Thursday, September 01, 2005
I've been a journalist for more than 25 years--as a daily reporter, and later as a freelancer for publications from The American Lawyer to Columbia Journalism Review to the Village Voice. I still freelance. From 1996 through early October 2010, I worked at the trade magazine Library Journal, unrelated to this project.
I decided to leave Library Journal to work on a book about Atlantic Yards.
Before I began Atlantic Yards coverage, I won a Silver Gavel Award (while at the Charleston Gazette, WV) from the American Bar Association and a year-long fellowship for journalists at Yale Law School, where I earned an MSL (Master of Studies in Law).
Praise from observers
Atlantic Yards awards are described further below, but my work has been praised by Chris Smith in New York Magazine ("a skeptic in the tradition of I.F. Stone"), David Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute ("Give this man a Pulitzer"), journalist Tim Sohn ("one of the finest pieces of local journalism on the internet"), Malcolm Gladwell in Grantland ("brilliantly obsessive coverage"), and Matt Chaban in The New York Observer ("incomparable Atlantic Yards watchdog"). In April 2009, AYR was cited in a debate between Paul Starr and Steven Johnson about the future of news.
How the blog started
This blog grew out of the report I wrote, issued 9/1/05, critiquing the New York Times’s coverage of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project.
I approached Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) about my proposed report because I knew they and others would both be interested in the topic and in publicizing it. While DDDB and other neighborhood/activist groups endorsed the report, the responsibility for it is mine. (Had I known that it was more than a one-shot--that I would wind up writing a long-running blog including reportage, analysis, and commentary--I might have kept more of a distance.)
In the aftermath of the report, I began a blog, the TimesRatnerReport, on 9/1/05. I intended it to briefly track coverage of my report. I began to offer analysis of both the Atlantic Yards project and the media coverage of it, then began to include more original reporting.
On 3/1/06, I changed the name to Atlantic Yards Report. The overdue name change reflected my broader approach to the topic.
I do this as a volunteer; I don’t get paid, unless I do freelance work. I don't accept ads on the blog.
Freelance work on Atlantic Yards
In July 2006, I began writing for the weekly Brooklyn Downtown Star; my last piece was in 2008. The pay was quite modest.
In June 2008, I wrote Atlantic Yards: This Generation's Penn Station? for Places Journal.
The Spring 2010 issue of the Urban Lawyer, a law journal devoted to urban issues, contains an article I co-authored, Urban Redevelopment Policy, Judicial Deference to Unaccountable Agencies, and Reality in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards Project.
On 6/22/10, I published an op-ed in the New York Times Sports section headlined A Russian Billionaire, the Nets and Sweetheart Deals.
On 9/30/10, I published an op-ed in the New York Observer headlined KPMG's Fuzzy Math on Atlantic Yards.
On 1/21/11, I wrote a New York Times "Complaint Box" essay headlined Powerless in Brooklyn.
On 3/18/11, I wrote an Columbia Journalism Review online essay headlined A Sports Myth Grows in Brooklyn.
On 6/3/11, I wrote a Dissent review of the film Battle for Brooklyn, headlined The Epic Battle Over Atlantic Yards.
On 8/1/11, I wrote an article for Urban Omnibus on Atlantic Yards Watch: Tracking Daily Impacts.
I am available to speak at classes, conferences, and other forums. I have given several walking tours to visiting groups of journalists, urban planners, and architects--and to student groups.
On 2/24/07, I spoke at the Grassroots Media Conference on "objectivity, neutrality, and integrity" in covering Atlantic Yards.
On 10/9/07, I participated on the Municipal Art Society's panel on New Media, New Politics? Jane Jacobs and an Activist Press.
I was a guest on the TV show Brian Lehrer Live in May 2006, October 2007, and June 2009.
On 10/3/09, I spoke at the Dreamland Pavilion Conference in Brooklyn, on “Atlantic Yards: Brooklyn’s Most Controversial Development through the Lens of Public Relations and News Coverage."
On 8/12/11, I lectured on "Why Atlantic Yards Makes Me Angry (and makes me a better journalist)" at the Galapagos Art Space's "Get Smart" series. (Here's a review: "Oder is funny when he's angry.")
A "watchdog" blog
I call this a "watchdog" blog because it's devoted to a close look at Atlantic Yards and associated issues. I'm concerned about accountability.
From where I lived in Park Slope from 1992 through mid-2011, it’s about a seven-minute walk to the project footprint; that sensitized me to issues like scale and traffic. I moved in 2011 within Brooklyn and am now 12 to 15 minutes by subway from the project site. I don’t own property in Brooklyn.
Regarding Atlantic Yards, I’m a reporter and a critic--a critic of the project, the press coverage, and also the governmental process for evaluating and approving the project.
I don’t have a blueprint for the result, but I’m not neutral. I am often skeptical of the claims made by the developer and the supporters of the project, such as the expected economic benefits or the fairness of the process. I believe the press should serve as more of a watchdog.
Such skepticism aligns me closer to project opponents than to project supporters or Forest City Ratner. But those opponents do not control my blog and I don’t necessarily share their views or analysis. Most of the material I cite is in the public domain, so my choices and my analysis—about what to include and how to frame it—are often checkable.
I testified critically about this project in July and September 2005 before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and also in October 2005 before the Empire State Development Corporation. In each of those cases, I cited my research, reminding listeners of Forest City Ratner's record in Brooklyn, describing the contents of my report, and criticizing the claims in Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard publication.
I've subsequently testified briefly at lagging, late moments in two Empire State Development Corporation public hearings, calling attention to pending Freedom of Information Law requests that I had filed but which had not resulted in delivery of documents.
Those activities go beyond what reporters typically do; they could be considered the equivalent of a newspaper column. This blog melds reportage with analysis and commentary. Such multiple formats may be found in one publication but usually not from one journalist.
Such is the world of the niche or stand alone journalist, who, according to Chris Nolan, "succeeds in getting stories told in an honest and forthright manner without benefit of working for a larger news outlet."
Fairness, not objectivity
My goal here is fairness, not some “he said, she said” version of objectivity. As former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent wrote (It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right., 11/14/04), "Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue; it doesn't require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight."
I also take a cue from a "Journalism Manifesto" by former Wall Street Journal writer G. Paschal Zachary, who wrote: "Let subjects have their say, but tell readers why one side is fudging, lying or worse... The critical measure of a journalist's stature is whether they got the story right, not whether they were fair and balanced... Declare your agenda. All journalists have one. Be honest about yours...Fair and Accurate. Stop talking about journalists’ ‘objectivity’ and instead promote the concept of journalistic 'integrity.'"
Journalists make choices, based on their knowledge, the time they have available, and the space allotted, among other constraints. In my report and blog, I’ve pointed out numerous examples of the “uncritical reporting” Okrent might cite.
My claim to authority
Do I simply have a "slant," as one reporter suggested to me, or is my perspective and analysis rooted in any authority? My record, I submit, suggests the latter.
NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen observes:
Your authority starts with, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” If “anyone” can produce media and share it with the world, what makes the pro journalist special, or worth listening to? Not the press card, not the by-line, not the fact of employment by a major media company. None of that. The most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W. Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Or, “I was at the demonstration, you weren’t, let me tell you how the cops behaved.” Or, altering my formula slightly, “I interviewed the workers who were on that oil drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let me tell you what they said.” Or, “I reviewed those documents, you didn’t, let me tell you what I found.” Your authority begins when you do the work. If an amateur or a blogger does the work, the same authority is earned. Seeing people as a public means granting that without rancor.On objectivity, neutrality, and integrity
Also worth noting: my comments in February 2007, part of On objectivity, neutrality, and integrity in covering AY:
I have been highly critical of the project, and I’m not neutral. That means I don’t think that balancing a quote from the developer and the opponents necessarily makes for honest journalism. That’s pseudo-objectivity.
I am often skeptical of the claims made by the developer and the supporters of the project. So that aligns me closer to project opponents, and that’s why I’m here today. But they don’t control my blog—I mean, today’s coverage, I wrote a nuanced piece on the judge’s decision and DDDB issued a press release—different content, different goals.
Still, it doesn’t make sense to try to find a mythical middle if you don’t do any digging. I mean, I don’t have to ask [DDDB's] Candace [Carponter] here if the project’s too big. Frank Gehry thinks the project’s too big.
I don’t have to find an activist to say that the approval process for this project isn’t democratic. The Regional Plan Association, mainstream group—they say the process is lousy.
So my criticism—or what seems to be opposition--emerges from my journalistic examination of the project, not the other way around.
On editing and responsiveness
This is a blog. Many but by no means all of my writings emerge unedited; for more complex or controversial topics, I sometimes send pieces to friends for a read. I frequently correct minor errors--typos or missing words--after readers catch those mistakes; I consider such changes the equivalent of a newspaper tweaking a story between its first and final editions.
Sometimes more significant changes are required, because I have made errors or new information has surfaced. In many cases, I aim to add inserts that indicate that changes were made after the initial posting. I have made changes in response to occasional requests for corrections or clarifications. I welcome feedback as well as notification of typos.
Awards and notice
On 6/7/07, I was honored with the Park Slope Civic Council's (PSCC) Lovgren Volunteer Award. I've been a member of the PSCC for several years, and annually volunteer for the Park Slope House Tour, but haven't participated in any of their policymaking. (Here's coverage of the PSCC.)
See 2/7/07 interview and 10/12/10 profile in New York Observer and online, coverage here and here in the New York Daily News's I-Team blog, coverage of the AY blogosphere in the Times, and 2007 Brooklyn Blogfest coverage (also see Times coverage).
In May 2008, the New York Observer named me #77 (!?) on its quite arbitrary list of the most powerful people in New York real estate. I have not been on subsequent lists.
In February 2010, I was honored with a Crystal Eagle Award from the Owners' Counsel of America, an organization of attorneys who represent those facing eminent domain. As I wrote, I had qualms about being described, at least according to some OCA members, as a "champion of property rights."
I responded that I was a "champion of good government."
I was nominated for the award by New York attorney Michael Rikon, who represents some property owners in the Atlantic Yards footprint regarding condemnation awards (rather than larger challenges to the project). Here's coverage of Rikon.
In August 2011, Brooklyn-based The L Magazine named Atlantic Yards Report "Best Local Blog" in its Best of Brooklyn awards.
Comments policy: Comments are moderated. My preference is that 1) commenters address the issues raised in my articles and 2) commenters identify themselves.