Monday, December 05, 2005


Taking the Public Editor's cue: how the Times could improve coverage of its own real estate deal

In his 12/4/05 column, headlined When the Newspaper Is the News, New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame describes how newspapers sometimes have trouble covering themselves, and suggests a thoughtful solution. He points out:
Even the best newspapers sometimes have difficulty covering themselves with the same high-quality journalism they offer readers on other topics...
Clear-cut scandals at a newspaper spur the better ones these days to have staffers with special independence do an autopsy or in-depth explanation for their readers.

He cites as examples the Times "explanations of the recent Judith Miller matter and the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal," as well as the Los Angeles Times's 1999 postmortem on an ethically questionable deal with the Staples Center, and the Washington Post's 1981 retrospective on how a Pulitzer Prize-winning story had been faked.

He gives the Times generally good grades, though he doesn't mention the newspaper's coverage of its parent company's 2001 real estate deal to build a new headquarters, the Times Tower, on Eighth Avenue in partnership with developer Forest City Ratner:
My review of The Times's coverage of several business transactions involving its parent company over the past five years suggests that the paper has done a pretty good job. But for a paper with The Times's aspirations and the quality of its staff, it could do better.

One example is inadequate coverage of the C.I.A. leak investigation. Also, he notes:
When the paper's parent, The New York Times Company, acquired last February, it appears that the paper never published any quantification of the tax benefits - even after The Washington Post had quoted a named tax expert who pegged the benefits at about $160 million over 15 years.

The Times Tower deal--perhaps the subject for a future column?--presents a similar situation. Other newspapers have detailed benefits accruing to the Times Company that the Times has downplayed; I'll describe them below. Also unmentioned in the Public Editor's column is a somewhat different challenge: the Times's coverage of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, which is the subject of this blog and my report. (Another future column?)

Calame suggests a solution, both to fill in coverage gaps and to "offset any reader assumptions about the impact of the paper's self-interest":
Make an arrangement with several respected newspapers so that can provide links to their articles about a news-making development at The Times. The links would give Times readers access to a full range of views that could counter the perception problem and fill any real gaps in information. If The Times does an article, an adjacent note could alert readers to the online links. Absent a Times story, the links could simply be posted online in a special box called "Coverage of The Times."
It's not a perfect solution. Competing newspapers may tend to give minor problems at The Times more space than they merit, or quote sources who contradict this paper. Times editors should be free to decide not to post an article from another newspaper that seems too far off the mark.

Calame suggests a topic for a test of this concept: the trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr.

Could his solution work for Atlantic Yards? Would the Times post links to stories in competing daily newspapers that show the Times lagging in its coverage? Would it post links to a critical blog that collects all coverage of the topic, or this blog, which scrutinizes selected articles in detail. Doubtful, especially since Atlantic Yards isn't directly about the Times, and the Times might cover stories later but in greater depth.

But it would be worth a try regarding the Times Tower, a more manageable subject that directly concerns the newspaper company. Most recently, the New York Observer reported, in a 10/24/05 article headlined As New HQ Rises, Old Owners Cause Trouble Underfoot, that ten of 11 landlords--who were paid $86 million after the state condemned their properties for the Times Tower--will go to court. The landlords argue that their property was worth far more. But even if the landlords win, the Times Company and Forest City Ratner must only pay $86 million, according to the development agreement, and state taxpayers would pick up the rest.

Neither the suit nor the terms of the deal have been reported in the Times, even though the Village Voice first detailed the terms in a 6/17/02 article headlined The Paper of Wreckage. That article noted tax breaks to the Times Company worth up to $79 million, which were described in the Times's own 12/14/01 coverage merely as "millions."

The recent Observer article also cited legal papers, first reported in an 8/16/05 Village Voice cover story headlined 'Times' to Commoners: Go Elsewhere, that prohibit the developers from leasing to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, but allow rentals to more-upscale companies like Cosi or Starbucks. The lease terms haven't been reported in the Times.

Coverage of the Times Tower through 9/1/05 is detailed in Afterword B of my report on the Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards. Notably, the Times has failed to report on the value of the subsidies for the Times Tower project, the fact that the rent sought by Forest City Ratner for its share of the tower is considered high, and the reason that the developer couldn't get the Liberty Bonds it requested (because it refused terms that could have required it to pay back some money). The Times also failed to report, as the Village Voice explained in an 11/20/04 article headlined The Times' Sweetheart Deal, that the Times Company had underestimated the profit on the sale of its current building by some 50 percent, which might have eliminated the need to subsidize the new headquarters.

These issues are worthy of public discussion, especially because taxpayers are subsidizing the new Times Tower, perhaps by $79 million. (The state's argument for the subsidies is that the new tower will bring in higher tax revenues.) If the Times can't report on such topics, perhaps it can provide links, in print and online, to other publications that do scrutinize the Times Company more closely.

Could it link to blogs? It may be too soon for the Times to link to the intriguing annotated version or blogs like this one. Then again, the Times has taken some first steps in that direction. Calame points out:
And during the latter stages of the Judy Miller matter, posted links to a number of blogs - including some with sharp criticism of the paper.

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