With an anti-Obama attack plan, DNAinfo owner Joe Ricketts comes out of his shell

Joe Ricketts. ()
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One thing not mentioned in today's bombshell article in The New York Times about billionaire Joe Ricketts, the man behind a Super PAC campaign to revive the issue of pastor Jeremiah Wright in the 2012 election cycle?

Ricketts is also the money behind growing New York local-news media startup DNAinfo.

We've written about the place a lot here. They tore up the New York Press Club awards recently, and gave the tabloids a run for their money on the story of the Upper East Side madam, Anna Gristina.

But more interesting is the fact that DNAinfo is rapidly expanding, with coverage launched in the outer boroughs and a DNAinfo site in development for Chicago.

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Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, stepped away from the board and, as the Times put it, is "increasingly putting his fortune to work in conservative politics."

Strategy documents commissioned by Ricketts are aimed at painting the president as a man unfit for the job because of the radical politics that have shaped him, chiefly the Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright; the documents suggest that the McCain campaign restrained activists eager to exploit Obama's connection to the controversial pastor.

But new campaign finance rules give Super PACs a tremendous amount of independence from campaigns.

Chicago is a natural expansion ground for DNAinfo for several reasons. One is that it's among the biggest media markets in the country, and underserved by local media by most people's measures. The other is that Ricketts has attachments there: His son, Tom Ricketts, is the chairman of the Chicago Cubs.

Of course, as the Times itself points out, the leak of these documents could well harpoon any efforts by conservative activists to pursue a campaign like this.

But the exposure of the campaign has been interesting for at least one reason: Ricketts, who spends much of his time in New York, where he has a massive 78th floor apartment in the Time Warner Center, has been largely a reclusive publisher.

He hasn't been willing to be interviewed or profiled since founding the growing news site, and neither the amount he's invested in it nor the financials of the company have been made public.

It's rare for a proprietor of a news organization to take such passionate interest in political campaigns and turn it into real money; for the most part, proprietors, while they may have clear party affiliations, keep their passion for politics under the radar so as not to give the wrong impression about their objectives in the media.

Not to say that his involvement with DNAinfo is a secret. The site itself proclaims that the "inspiration, funding, and strategic vision for DNAinfo.com come from entrepreneur and Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts."

A lot of Ricketts' philosophy in founding DNAinfo is expounded in the video below, including a call to email him at joe.ricketts@dnainfo.com.

A newspaper-editor friend of mine wrote me this morning and we started talking about David Carr's recent New York Times piece about the "new press barons" who were taking over failing newspapers, from the Philly papers to San Francisco.

Few of them have backgrounds in journalism; nor as a rule do many of the deep-pocketed guys who are starting big new news startups like DNAinfo.

My friend wrote: "On the new-outlet side, the bankrollers are also new to journalism--people who by and large made money elsewhere. And thus haven't internalized 'the rules.' If Ricketts was the scion of some media dynasty, even a conservative one, he'd never be involved in that."

Whether it's right or wrong, I tend to agree on the history: This would be a disaster for a Sulzberger or a Graham or a Bancroft, or even a Murdoch. Whether it's a problem for Ricketts remains to be seen, and will be a moment in the new rules of journalism.

UPDATE: A spokesperson emailed us this statement from Joe Ricketts, which is the response they've been sending out everywhere:

Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration, but he is neither the author nor the funder of the so-called “Ricketts Plan” to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning. Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take. Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a President this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.