Wednesday, October 12, 2005


The Times vs. bloggers on Atlantic Yards: who practices the journalism of verification?

In a 10/10/05 Business Week column by Jon Fine headlined All the News That's Fit to Dis, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, speaking at the Association of National Advertisers conference in Phoenix, dissed bloggers:
"Most of what you know, you know because of the mainstream media," Keller said. "Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That's not bad. But it's not enough."
Keller pointed out that it cost the Times around $1.5 million to maintain a Baghdad bureau in 2004. (It cost one Times freelancer much more last month: He was murdered.) "This kind of civic labor can't be replaced by bloggers." The Times' assets: "A worldwide network of trained, skilled [observers] to witness events" and write about them, and "a rigorous set of standards. A journalism of verification," rather than of "assertion," and maintaining an "agnosticism" as to where any story may lead. And, borrowing a key buzzword of the day, he said the Times practiced "transparency," or, in math-teacher terms, "we show our work."

I basically agree with him, that journalists do--or aim to do--much more than bloggers. But sometimes bloggers, such as myself, do a lot more research than Times reporters.

Skilled observers to witness events? The Times, unlike numerous other news outlets in the city, never reported on the New York City Council Economic Development hearing on 5/26/05 concerning Atlantic Yards, the only hearing this year--as my report notes. I'm told someone went, but wasn't skilled enough to recognize that there was news: Forest City Ratner announced a huge increase in the size of the project. The Times didn't report this until July.

Rigorous set of standards and transparency? Not for the number of office jobs promised in this project, to pick one of many examples. The Times reported in a Metro Briefing (Developer Promises Benefits, 6/28/05): The developer, Bruce Ratner ... president of Forest City Ratner, promised that he would give local residents the first chance at work on the $3.5 billion development, which is expected to generate 12,000 construction jobs and 8,500 permanent jobs.

Where did they get the numbers? Probably from a 6/27/05 mayoral press release, which stated: The $3.5 billion project will create 8,500 permanent new jobs...

However, Ratner had already traded office space for housing, and the most recent filing by the Empire State Development Corporation shows that there's space for only 3,140 or 2,512 jobs, depending on whether you use Ratner's math or standard figures for needed space. (Add a vacancy rate and the number gets lower.) The Times hasn't reported these numbers. Rather, it has used unverified, and hardly transparent numbers presented by the developer. [An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested there was more office space, which could encompass 3,900 or 4,875 jobs.]

Since the 6/28/05 article, the Times has merely printed generalities, such as that the project would provide "thousands of jobs." Well, when the original promise is 10,000 jobs and the result is less than two-thirds of that, it's time for some journalism of verification.

Rigorous set of standards and transparency? FCR has long promised 15,000 union construction jobs—a figure that has been widely quoted in the press, though the Times has most recently used the figure of 12,000 construction jobs, in that same 6/28/05 Metro Briefing.

As noted in my report:
However, construction jobs are temporary jobs, not permanent jobs. A construction job, in standard industry parlance, lasts for one year. So the actual projection means 15,000 job-years (1,500 jobs each year over 10 years), or 12,000 job-years. That means 1,500 people would be working each year. Or 1,200.

The Times’s failure to analyze construction-job figures at Atlantic Yards suggests a double standard. In writing about other projects, the Times has used the more accurate job-years method to analyze actual numbers of construction jobs. In a Times article about the proposed West Side Stadium, the reporter questioned the proponents’ data, noting (Mayor’s Guess At Stadium Jobs Is Highest Yet, 4/10/05):
The mayor and the Jets contend that the project will generate 18,000 jobs. It actually means, the Jets acknowledge, that there will be an average of 4,500 jobs during the four years of construction.
The budget office’s estimate, however, was far lower than the Jets’—an average of 2,880 construction jobs per year, and it did not bother multiplying that figure by four, because construction jobs by their nature are temporary.

The Times has still not yet analyzed the construction-job figures at Atlantic Yards.

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