What reporters need to understand when covering communities in transition

Antonio Martinez walks along the boardwalk planks after removing snow from the surface in Asbury Park, N.J. Friday, Jan. 30, 2004. (AP Photo/Brian Branch-Price)

If you read The New York Times’ story on Asbury Park earlier this month, you might think the downtrodden Jersey Shore city is at the dawn of a revitalization. The piece, published in the real estate section, describes how a new hotel could mark the first major step forward on the waterfront, where previous efforts have yielded “few lasting or notable results.”

Talk of revival in Bruce Springsteen’s favorite city is a bit late. Merchants have filled empty boardwalk storefronts, trendy bars and restaurants have moved in downtown, and new residents have snatched up high-end condos. If there was one distinguishable turning point for Asbury Park, it’s probably in the past.

When big newsrooms write about communities in transition, they often miss the first signs of a turnaround. Once they do wake up, they ascribe sweeping proclamations of change, usually tied to some “landmark moment.” The spin of local stakeholders becomes the foundation of the story. Reporters buy into the stakeholders’ motives and miss what’s actually unfolding in the community.

The Times’ most recent story on Asbury Park, for instance, backs up the new hotel’s symbolic place in a “long-awaited revival” with hopeful quotes from local leaders (“It’s a new day”). It also describes the city’s history of false starts. The most remarkable past failure mentioned in the article was a project that was abandoned mid-construction nearly a decade ago. Only the story mostly glosses over the tremendous progress made between then and now.

Increased beach and parking meter revenues have long signaled a resurgence in tourism, so much so that parking has become a top concern among residents. The city is no longer a ghost town. And The Times knows this. As far back as 2009, it reported that “evidence of the quickening pace of renewal [was] hard to miss,” with later stories touting Asbury’s “fruits of redevelopment on the boardwalk” and “signs of a rejuvenation.” The newspaper was early with its coverage of the city’s budding LGBT community in 2000, which planted the seeds of this revival. But much of The Times’ reporting in the past eight or so years has been hesitant to acknowledge anything beyond the prospect of a turnaround.

The most recent Times article does mention the city’s “string of other redevelopment projects.” It also quotes a councilwoman as saying, “We still have a ways to go, but we are nowhere near where we used to be.” Yet the paper’s narrative hinges on the false notion that little else has changed in Asbury.

All kinds of journalists make broad declarations, whether they’re covering a political candidate’s momentum or the next mega-popular food dish. But the flaw is especially apparent in the stories of cities in transition, whose complexities warrant greater care than an article on kale.

“The question would be,” says Alan Ehrenhalt, senior editor of Governing magazine, “are reporters jumping to conclusions in some places? And the answer to that is probably yes.” Those conclusions may be hopeful or skeptical, and they may apply to downtown revitalization efforts or neighborhoods in decline.

How The Times has portrayed Williamsburg and its inhabitants, often in a wonderstruck or conflicting way, illustrates just how difficult it can be to measure a place’s rise to cool, according to this 2013 Gawker rundown, which mocks and chronicles the paper’s understanding of the neighborhood. In 2000, a Times source called the Brooklyn neighborhood “the next big thing.” But three years later, a Times examination dredged up uncertainty as to whether Williamsburg was still cool. (“Williamsburg is hardly over,” said one person, while another argued, “Williamsburg is definitely no longer underground.”) Verdicts ping-ponged until 2013, when an essayist for the Gray Lady proclaimed the area’s transformation complete. The progress of a place is almost always better shown than told.

What’s more, real estate experts say there is no firm benchmark to measure when a neighborhood has reached establishment status. Wendell Jamieson, The Times’ metro editor, whose desk was not responsible for the recent Asbury Park piece but who agreed to speak to the broader issue, says the journalist’s task is especially difficult when parachuting into a community. (The metro desk has one New Jersey reporter.) Crunching data, interviews and observations, and comparing redevelopments to those in other cities all contribute to what amounts to a subjective and often imprecise reading of a place.

Herbert Lowe, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who studied a newsroom covering revitalization, says reporters need to analyze the nuanced ways in which a neighborhood’s people and institutions function every day. “You can’t tell what’s happening in a community in a day or two.”

When time is spare, the temptation is to give local stakeholders undue power to shape the reporter’s impression.

“If you want to write about a community coming up, the developer’s your best friend,” Ehrenhalt says, “and you’re his best friend.” The people pushing these projects are important sources and, typically, interesting subjects. But they are also motivated to market new developments as symbols of progress, or critical turning points. The rewards may be re-election, more money for the planning department, or a developer’s or realtors’ dream payday. 

And, boy, do developers know how to spin. The Denver Post published a story this month about a hotel proposed for the city’s chic LoHi neighborhood. The piece quoted the builder touting his project as a means to solidify the area as “an incredibly vibrant commercial district.” Yet The Post labeled LoHi “cool,” 10 years earlier. The neighborhood’s real estate and culinary scenes made headlines even earlier. While a hotel might add to existing business, it’s questionable whether the project can “solidify” something that’s been concrete for some time.

Community stakeholders in Detroit have taken their campaign even more seriously. At one point, they became so tired of doomsday news reports that they organized a media lobbying effort to flip the narrative. They’ve taken reporters on bus tours and connected them with people who are pushing for a revitalization of their own.

What’s disconcerting are the important stories that get overlooked amid the hype. In Asbury Park, that unturned stone can be found on the west side of the train tracks, where the police blotter is lengthy, the high school graduation rate is improving but still the lowest in the county, and the benefits of a boom have been less noticeable. The Times and other national media outlets have noted the disparity in passing, but it typically remains a local issue.

The recent Times story did describe the hotel’s plan to hire locals, a newsworthy push to improve the quality of life for everyone in Asbury Park. Let’s hope that’s the beginning of coverage that grinds more deeply in the details of revitalization.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha