Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

Another Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park lesson for journalists: Stick with a subject. Do the reading. Show up.

Following up on the main lesson of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park for student journalists--"Go beyond stenography and be wary of manipulation"--I should try to answer another question: why is this such a difficult topic to cover?

Because of depth, and breadth.

A long period of time

What do I mean? This project was announced in 2003. I followed it, informally, until mid-2005, when I jumped in, first with a critique of New York Times coverage, then a precursor blog. I never intended to keep writing a blog (and freelance articles) this long. Now, I have no particular plan to stop; the project won't be done until perhaps the early 2030s.

So I have what's called institutional memory. Because I can remember--or search quickly for information--that positions me ahead of other reporters who can't devote time to in-depth work. And I'm fortunate--and unusual--in being able to focus on one project.

(Sure, it is possible, by dint of hard work, to become better informed on a subject on an accelerated basis. I'm waiting for another reporter to dive deep and turn up something new.)

Now, such memory need not be embodied in one person. A good clip file--including corrections, which are not always enacted--could, theoretically, supply such institutional memory.

But consider: no publication is a "paper of record." Neither the New York Times nor the New York Daily News, for example, has reported that Greenland USA, previously the 70% owner of the project going forward, has bought all but 5% of the remaining project from Forest City Realty Trust/Forest City New York.

(There have been two opportunities to report this: when the deal was announced in January, and when it was fulfilled in June. The next opportunity will be when Forest City releases the actual numbers behind the transaction.)

A complicated topic

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is complicated. It stretches over multiple journalistic "beats," including: urban affairs, local/state politics, legal affairs/eminent domain, sports facility financing/siting, housing policy/affordable housing, neighborhood issues, real estate, and economics/business.

And there are fewer reporters covering any of those things, much less crossing over to cover one topic.

Historically, when news outlets were more robust, those topics were split among multiple reporters. Today, as legacy news outlets shrink, those topics may be split--or, more likely, ignored. The New York Daily News no longer has a Brooklyn bureau. The New York Times's Metro Desk is smaller than it's been.

"The state of local reporting in New York City is at the lowest depth that I have experienced since I started as a reporter in 1974,” Daily News editor-in-chief Arthur Browne told Paul Moses in the Daily Beast last year.

The Times’s Metro section, former Newsday staffer Moses reported in 2017, had half as many reporters as in 2001. Former Observer reporter Ross Barkan, explaining his foray into politics, last year chronicled the “decimation” of local news for Columbia Journalism Review.

Real estate, actually, gets a decent amount of coverage, but most is boosterish, driven by the industry, especially in publications like New York YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) and the chummy Bisnow. The New York Observer, once home to incisive coverage, declined under publisher Jared Kushner and in 2017 gave up print publication.

The shrinking Village Voice ditched print. The native-digital DNAinfo and Gothamist, which served as local watchdogs on some topics (though not Atlantic Yards) were abruptly closed by their billionaire owner, after a vote to unionize. WNYC radio has resurrected Gothamist, which produced far less beat reporting than DNAinfo (the archive of which remains).

Moreover, Atlantic Yards is not the big deal it was during 2005-2009, with rallies, lawsuits, and multiple public hearings. That means that Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which had a vigorous media response, is no longer present to offer quick reactions to statements by the government or the developer.

It also means that the weekly Brooklyn Paper, once a critic of the project, barely covers it. And it means that those who had paid attention have moved on to other jobs in journalism or, perhaps, even moved out of the field. The journalism ecosystem has very much changed. Even blogs like Brownstoner and Curbed, once more attuned to neighborhood issues and skeptical of real estate power, have corporate owners.

The lesson for journalists is not necessarily to focus (obsess, some would say) on a single major real estate development, as I have done. It's that gaining expertise, and maintaining it, is an ongoing goal and challenge.

Doing the work

The reason "press release journalism" is so seductive--and I've done it too--is that it makes things easy. Someone has packaged the story for you, and you can edit it down, maybe add something here or there.

Or, sometimes, point out where it's wrong or misleading.

But nothing beats doing the work, which can be time-consuming and wearying. It means showing up for meetings that may run long--or watching the video of that meeting.

It means waiting to buttonhole a possible source in person, if that person hasn't answered your calls or emails. (Does @-ing someone on Twitter work? For some people, it does, but that's not a particularly serious effort to others. At least DM.)

It also means reading the documents. Lots of documents, some of which may be boring. But the point is: it may not be in the press release.

What reading might produce

No one announced that a new application for 421-a tax benefits meant a likely $50 million savings for buyers of the 550 Vanderbilt condominium. No one explained how that condo building was, implausibly, paired with the 535 Carlton affordable housing tower for tax purposes in a single "zoning lot."

But it was made clear in an amendment to to the condo offering plan, available via the state Attorney General's office, as I wrote for City Limits.

No one announced that the 461 Dean residential tower, billed as the tallest example of factory-built modular construction, suffered from leaks and mold. In fact, that building got a lot of hype. But a FOIL request delivered documents that went beyond the hype, as I wrote for City Limits.

When Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams issued his take on the controversial two-tower project 80 Flatbush--two blocks away from the Atlantic Yards site and a potential precursor--his press release stressed that he'd recommended a significant cut in the taller tower.

What it didn't say, as I reported for The Bridge, is that Adams's longer letter advised only a modest cut in the project's overall bulk. No one else bothered to read and analyze that letter, which, after all, was not even linked in the Borough President's press release.

Comments