After years of being put through the wringer of New York City media, five journalists created Hell Gate, the blog-style news site run on their terms.
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About halfway through 2021, Christopher Robbins had had enough. Laid off from a job he had cared about deeply after witnessing multiple media organizations in New York City collapse over the years, Mr. Robbins was ready to free himself.
“There’s just a vanishing amount of good jobs,” Mr. Robbins, 36, a former editor at Gothamist, said in an interview. “And the freelancing terrain is just so brutal.”
His frustrations were shared by Nick Pinto, 44, and Max Rivlin-Nadler, 34. All three said they had chosen to leave or been pushed out of various jobs over the years because of some combination of mismanagement, lack of funding and budget cuts.
“There’s got to be a better way, because these organizations can’t just keep bleeding reporters,” Mr. Rivlin-Nadler said.
The group kept returning to a tantalizing idea: What if there were a lean, mean news publication owned and operated by the journalists themselves, beholden to no hedge funds, advertisers, for-profit companies or billionaires? An outlet whose sole mission was to write great stories about one of the greatest cities in the world? How hard could that be?
As it turns out, there were a few hurdles to jump through. The first step was to build a good team. After mass-emailing dozens of freelancers and local reporters, Mr. Robbins, Mr. Pinto and Mr. Rivlin-Nadler persuaded nearly 50 journalists to meet up on a frigid day in late January at the 9th Street Community Garden in the East Village. Armed with pizzas and beer, the group pitched their idea.
Their excitement was contagious, hooking Sydney Pereira, 27, who had quit her job at Gothamist last August only a few months after Mr. Robbins was laid off. Ms. Pereira was working in a coffee shop between freelance assignments, feeling deeply jaded about her career. But when she spoke with the three men about their new project, she felt some of her old enthusiasm return.
“If you’re passionate about journalism, it can be hard to feel superpsyched about it when the industry is just falling apart and you’re just in a place of desperation a lot of times,” Ms. Pereira said. “So they kind of made me realize, ‘Wait a minute, this is a really fun job that I have.’”
With the addition of Esther Wang, 39, a former reporter at Jezebel, the quinfecta was complete. Thus Hell Gate was born, a scrappy news outlet-slash-blog named for one of the city’s sturdiest bridges over one of its most troubled waters. The site, which debuted 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 passed walking down the street, that fleeting, only-in-New-York moment that everyone wonders about but doesn’t understand. Nutcrackers cost $15 now? That’s a Hell Gate story. Why are New Yorkers making eye contact with strangers now? Put it on Hell Gate.
The writers often infuse their reporting with a clear, sly and humorous voice that is becoming Hell Gate’s signature tone. They tend to hit on highly specific stories that can invoke the feeling of recognizing a shared New York City experience, the kind residents joke or grumble about in equal measure.
Along the way, there are also sharper-eyed watchdog pieces about the city’s most powerful. Hell Gate was the first to report that New York City police officers had broken a grandmother’s arm while arresting her, which they did while she was trying to get paperwork for a new glucose monitor.
The story went viral and sent social media into angry flames, catching the attention of Jumaane D. Williams, the city’s public advocate, who called on the Police Department to provide answers.
“For a city that has so many outlets and is filled with so many reporters, for a while, I feel like there’s been a real lack of, I think, the kind of work that we’ve been doing, which is sometimes irreverent, very voice-y, it’s often fun,” Ms. Wang said. “But also really wants to hold people in power to account, right? And in a way that’s not dry.”
The 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 rating public bathrooms across New York City or pointing out the new congressional district’s resemblance to a penis.
“We would do stories in my previous life on redistricting, or something like that, and they’d be really good stories,” Mr. Robbins said. “But very few people would read them because it’s an incredibly difficult topic — to sort of grab someone by the lapel and be like, ‘Yo, like your, your representatives just changed!’ And so our way of doing that has been like, ‘Yo, they just redrew the maps, and one of these maps looks like a penis. And you should check that.’
“And now we’ve gotten someone to read about redistricting.”
This laid-back, insouciant appreciation of the city’s quirkier side has already set Hell Gate apart from the city’s more self-serious news outlets in its first two months of publishing. And it’s this same attitude that some larger news outlets have already taken notice of.
In a newsletter sent early last month, Hell Gate’s writers poked fun at several outlets that they believe published pieces inspired by their own reporting without crediting them.
And in late May, Mr. Rivlin-Nadler wrote a story debunking widespread reports that the last pay phone in New York City had been removed. Days later, an article on the same subject with a nearly identical headline appeared in The New Yorker, though the stories themselves were slightly different.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for The New Yorker said the magazine’s writers had 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 were beaten to the punch — and to the Twain-ism — by the talented upstarts at Hell Gate, which seems to confirm another Twain-ism, that all ideas are secondhand.”
Mr. Pinto said the experience was “a testament to the fact that even if other places aren’t necessarily committing the person power or the sort of creative brain space to find these kinds of stories, someone at these publications recognizes that they’re important and that there’s an appetite for them.”
“It confirms our sense of the media environment right now,” he added. “There’s stuff on the table for us to grab, and we’re grabbing.”
Still, there are some hurdles the team needs to clamber over. All five co-owners wear multiple caps, simultaneously acting as writers, editors, publishers and social media strategists every day.
Their eyes have also been opened to the bleaker realities of running a news outlet.
“The challenge — which we all knew going in — the challenge is making 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 seesaw, and they’re still figuring out how to balance.
“That’s a staggering challenge, even if you’re doing really good work,” he added. “That’s been deeply sobering, and has made me challenge some assumptions I had in the past about the business side of the business.”
Hell Gate’s financial struggles are just indicative of the state of journalism itself, the writers said, and the constant struggle many news outlets face to stay out of the red.
“It’s like I’m asking for the cure for cancer or something,” Mr. Robbins said, throwing his arms in the air during his interview. “Really I’m just like, ‘Hey, I would like to pay five to eight journalists $60,000 a year to do fun journalism.’ And like, the fact that that’s so difficult is shocking to me.”
So, they decided, a paywall must go up. On Wednesday, Hell Gate introduced a new paid model, with monthly and annual subscription tiers starting at $6.99 a month or $70 a year, which the team says will go directly into keeping the website afloat, its journalists paid and insured.
One thing they said has kept them going the past few months has been the sense of joy their ideas bring, like their profile of Leh-Boy, who New Yorkers may recognize as the man who bikes around the city balancing soccer balls and trash cans on his head. It’s the feeling of excitement and inspiration that they sorely missed in their careers, and that they continue to chase with every story.
After years of bouncing from job to job, questioning why they were still hanging on in the field, Hell Gate has returned their agency to their work and reminded them why they do what they do.
And, they said, it’s just been good to write about New York City in the way that they want to.
“You can never fully comprehend or understand the totality of the city, and I think as a reporter, as a journalist, that just makes it endlessly fascinating,” Ms. Wang said. “You’re always finding something new.”