Monday, December 31, 2007

The NYT on AY, 2007: fit to blog, fit to print?

Some important news about Atlantic Yards this year has appeared only in the online version of the New York Times, not the print edition of the Paper of Record, and some has been ignored completely, some has been distorted, and some has been delayed. (And, yes, some important news appeared in the Times first.)

The other daily newspapers have been quite variable, too, in their coverage of AY; the dailies can't even keep up with the daily flow of news, much less advance the story with enterprise reporting and investigations.

While the advance of the Times's City Room blog holds some promise for more comprehensive local coverage, the dailies can't keep up with AY; readers have to keep consulting blogs, the Brooklyn media, and the New York Observer.

The belated security scoop

Remember, the Times's article regarding the news--both a scoop and an unacknowledged correction--that the Atlantic Yards arena would be only 20 feet from the street, rather than 75 feet, as previously reported? That appeared online 11/21/07, headlined Putting the Atlantic Yards Arena in a Secure Place.

It was not initially followed up in print, but Deputy Metro Editor Patrick LaForge commented online two days later: "While we did not publish this blog article in the newspaper, I’m sure this line of reporting will find its way into the print edition. As you know, we sometimes choose to publish news details online first. We do not always follow up immediately in print, for a variety of reasons — the need for more reporting, the availability of space, staff holiday schedules etc."

Indeed, the article did appear a day after his comment, though buried on page B2.

Online or print?

LaForge in his commented added, "A side note: We have many readers here who never see the print metro section, so we may be approaching a time when people say: 'This is important news. Why wasn’t it on the Web as soon as you confirmed it?'"

He has a point, so there's an argument for both--and, if the space in print is limited, some way to acknowledge the issue. These are judgment calls, and the problem is that the Times has too often made judgments that downplay the news about AY.

What about Dolly?

The Times missed the boat when it covered online only the departure of disgraced City Planning Commissioner Dolly Williams, who voted on a rezoning while it benefited her investment in Atlantic Yards, while fellow dailies the Daily News, the Sun, and the Post all found space for print.

Couldn't the Times have just published a one-paragraph short?

About that Ombudsman

Then the Times published only online the story of the belated appointment of an Atlantic Yards ombudsman, which was big news in the Brooklyn press and online, but which only made it to print in the Daily News.

Again, it deserved at least a news brief.

Why print makes a difference

In his 12/9/07 column, headlined If It’s Fit to Blog, Is It Fit to Print?, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt took on the general issue, writing about a controversy that played out online but not in print concerning a new book by Scott McClellan, President Bush’s former press secretary.

Hoyt's conclusion:
[Reporter Douglas] Jehl and other editors in Washington and New York decided not to write an article for the next morning’s newspaper because the excerpt was “inconclusive” and lacked context, and McClellan was not talking. “Space being at a premium, we don’t want to squander it on stuff that doesn’t merit it,” he said. It was a decision that highlights the difference between a Web site and a traditional newspaper, even if they are under the same roof. The Web has unlimited space and leaves little time for reflection; the newspaper has limited space and the time to make decisions more thoughtfully.

All the same, I think The Times should have run at least a brief item in the printed newspaper to acknowledge the Internet buzz and to put it in perspective, as Nizza’s blog post did. Editors may be tempted to think that if the newspaper’s Web site has a story, the newspaper has covered it, but more than 80 percent of readers of the printed Times do not go to its Web site.


Indeed, there's no argument that the Williams story and the ombudsperson story were ephemeral, "inconclusive" stories. Rather, someone at the Times made a judgment that, despite their conclusiveness, those stories didn't make the cut.

Given the low threshold for news briefs in the Times, that's a very dubious judgment. And, whether or not each decision is an ad hoc one, such decisionmaking contributes to the impression that the Times, as a whole, is not scrutinizing Atlantic Yards closely enough.

As I've argued before, the parent New York Times Company's business relationship with Forest City Ratner--partners in the new Times Tower--obligates the newspaper to be exacting in its coverage.

Missing stories completely

And then there were stories that never made it into the Times at all. The Times (and others) completely ignored the story of the Ward Bakery violations after the Daily News had the scoop.

And all the dailies ignored the epic argument last May regarding the Atlantic Yards environmental lawsuit. They also ignored the New York Observer's scoop that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff had second thoughts about the city's avoidance of ULURP regarding Atlantic Yards.

Stories delayed, stories distorted

It took months for the Times to report on the additional $105 million in the city's budget for Atlantic Yards.

The Times distorted a report on a magistrate judge's recommendation that the federal eminent domain suit be dismissed.

The Times for months kept printing that the Atlantic Yards arena would open in 2009, despite evidence to the contrary. (Finally, they were handed the admission.)

The Brennan documents scoop

The Times did have a scoop regarding documents unearthed in a lawsuit filed by Assemblyman Jim Brennan and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. I found the report murky, but the documents did (and still could) provide fodder for more analysis, such as the projected rental rate of apartments.

This was the only example of enterprise reporting--driven by journalistic curiosity rather than a reaction to events or press releases--regarding AY that appeared in the Times. And it's fairly clear that the story was generated by Brennan's calculation that the best way to release the documents was via the Times.

Otherwise, the Times (and the dailies, in general) are having enough trouble just keeping up with the news.

The Barclays controversy

And the Times, to its credit, went to a respected historian for some helpful context about the controversy

The advance of City Room

The Times's City Room news blog began updated daily coverage in June; had it been launched earlier, arguably some of the earlier stories that were missed or downplayed would have at least made it into the blog.

Moreover, City Room, unlike the print Times, allows for comments, so at least Times reporters and editors can take in feedback about the coverage. And City Room does mention coverage in rival dailies.

So it's more likely, I think, for some Atlantic Yards news to be published under the imprimatur of the Times, at least online. Whether that news makes print is another question.

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