Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Times & the blogosphere, ten story ideas, and some reflections on coverage

Today: a discussion of the Times's story on the blogosphere, some stories yet to be pursued by the Times, and some thoughts on why the Atlantic Yards story has gotten less press attention than it deserves.

So the New York Times, in an article today headlined in print as "Virtual Army of Bloggers Battle a Development" (and online as "A Blogfest Over a Project in Brooklyn") has noticed that a particularly robust set of responses to Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project has emerged from the blogosphere.

That's worthy of coverage, and there's a thoughtful quote from journalist and transportation expert Aaron Naparstek: "If Jane Jacobs had the tools and technology back when she was fighting Robert Moses' plans to bulldoze Lower Manhattan, I bet 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' would have been a blog."

Though the article, by way of quoting bloggers, floats some issues that have gotten too little public discussion, perhaps inevitably it misses some major points. It casts us bloggers mostly as critics (who also issue "jeers"), not as analysts--with the unlimited space of the web--who regularly point out distortions and deceptions by Forest City Ratner, cite gaps in press coverage (like the decline in the number of jobs promised), and source our conclusions.

Leading off

The article begins:
When a state agency released plans for studying the environmental impact of the proposed Atlantic Yards project, a vast residential, commercial and arena development near Downtown Brooklyn, the response from critics was swift, brutal — and largely online.
"Major flaws in the final scope," pronounced Norman Oder, the proprietor of the blog "Atlantic Yards Report," pointing out that the agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, had not examined the possible security risks facing the 18,000-seat arena.
The architect Jonathan Cohn, who runs brooklynviews.blogspot.com, noticed that the project's developer, Forest City Ratner Companies, was planning to use a part of the site as a temporary parking lot.
Another blogger, Aaron Naparstek, pored through the 41-page plan and compared the project's latest building designs to a "1960's-era housing project."


Calling me a "proprietor" rather than a veteran journalist is a subtle putdown by omission, and the major flaws I cited were "traffic, parking, and some mysterious open space solutions." So security is part of a larger critique and, interestingly, a topic that the Times has yet to tackle.

And the article doesn't explain the importance of Cohn's "noticing" the "interim surface parking." Reporters often rely on press releases, and the change--a dubious plan, Cohn argues--went unmentioned in Forest City Ratner's press release. The blogger had a scoop that deserves public discussion.

Describing the scene?

The article offers this summary:
About a dozen blogs follow Atlantic Yards closely, most attracting a few hundred readers a day. The authors are usually Brooklynites, some of them experts in fields like urban development. But even the amateurs among them have boned up on arcane zoning provisions and planning-law quirks that can induce headaches among the less devoted.
The result is an unusual ferment of community advocacy and opinion journalism, featuring everything from manipulated caricatures of Forest City Ratner executives to technical discussions of traffic flow.


A dozen blogs follow it closely? I'd count two that follow it daily or near-daily: my blog and NoLandGrab, which is the central clearinghouse for all Atlantic Yards-related coverage.(Lumi Rolley and Amy Greer, who run the site, were pictured in the Times. The Times said their site "rounds up news articles," which ignores the often barbed or analytical tags that go beyond mere links, and the importance of collecting all the coverage from the Brooklyn media.)

Naparstek and Cohn dip in periodically, as does the political blog OnNYTurf. The New York Observer's blog The Real Estate follows this and numerous other topics, as do some link- or commentary-heavy sites like Curbed.com and Brownstoner.com. But that's hardly an army and too diffuse (and disorganized) to be even a squadron; it's more like a swarm.

Community advocacy and opinion journalism? Well, I'll cop to some "opinion journalism," though some of my reportage is pretty much I-am-a-camera. And is the "opinion journalism" that points out deceptions from Forest City Ratner less credible than the "objective journalism" that fails to challenge the developer? What happened to the journalism of verification prized by Times executive editor Bill Keller?

DePlasco speaks

The Times checks in with Forest City Ratner's flack:
"We definitely follow the opposition Web pages," said Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner and an occasional target of the bloggers' gibes. "They provide great access to clips and some of them are pretty well written. There is, however, a sense of self-importance and anger that often pops out." In November, Mr. DePlasco was the subject of a 4,200-word blog item plumbing "the dark genius of Ratner flack Joe DePlasco."

Well, was the plumbing credible? (My 4,200 words was mostly excerpts from coverage.) Then again, it wouldn't be easy for Times reporter Nicholas Confessore to confront that issue since his 10/14/05 article was a signal example I cited of DePlasco's spin. As for self-importance and anger, not everyone can be "humble, winsome" like Bruce Ratner, as described by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry in the developer's propagandistic Brooklyn Standard.

Assessing FCR's web site

The Times article continues:
But the blogs more often focus on the project, which gained its own Web site —atlanticyards.com — this week featuring pictures of the area where the project is planned and a list of what Forest City Ratner says are the project's benefits for Brooklyn residents. A day later, the site had already drawn jeers from at least two blogs. (Note that the line about pictures was cut in the final edition.)

Again, the conventions of journalism are challenged. Are they simply pictures of the area or are they outdated pictures? Does the Times simply quote FCR as asserting what the benefits are, or does it try to fact-check the developer, as I did? And is pointing out Forest City Ratner's use of stale quotes and fuzzy figures simply a jeer? And wouldn't it be worth mentioning that FCR's previous site had been down for six months?

Just for opponents?

Confessore writes:
Mr. Cohn, the architect, who lives in Park Slope, started "Brooklyn Views" this year and quickly earned attention from other Atlantic Yards bloggers for his analysis of the project's floor-area ratio, a measure of density. His argument — that the Atlantic Yards would be more dense than advertised because it eliminated otherwise open city streets to create the "super block" on which the project will be built — was quickly added to opponents' talking points.

Part of the challenge in covering this project is that it involves a mix of beats: sports, real estate, urban planning, housing, city politics, borough politics, law, and architecture. Cohn has added an expert's voice, and stimulated a discussion of density that has gotten too little notice. And Will James of the web site OnNYTurf, using Google Earth, has created new visuals that attempt to assess the scale of the project--an issue the press has yet to address. (PS. Brooklyn Views began in November.)

Media criticism

The article concludes:
Media criticism is a favorite activity among Atlantic Yards bloggers. Forest City Ratner is the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for The New York Times Company, a connection not missed by those who have asserted that this paper's coverage is too friendly to the developer.
Mr. Oder said he spent up to 25 hours a week on atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com, a successor to his original blog, Times Ratner Report. Hardly a hearing, community meeting or news story relating to the project escapes scrutiny.
He started blogging last September, he said, because "Brooklyn would be one of the largest cities in the country if it were a separate city."
"Then," he added, "it would have its own daily newspaper, which would pay a lot more attention to the largest real estate development in its history."


My point has always been not that the Times is biased, but that the Times has a special responsibility to cover Forest City Ratner carefully, given that the parent New York Times Company and FCR are partners in building the new Times Tower, which will open next year.

Given space limitations, I can see why the Times would not have published a reference to my lengthy 9/1/05 report critiquing the coverage. Or even an acknowledgement from a Times editor that my efforts "have been most helpful" in sorting out some of the factual pitfalls in covering this controversy.

I did tell Confessore that my goal is to give the project the scrutiny it would have were it at the top of the agenda in an independent city. But this blog also grows out of my report.


A complex story

As noted, covering this project isn't easy, and newspaper coverage has too often been piecemeal, or balkanized. There's value to sticking with it. No one else regularly covering Atlantic Yards went to hear Frank Gehry speak in January, so, when FCR announced modest reductions in scale, they didn’t remember that Gehry had predicted that the design was “coming way back.” Then again, all it took was a close reading of the FCR press release to see that the developer was lying about scaling back the original design.

Similarly, all it took was a careful reading of the Final Scope to discover that the developer now plans surface parking (as Cohn noted); that the “urban room” will now be considered open space; and that expanding the area for traffic analysis isn’t sufficient if it doesn’t include the East River crossings. OK, the latter required modest familiarity with the testimony to the Empire State Development Corporation--but the insight came from the blogosphere, not the journalists assigned to cover the project.

What the Times should cover

Let's assume that the Times, and the rest of the press, may not always provide the details that we bloggers have space to address. But there's a lot more they could be covering. Here are ten story ideas.

1. The public cost of the project, and the cost-benefit analysis

A 9/15/05 Times article finally acknowledged that the public investment would reach $1.1 billion. But this sum--obviously a minimum--was acknowledged by Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey at the 5/26/05 City Council hearing. See p. 29, or PDF p. 54, of my report. Why have no headlines or stories addressed this total cost? And why hasn’t anyone else tried to analyze FCR’s claims that the project would provide $6 billion in revenues. Why not get some experts to evaluate those reports and give us some current analysis?

2. The most expensive arena ever

The [Corporate Sponsor] Arena that would be built as part of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project would be, by far, the most expensive arena ever, at $555.3 million. However, the rest of the $3.5 billion development would cost five times as much, so that's overshadowed the arena angle. But imagine a standalone arena. Wouldn't the cost generate some news coverage? Wouldn't reporters be asking Ratner and public officials why the arena would cost so much? This happened once, as far as I can tell, in a 4/8/04 Daily News article headlined Nets arena cost: 500M.

3. How tall/dense should it be?

Rezoning efforts--public processes that involve city reports and public hearings--govern the height and density in buildings from Downtown Brooklyn to Park Slope to the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront. There's been no rezoning for the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint, which means there are no rules regarding the buildings proposed. What's too tall? What's too dense? Surely urban planners and architects have some thoughts. And why haven’t we seen some graphics that try to describe the size of the project, in context? If the Times doesn't trust a blogger's graphics, it should commission its own.

4. Are superblocks a boon?

Architect Cohn points out that when the city closes streets, they tend to be small and underused streets. But Pacific Street is much larger. Is this really justified? Again, let's hear urban planners and architects.

5. Who's Jim Stuckey?

The Times regularly runs profiles of interesting and/or powerful people. Surely Forest City Ratner Executive VP Jim Stuckey, the company's point man on the Atlantic Yards project and the former head of the city's Economic Development Corporation, deserves a profile--and not one of those chummy one-source "Public Lives" profiles. He's a major player in New York; talk to his supporters, and his critics. Fact to remember: he helped choose the architect for the Times Tower that FCR is building in partnership with the New York Times Company.

6. What does Charles Gargano think?

Charles Gargano, chair of the state Empire State Development Corporation, has already said he didn't know the agency hired the same lawyer used by Forest City Ratner, didn't know that the agency rents space in Ratner's Atlantic Center mall, but did endorse the Atlantic Yards project without modifications, even before the environmental review is completed. Surely he deserves some more public scrutiny.

7. What's Forest City Enterprises?

As noted in my report, the Times has barely profiled Forest City Ratner President Bruce Ratner and has not profiled his company, an arm of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, the largest publicly-traded commercial real estate developer in the nation. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently published a series on the parent company, which is controlled by the Ratner family, and maintains a blog. The media in Pittsburgh have been covering the company's expansion efforts there. If the Times feels that it's too much of a conflict to have its own reporter write about the company that has partnered with the New York Times Company in building the Times Tower, then hire a respected freelancer.

8. How legitimate is the CBA?

Yes, the Times has reported on questions about Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), one of eight signatories to the controversial Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which has relied on funding from the developer. But the Times has not reported, as has the New York Observer, that community activists in West Harlem aim to avoid the "Brooklyn model" and that several of the signatories have a dubious track record; only two of the eight were incorporated at the time the agreement was signed.

Now the Yankees have negotiated a CBA that the mayor calls "ransom" and the New York Observer points out actually won't cost the team much. But the CBA in Brooklyn does not include anything like the $32 million in a trust fund to be distributed to Bronx nonprofit organizations. So maybe it's time for a look at the CBA phenomenon--and a time to quote expert observers like Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York, whose authoritative criticism of the Atlantic Yards CBA has been ignored.

9. 15,000 construction jobs?

In covering other developments, the Times has used the more accurate figure of job-years to analyze promised construction jobs. Forest City Ratner says the project would provide 15,000 construction jobs. But that’s in job-years, counting annual jobs over ten years. The accurate construction jobs number would be 1500 a year for ten years.

10. What happened to Coney Island?

Early in 2003, Borough President Marty Markowitz was still talking about a basketball arena in Coney Island, a place with excellent mass transportation, space for construction and for parking, and a great need for economic development. Sure, it's not a prime spot for offices--which is why Forest City Ratner has dismissed the notion--but most of the originally promised office space is gone. And why exactly must the arena be coupled with housing?

The challenge of consistent coverage

At first, after the December 2003 project announcement, the Times covered the Atlantic Yards project. It has done so somewhat more consistently in recent months, but it hasn't yet met the challenge described in Lynne Sagalyn's book on Times Square redevelopment, Times Square Roulette (MIT Press, 2001). As noted in my report, Sagalyn observes that, when it comes to real estate deals, the press has a power it does not necessarily exercise:
Local newspapers have the political power and institutional capacity to press public officials on the issue of financial accountability—the cost/benefit question. They can knock away at the issue with special reports, editorials, and op-eds, if they so choose.

She adds: The tenor of its editorials, their overlap with news stories and the selections of letters to the editor and op-eds--all these forms of editorial voice put pressure on both city and state officials who, after looking at what stories appear on the front page, turn instinctively and immediately to the editorial page.

As noted in my report, Sagalyn quotes Charles Bagli, a reporter for the weekly New York Observer during the Times Square redevelopment era (and now a reporter for the Times), on how reporters often don’t dig: “You take the press release,rewrite it,throw in a few quotes and bang! You’re done. And that’s it. And... the press release doesn’t tell half the story,” said Bagli, who focused hard on the project’s deal dynamics in the mid-1990s when few other reporters seemed willing to touch the topic... The way he saw it, part of the problem was rooted in the unwillingness of the government and the developer to fully engage in that debate.

As I've argued, regarding the Atlantic Yards project, government officials have mostly endorsed, rather than challenged, the developer’s self-serving statements, and the Times has infrequently printed substantial challenges to those projections in either the news pages or the editorial/op-ed pages.

If the Times took this project (& Brooklyn) more seriously

Sagalyn's points also apply to the Times's coverage of the Atlantic Yards project. The newspaper has published only one op-ed on the project, nearly two years after the project was announced. (By contrast, when Forest City Ratner proposed a Sportsplex and entertainment complex for Coney Island in 1997, and the state voted $50 million for the Sportsplex, ten days later, on 8/9/97, the Times offered three op-ed columns responding to it critically.)

No columnist, whether assigned to the Metro section or the Op-Ed page, has addressed Atlantic Yards. Do they not leave Manhattan? The editorials have had major gaps. Were this the biggest topic in the independent city of Brooklyn, could a newspaper get away with calling the project worthwhile because of a report on the economics of the arena alone, not the 16 associated towers?

State Sen. Martin Golden (R-Bay Ridge) justified a $33 million Senate commitment (on top of $33 million from the Assembly) by telling the Daily News 4/12/06 that "I support it because of economic development." Could that statement go unchallenged in a city where there was any analysis of Forest City Ratner's spurious claims that the project would provide $6 billion in revenues?

The Times gave the issue part of one sentence in the middle of a story (With Ink Not Yet Dry on Budget, Pataki Aides Assail the Legislature's Plan) on page 5 of the 3/30/06 Metro section: The budget agreement also included $33 million for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, and $60 million for Yonkers that can be used to help close a roughly $100 million budget gap.

By contrast, the Times published ten articles in less than a week beginning April 7 on an alleged attempt by New York Post "Page Six" contributor Jared Paul Stern to extort money from a California billionaire. Yesterday, three reporters covered the rescue of a cat.

The city's leading paper should contain far more reportage, analysis, discussion, and debate about this project. (In the alternate universe of an independent Brooklyn, every iteration of Atlantic Yards would be covered in the city's newspaper, right?) And the blogosphere probably wouldn't be doing so much to fill the vacuum.

6 comments:

  1. Great follow up article Norman. I read the Times article this morning and felt the same dismissive vibe from it.

    I know I'm preaching to the choir, but it's extremely disappointing and frustrating that this isn't getting more coverage. If only you could write the Op-Ed piece for the Times, I believe the real meat of this issue would explode onto the scene.

    But who needs to address real issues when there are cats stuck in walls? Ugh.

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  3. Dear Reader,

    If you are reading this blog for the first time because of the first time, you probably have a lot of catching up to do. Ratner's proposal for Prospect Heights is the largest single-developer project in New York City history, and it relies on massive taxpayer subsidies.

    But the problem with the Ratner project is bigger than the subsidies or the traffic. We have a corrupt political process where the decision to build this massive 16+/- high-rise development project is left in the hands of back-room politicians. This may be a perfect site for such a huge project, but we will not know until it has gone through a transparent review process.

    The New York Times has become an advocate for back room deals. It is one of the few papers that have been generally supportive of things like eminent domain. The Times had a chance to criticize the fact that the recent New York State SCHOOL budget included $33,000,000 for Ratner. The Times decided that it was not important that money is coming out of our kids' education budget to subsidize their billionaire business partner.

    Look at the language the Times uses. They consider critique by the residents of New York to be "self important." If that is democracy, if that is transparent governance, then I will gladly call myself self important.

    Norman Oder does a great job with this blog. I hope New Yorkers come to realize that he is a much more reliable and fair source of news than the New York Times.

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  4. Yo, the Times itself explains why it so uterly biased in favor of Ratner. check out:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/16/opinion/16gilbert.html

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  5. missing part of the link there, its:

    www.nytimes.com/2006/04/16/opinion/16gilbert.html

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  6. Great critique. Frankly I think the NYTimes conveniently uses the "lack of space" claim to rationalize not providing better more comprehensive coverage. They could run their print operation and web operations differently, providing extended coverage on their website. The Washington Post runs it's website seperately from it's print edition. The NYTimes could even point to it's website in the print edition. The lack of space claim is no longer valid.

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