Wednesday, January 18, 2006


A newspaper covering itself: "like getting your left fielder to cover your baseball team"

It's not easy for newspapers to write about themselves, but it can get dicey when newspapers hire outsiders to cover themselves as well, as the recent experience in Seattle suggests. This issue has resonance regarding the New York Times's coverage of its parent company's Times Tower project with Forest City Ratner, its coverage of eminent domain, and also the coverage of FCR's Atlantic Yards project.

Let's backtrack. In his 12/4/05 column, headlined When a Newspaper is the News, New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame suggested that newspapers set up links to coverage of themselves by other publications. I suggested links regarding coverage of the parent New York Times Company's project with developer Forest City Ratner to build the new Times Tower: after all, other newspapers, notably the Village Voice and New York Observer, have provided more aggressive coverage.

One letter-writer to the Times offered another idea, arguing that "truly independent and critical coverage of yourself" requires hiring reporters who don't work for the Times--in essence, a freelance contractor like the Public Editor. I found an example in Seattle, where the Seattle Times had hired a well-respected freelancer to report on its efforts to end the Joint Operating Agreement--shared business arrangements but separate editorial functions--between the the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

However, that three-year arrangement has come to an end, apparently because the reporter turned out to be a little too aggressive. It came down to a judgment call about the scope of his duties--an issue that should intrigue New York Times readers.

In a 12/17/05 article headlined 'Seattle Times' Won't Extend Contract of JOA Freelancer, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher reported that the memo from Managing Editor David Boardman regarding the nonrenewal of Bill Richards' contract was vague: "We have decided to take that coverage in-house moving forward."

Reason: tough coverage?

Richards had an innovative arrangment. He was paid without any required quota of stories, and could cover any angle of his choosing--and the Times would have to publish it. Were there a disagreement, they could go to a mediator, but neither side did so. In fact, paper had nominated Richards for a Pulitzer Prize.

Still Richards wrote that one deal appeared to have violated anti-trust laws and also questioned the newspaper's accounting practices. The story is very much alive, with upcoming hearings in a lawsuit. "It is easier for an outsider to cover," Richards told E&P. "The business has gotten tougher and tougher to cover yourself. It's like getting your left fielder to cover your baseball team."

Richards told the Seattle Weekly, in a 1/11/06 article headlined Conflicted Disinterest that he was not told why his contract wasn't renewed, but offered some speculation: "Reading between the lines, I could sort of guess they were not happy with the aggressiveness of the coverage." Richards added that he was "stonewalled" by the Times's publisher, a key source.

Times Managing Editor David Boardman described it as a dispute over scope, which he distinguished from aggressiveness: "We valued that [aggressive coverage]. Where we sometimes differed with Bill was on what information was truly relevant to this ongoing struggle [over the future of the JOA] and what wasn't," he told the Seattle Weekly. "It was just a whole combination of issues, and we made the decision that, moving forward, we would try a different approach."

What would the NY Times do?

Imagine for a moment that the New York Times hired a respected freelancer to cover the Times Tower, to catch up with articles in the Voice and the Observer, and even recent coverage by the New York Sun. Would the freelancer stop at the legal battle brewing over the exercise of eminent domain to assemble land for the Times Tower? Would the reporter follow his/her journalistic curiosity and look into other development projects involving Forest City Ratner and/or the exercise of eminent domain? Would the heightened consciousness ensure that the Times acknowledged, in a national survey of the eminent domain dispute like the 1/18/06 article Developers Can't Imagine a World Without Eminent Domain, that its parent company has also benefited from eminent domain? (It didn't.)

I'm not suggesting that the Times Tower project and the Atlantic Yards project are equivalent; in the former, the newspaper is challenged to ensure that its coverage does not appear self-serving. The challenge regarding Atlantic Yards--a project regarding the parent company's business partner but not Times itself--is more indirect. Public Editor Calame wrote his 6/29/05 Web Journal: The Times's most important obligation, of course, is to make sure there's no bias in any articles it does publish about Mr. Ratner. But avoiding the perception of any tilt toward Mr. Ratner in its pages is also essential.

Because of that, he offered a recommendation: The New York Times, I believe, has an obligation to alert readers when they are reading substantive articles about a company or individual with whom the newspaper has some business or professional relationship.

That same recommendation would seem to apply to the Times's coverage of eminent domain in general. To adapt Calame's language: The New York Times, I believe, has an obligation to alert readers when they are reading substantive articles about a controversial issue that has been crucial to the newspaper's business strategy.

More subtle than bias

Calame was dealing with disclosure, a threshold issue, but the issue is more subtle than bias. I doubt it was bias, for example, that led the Times to ignore the 5/26/05 City Council hearing on Atlantic Yards, where Forest City Ratner officials announced significant changes in the plan, subtracting office space (jobs) and adding condos. (See Chapter 6 of my report.) It was neglect; editors and reporters were not taking the project seriously enough.

In that case, the Times had made a decision, either actively or passively, that the hearing wasn't important. It was a judgment call. Had there been a heightened consciousness about the Times Tower (thanks to someone on staff or, following the Seattle experiment, an independent freelancer), that might have led to heightened consciousness about the Atlantic Yards project.

I'm not saying the Times should hire a freelancer to cover all Forest City Ratner projects or even Atlantic Yards; the case is stronger when it comes to the Times Tower, and coverage of the other issues would like be too broad for one person. It's just that, as in Seattle, where the newspaper official said they "sometimes differed... on what information was truly relevant," outsiders may approach coverage more aggressively (or define 'scope' differently) than in-house staff.

Then again, as the Seattle experience shows, outsiders may not last. In New York, the Times's Public Editor, by constrast, has a fixed term and editorial independence. He doesn't cover a beat but writes every two weeks, usually analyzing the coverage of a complicated or charged issue. Many readers are still wondering when and if he'll address the Times's coverage of Atlantic Yards and Forest City Ratner.

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