter for The New York Times and formerly the paper’s Arts & Leisure editor, is a Gothamist reader, and says one of the things she loves about blogs is “the way they play off publications like the Times, fishing great stories out of our paper and bringing them to a wider readership.” Kantor adds, “Gothamist makes me feel like I have superhuman reading powers because it links to great stories in publications I can’t normally get to.”

Gothamist has expanded its formula to 12 other cities, including Los Angeles, London, Paris and Shanghai, hiring a new editor for each site. Each lead editor shares in the advertising profit from the site with Gothamist. Plans are under way to expand to Shanghai and Paris, both of which will be bilingual.

Interestingly for two die-hard New Yorkers, Chung and Dobkin began college at different schools outside the city Chung at Smith and Dobkin at SUNY Binghamton. One of Chung’s friends at Smith was Dobkin’s twin sister, Molly. When Chung decided to transfer to Columbia after her freshman year, Molly told her that Jake had transferred to Columbia in January 1995 and introduced the two. Now, the two hang out socially in addition to being business partners; Chung was the maid-of-honor at Dobkin’s wedding to Karen Leskly ’98 (now Karen Dobkin) in 2004.

Having had a chance to compare the College experience with other schools, both are big Columbia fans. Though Dobkin says he had a semi-notorious existence at Columbia (he claims to have been almost expelled three times), he loves the College, saying the school “let a New Yorker be a New Yorker.” Both point to the Core as a great foundation for learning a little about everything, information they put to good use on the site.

As one might guess, these New Yorkers are devoted fans of the city-based television series Law & Order, which often shoots scenes in Morningside Heights. Pondering their love for the show, Chung says, “We haven’t interviewed [creator/executive producer] Dick Wolf yet. That’s our big get.” Dobkin grins and adds, “Yeah, that will close the site. That will be the last interview Gothamist does.”

Originally published in Columbia College Today, November 2005. Photograph by Karen Dobkin

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