Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Atlantic asks, "Can Anyone Replace the Local Beat Reporter?" Not that likely (but City Limits is trying to crowd-fund a development story)

From Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic's online companion to its Ideas issue, asking Can Anyone Replace the Local Beat Reporter?:
I'd like to repeat a story I sometimes tell about the importance of local journalism. It begins in 2003, when I worked as the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin's beat reporter for Rancho Cucamonga (population 150,000), an affluent commuter suburb about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles.

I broke all sorts of news that the LA Times reporter with whom I competed missed, largely due to my willingness to complete some rather tedious tasks: I attended every city council and planning commission meeting; pored over every campaign finance report, trying my best to trace donations back through limited liability corporations; read through all city ordinances and contracts until I understood them; and filed all sorts of public record requests for documents like cell phone records, expense reports filed by city officials, and e-mails sent from municipal accounts.
He goes on to describe how the Los Angeles Times broke an astonishing story of municipal corruption, not because its one reporter covering several communities had time to dig, but because a local resident, a lampshade maker, spent two years filing a lawsuit to get city credit card records and council earnings information. And that man knew he had to go to a newspaper.

Some pessimism

I'm pessimistic that beat reporting can just bubble up.

Writing in April 2009 on a debate about the future of news between Princeton sociologist Paul Starr, a pessimist, and Outside.in founder Steven Johnson, an optimist, I noted that Johnson agrees that traditional reporting skills are needed "for the macro issues, but on the hyperlocal level the true experts are people on the streets."

As I pointed out, Atlantic Yards is both hyperlocal (and thus too fine-grained in its iterations for daily print coverage) as well as macro (encompassing a wide range of beats, including real estate, public policy, sports business, law, and local politics). So traditional reporting skills are necessary. It's very hard to become an expert on that stuff.

I'll provide another, non-AY example. The astonishing story of New York University's absorption of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn pretty much vanished from public discussion, in part because the New York Times's higher education reporter, who once provided critical coverage, chose to take early retirement via a buyout and was not quickly replaced.

The City Limits experiment

Meanwhile, City Limits magazine, which does solid work on a shoestring, is now trying to crowdsource funding for an investigation, aiming to raise $5000 with the following pitch:
Anyone who has lived in or visited New York in the past decade has seen the tower cranes and orange netting that color the skyline—harbingers of the new developments that are remaking the city, from baseball stadiums to shopping malls to luxury condos. This progress has costs, primarily the impact these projects have on existing neighborhoods.


To fend off opposition to their plans, developers often promise “community benefits” in the form of housing, amenities and jobs.

But do the benefits ever get delivered?

If so, who gets them?

And if not, who holds the builders’ feet to the fire?

City Limits wants to conduct a detailed investigation of big projects—and big promises—around the city to figure out which developers have kept their word.

Um, they could get a few hints about one of the project here.

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