Daily News Leaves Times in the Dirt

News's solid, scrappy reporting on city construction projects buries Times

If beat reporting were a softball game, the Daily News would be soundly beating The New York Times—at least in exposing the dangers and corruption at construction sites like Ground Zero and revealing the ugly side of the recent building boom in New York City.

The Daily News last week landed a solid scoop in reporting $321 million Goldman Sachs could rake in as a penalty for the slow pace of rebuilding at the World Trade Center site—a result that was practically pre-ordained by the schedule the government agreed to, one that was “impossible to meet.” This 2005 deal was made in secret and kept from the press and the public.

This scoop is just the latest evidence of energetic reporting by the Daily News and undercaffeinated coverage by the Times on construction projects like the morass at ground zero. It’s something we’ve been noticing for a while.

For example, the Daily News in June 2006 discovered that a contractor with mob ties, Laquila Construction, was working to prepare the site for the Freedom Tower. The Times followed up on this story a month later, with an in-depth report on Laquila.

The follow-up was solid reporting, but why wasn’t the Times there first? The paper itself had reported on Laquila’s extensive problems years earlier.

An April 2006 Times article on ground zero even casually mentioned Laquila but didn’t indicate anything odd about the company. Clearly someone wasn’t paying enough attention.

In the aftermath of the Deutsche Bank fire, in which two firefighters died, both papers did nice reporting—on the causes of the fire, on the fire department’s response, on problems with the escape plan, on possible mob links to the project—but these stories were largely investigations done in hindsight.

Don’t get us wrong. Such investigations are important. But they don’t substitute for getting to the story before it happens. The Daily News has done well in that department.

In early September it uncovered seven questionable contractors working at the World Trade Center site. An excellent December 2005 series on the WTC clean up told which companies were reaping the spoils and scamming the officials.

And the Daily News’s strong work extends beyond ground zero: the paper has doggedly reported on the underside of the city’s real estate boom.

Another example of the Daily News outshining the Times came from the Times’s own City Room blog in late March. A summary of the day’s papers offers us this from the Times itself:

New York City ordered broad changes to the way it inspects and regulates tower cranes, in the wake of a crane collapse that killed seven people.

And from the Daily News:

Officials found serious deficiencies in three of nine tower cranes examined in an enforcement blitz following the March 15 crane collapse that killed seven people, The Daily News reports. The failed inspections, all in Manhattan, resulted in stop-work orders at a Donald J. Trump condo-hotel on SoHo, the new Goldman Sachs headquarters and a building at 123 Washington Street in Lower Manhattan.

Not to mention another scoop at ground zero:

The city’s Police Department wants to take control from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey of all security at the ground zero site, The Daily News reports. ‘Secret plans call for the N.Y.P.D. to take charge of security personnel, screening, checkpoints and technology, officials briefed on the operation said.’

The Times is talking to city officials, while the Daily News is out reporting.

And while this may have been a particularly good day for the Daily News, it wasn’t just
a stroke of luck.

In March 2008, the Daily News wrote a piece about the locations of construction cranes, and one on violations at the site where a major crane accident had occurred.

In February, the Daily News wrote about ties between mob money and the city’s construction boom.

Once the Times is committed to a story, it will often go deeper than the News, but the Times has not committed itself to this story, even though it’s one of the most important issues in the city.

This is not to say that the Times’s coverage has been without its moments. And the paper did devote at least two editorials, one in February and one in April, to the topic.

But the difference in the two papers’ commitment to the story was evident even this past weekend, in their respective coverage of plummeting steel from—yes, that’s right—the Goldman Sachs construction downtown.

Steel fell from the eighteenth floor of the building onto a baseball field, where Little League was in full swing. No one was hurt, but surely the possibility of construction debris squashing children playing baseball is worth a few hundred words.

The Times printed a hundred-word Associated Press story on the incident. Buried deep in the Metro section, the piece reads like a buildings department press release.

The Daily News published a piece more than four times as long, put it at the top of page six, and sent reporters to the site who recounted details of the safety violations and gave better context for this latest in New York City’s string of construction accidents.

On this topic, the Daily News clearly has an energy the Times lacks.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.