‘There is nobody who will cover this’

A battered New York press and the hope of The City

Last September, during a heavy downpour in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, Luis Sánchez Almonte was buried alive. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Sánchez Almonte, who was 47, had been living in northern Manhattan since 2016 and working construction jobs to send money back home. He was digging at the base of a 30-foot wall when it gave way, covering Sánchez Almonte in mud and debris. In the hours that followed, more than a hundred firefighters arrived on the scene—along with search dogs, listening devices, and assorted heavy machinery—but the rain hampered recovery efforts. It was not until the next day that Sánchez Almonte was dug out and pronounced dead.

Jere Hester was in the newsroom at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, at the City University of New York, when news of the accident flashed on TV. An awful tragedy, he thought. Over the coming days, Hester, then the director of the school’s NYCity News Service, found the story sticking with him.

The incident had occurred not far from the one-bedroom apartment where Hester grew up. It also reminded him of a story he had worked on in 1999 as an editor at the New York Daily News, about a construction worker from Mexico who fell through the floor of a construction site in Williamsburg and drowned in three feet of wet concrete. Back then, Hester and the Daily News crew—along with journalists from a host of other city publications—did what Hester says journalists are supposed to do when something like this happens. They pestered the Buildings Department. They hounded the developers. They wrote columns and follow-up reports. They advocated that justice come down on a builder who, it turned out, was no stranger to workplace accidents. The event even inspired a book by Jimmy Breslin, the beloved city columnist, called The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez (2002), in which Breslin excoriated local corruption and American immigration policy.

In the case of Sánchez Almonte, however, after initial coverage of the accident, weeks passed and then? Nothing—at least not as far as Hester saw in the press. Community leaders had told reporters that safety measures at the worksite were substandard. An investigation by the Buildings Department was ostensibly underway. But soon it seemed as if the death had never happened. “You walk down pretty much any block in this city, and you see building sites,” Hester says. “But we don’t report on these things like we used to.” It’s not that there aren’t still great reporters out there, he adds. “It’s because they’re stretched too thin and on to the next story.”

ICYMI: A wake for half the Daily News

Days before, Hester, who is 52, had signed on to become editor in chief of The City, a new digital news nonprofit that launched this month with the aim of investing in local accountability journalism. Hester was on the lookout for stories that he believed deserved better coverage. It was not hard to find examples.

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Local news has taken a beating in New York in recent years. Major publications, including The New York Times and the Daily News, have winnowed local coverage in favor of stories from across the nation and the world. Others, including The Village Voice and DNAinfo, a hyperlocal site, have closed outright. Mass layoffs have become the norm. “For years, it was death by a thousand cuts,” Hester says. “Lately, it’s become a bloodbath.”

It’s much the same story as anywhere over the past decade, as diminishing advertising revenue and shifting online distribution models continue to ravage the news industry. But in New York, where boroughs larger than most American cities are now hardly trodden by local reporters, the effects are particularly acute.

It’s not just accountability that falls by the wayside, whether for specific incidents of wrongdoing, or for negligence on the part of entire city agencies. A decline in local news also threatens to deliver a decline in civic engagement. Does the news help New Yorkers understand and navigate their city? More and more, the answer would seem to be no.

 

In many ways, the news built New York City, from the newspaper wars of the late 19th century, when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst duked for prominence, to the post-war years, when a booming national economy and ad sales propelled newspapers to ever-greater heights. Young reporters dashed across town, willing to do anything for a byline, even writing up sermons from prominent churches on Sundays. “It was a different universe,” Clyde Haberman, who began his career in the sixties as a Times copy boy, says. “Nobody would dream of doing this stuff now.”

The Times’s coverage was robust, but the real action was in the tabloids—thick with ads—including the New York Post, the Daily News, and eventually Newsday, based in Long Island. “Small paper. Big headline. High energy. Blood, guts, dirt, fires, floods, champion of the da people.” That’s how Nora Ephron described the tabloids in her play Lucky Guy (2013), set in the eighties and nineties, about the life and career of Mike McAlary, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and reporter. The city then, Ephron wrote, was a shithole. But “it was a grand and glorious time to be in the tabloid business.” Politicians sought favor and feared condemnation. And when the tabloids got on a story, coverage in the Times and on TV routinely followed. Pages were filled with popular voices: Michael Daly, Jim Dwyer, Gail Collins, and Breslin, who was so revered that he was once tapped as a spokesperson for a brewing company, Piels, in East New York. (“It’s a good drinking beer,” the slogan went.)

 

If you’re gonna be a watchdog, you’ve gotta be watching.

 

Whether or not this was a golden era is subject to debate. By the mid-eighties, much of what fueled papers’ growth, on the tabloid side especially, was celebrity gossip, including not a few front pages that made hay of Donald Trump. And even more than today, Haberman recalls, coverage of marginalized neighborhoods and groups—minorities, gay people, immigrants, and the poor—was scarce, or offensive. Still, awash in Watergate’s afterglow, journalism was highly coveted as a profession; newsrooms brimmed with reporters, many fresh from the Ivy League, stacked behind beats that probed city politics and governance—writing on education, transportation, the courts, housing, homelessness, AIDS, infrastructure, and more.

But the expanding market for mass media was chomping into newspaper revenue. And as the city changed—the papers targeted a primarily white, working class audience in a city that was rapidly growing more diverse—publishers struggled to keep pace. Circulation declined and outlets began shedding reporters. When Paul Moses took over as city editor of Newsday, in 1997, the paper had gone from 60-odd reporters in the eighties to only 12. (A city-specific edition of the paper had closed in 1995, after a decade of operation.) Moses added back a few reporters and, in time, came to feel that his team was doing a respectable job of covering the city. “I remember thinking, ‘This is scary,’” Moses says. “‘If we can actually do this with 15 reporters, soon the other papers are going to realize it—and they’re all going to cut back.’”

As the millennium turned, the internet promised new riches, if only outlets would trade local audiences for ones across the country and abroad. Publishers leaped. In 2008, the Times folded its stand-alone Metro section into the A section, along with national and international coverage. The Times also cut many of its city-centric columns, including one written by Haberman from 1995 to 2011. (“Decisions were made,” Haberman wrote in his final column, by way of explanation. “Let’s leave it at that.”) In 2015, the Daily News, which had circulated to more than a million people in the pre-2000s, scrapped its borough-specific sections. A year later, The New York Observer, once a beloved skewer of the city’s rich and powerful (particularly under the stewardship of longtime editor Peter Kaplan) ran its last print issue—and, tellingly, dumped the words “New York” from its masthead.

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Scaling back local coverage was rationalized as sensible business. In 2016, in response to a story in the Times about a fire in the Bronx, Liz Spayd, the paper’s last public editor, wrote: “Why should a newsroom that just announced lofty international ambitions spend resources covering news of no interest to readers in Beijing or London?” She explained that, moving forward, the Times would favor local stories that tap into widely resonant themes over incremental beat reporting. (“The broader subject of policing and race is in. Cop coverage by jurisdiction is out.”) Spayd acknowledged that the approach was risky: “When reporters aren’t tied to hard beats, they don’t develop the kinds of sources and expertise that help them break big stories.”

That has proven true in Moses’s experience. In 1992, Newsday won a Pulitzer for its coverage of a midnight subway derailment, and Moses says that the story was only possible because the paper had both a full-time subway reporter and a full-time subway columnist, as well as a handful of other reporters who routinely covered transportation. “If you’re gonna be a watchdog, you’ve gotta be watching,” Moses says.

 

Unless they’re on watch, New York’s papers risk losing touch with the city and the people living in it. Last June, for example, outlets were taken aback when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s Fourteenth Congressional District (which encompasses the east Bronx and north-central Queens). From the race’s outset, the press had treated Crowley, a long-seated incumbent who was considered Nancy Pelosi’s possible successor to lead House Democrats, as the all-but-certain victor—never mind shifting demographics in the Bronx and Queens, Ocasio-Cortez’s aggressive door-to-door canvassing, or her savvy social media game.

In the Times, before the week of the primary, Ocasio-Cortez’s name had appeared in only two news stories, neither of which was about her campaign specifically. The morning after her victory, a headline in the paper read: “Who Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? A 28-Year-Old Democratic Dragon Slayer.” Jill Abramson, the Times’s former executive editor, tweeted in response: “Kind of pisses me off that @nytimes is still asking Who Is Ocasio-Cortez? when it should have covered her campaign. Missing her rise akin to not seeing Trump’s win coming in 2016.” By lunch that day, the Times removed the question from its headline.

The Times was hardly alone in skimping on coverage of Ocasio-Cortez. “We simply didn’t have the manpower to cover that race the way we should have,” Erin Durkin, a former City Hall and politics reporter for the Daily News, tells CJR. In years past, when there were more reporters to go around, Durkin explains, election coverage was a shared effort between reporters in City Hall, political reporters assigned to the boroughs, and a Daily News staffer in Washington focused on New York’s congressional delegation. In 2018, with the City Hall bureau cut nearly to the bone—it was just Durkin and one other reporter—and the borough and Washington bureaus both long gone, election coverage proved a strain, as she and her colleague were still responsible for covering the mayor, a 51-member city council, and the daily machinations of city agencies. “It’s not reporters’ jobs to pick winners, but it should be our job to cover competitive elections and help inform voters,” Durkin says.

In July, half of the Daily News’s already trim editorial staff was laid off, including Durkin, leaving only one reporter in City Hall. “That doesn’t mean you only need one person to cover City Hall,” Jim Rich, the Daily News’s former editor in chief (who also lost his job in the cuts), says. “It means that one reporter is working twice or three times as hard. It’s not fair to that reporter, and it’s not good for the city.”

 

I feel like I’m on a life raft in the bleak, terrible sea of local news.

 

City journalists, under pressure to file as many as five pieces a day, are unable to devote time to the research and discovery that result in scoops. In 2017, the Daily News won a public service Pulitzer, in partnership with ProPublica, for a series of stories demonstrating how police had abused the law to evict hundreds of people, many of them poor minorities, from their homes. “Today, that story would never happen, no chance in hell,” Rich says, explaining that the project required years of dedicated investment. The gutting of the Daily News by its owner, Tribune Publishing, has shown in more obvious ways: in February, a headline confused Long Island with Staten Island and, the next day, another story misidentified Mayor Bill de Blasio as “Mike.” The New York Post gleefully reported the mistake. Robert York, the current editor in chief of the Daily News, disputes the Post’s characterization of the cause of these errors—that copy and design functions had been moved to a centralized hub in Chicago, which they have not. Without providing an alternate explanation, York says that the Daily News is in good posture to cover local stories. At the time of this writing, however, the City Hall bureau chief position is vacant.

The decay of coverage has had consequences for those who remain on the job. For years, it has been the norm for certain reporters to find themselves the only journalist at a public meeting, if anyone from the press shows up at all. Some are viewed as so alien that they get kicked out; in March, Maya Kaufman, a reporter for Patch, the community watchdog website, was barred from a public hearing by the mayor’s office. Peter Mastrosimone, editor in chief of the Queens Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, says that officials and community leaders have grown less accustomed to being pestered by reporters, which makes it harder than ever to get powerful people on the record. “The running joke in our office is that the Department of Transportation will tell us in an email, on background, that they pave roads,” he says.

Research shows that a decline in local news contributes to a drop in civic awareness and participation. NY1, generally regarded as the standard-bearer for local TV news, deserves particular credit for frequently hosting politicians for interviews and debates. But it’s difficult to keep New Yorkers engaged: in the last mayoral race, in 2017, only 26 percent of registered voters participated, according to the Board of Elections, and only 12 percent showed for the primary. (Turnout was 41 percent when Michael Bloomberg won election in 2001 and 57 percent when New Yorkers chose Rudy Giuliani in 1993.) Some reporters are nervous about their outlets’ preparedness to cover the mayoral race in 2021. “No one has been put in a situation to succeed,” a city government reporter tells CJR.

The problem extends well beyond politics, of course. Fewer reporters on the street means less expertise in newsrooms and less awareness of the public’s mood. Small neighborhood sites (West Side Rag, The Lo-Down, The Wave) and their more ambitious cousins (the Bronx Times, the Queens Post—plus Our Town and The Spirit, once run by Kyle Pope, now the editor of CJR) play meaningful roles in their communities. But with small budgets and staffs—in some cases, they’re the passion project of a single busybody with good tips—most would be hard-pressed to pull off investigations of pervasive problems. Reporting by Bklyner has forced local action on housing and school crosswalks, but its editor, Liena Zagare, laments the many subjects that her team, of five, has trouble getting to: real estate development, transportation, education, courts, and the environment, to name a few.

More than a million New Yorkers live in poverty, and millions of others are on the threshold. “Those are a lot of important lives, and we just know nothing about them from our media,” says Doug Lasdon, who has led the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit, for more than 30 years. Lasdon has observed that outlets like the Times—which could once be counted on for coverage of public assistance, housing, healthcare, and other poverty-related stories—now tend to come up short. In April, by CJR’s count, out of nearly 300 articles in the Times Metro section, one was primarily about poverty. (Cliff Levy, the section’s editor, says, “These issues are absolutely core to the Times’s mission, and we’re never going to pull back from them.”)

In a city where nearly 40 percent of residents are foreign born, ethnic and foreign-language newspapers—of which there are hundreds in New York City—are essential, but their audiences are niche, and many lack the resources to support in-depth reporting. In the citywide press, these communities are often underserved, or misunderstood. Amy Torres, of the Chinese-American Planning Council, a social services nonprofit catering primarily to low-income and immigrant clients, points to the ongoing debate over specialized high schools. On multiple occasions, Torres says, reporters from the Times and elsewhere have approached the Asian immigrant community expecting a defense of the status quo—Asian students are well-represented in these schools, compared to other ethnic groups—but many CPC families have not benefited from the existing system. “They want us to comment on the Asians in the schools, not the Asians we serve,” Torres says. The result is coverage that lacks nuance. “It’s very difficult for us to fight for issues of equity when there’s a flattening of our community in the media and in policy-making,” Torres says.

ICYMI: A decade in, the Texas Tribune pursues the rest of its audience

Violent crime has reached an historic low, yet splashy stories still make headlines, often in the place of deep reporting. In 2016, when prosecutors for the Southern District of New York announced what they called the largest gang raid in the city’s history, the press played along. “120 violent thugs,” the New York Post wrote. As The Intercept reported last week, however, only a third of the defendants were charged with violent crimes and more than half were never gang members at all.

At the neighborhood level, residents have watched with dismay as local coverage has dwindled. Rob Witherwax, who heads the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, a civic group, says that his area benefited enormously from the presence of DNAinfo, which, until its closure, in November 2017, was a reliable source of hyperlocal, day-in, day-out stories; reporters were assigned to virtually every neighborhood in the city and were regulars at community board meetings. “The people who have the luxury of time to go to these meetings—and it is a luxury—are generally the people who have other luxuries, too,” Witherwax explains. “So, just to have a disinterested third party in the room who knows the issues, who is providing a record to everyone else, that’s priceless.”

When the site shut down—in part the result of its staff voting to unionize—Witherwax says the loss felt personal. “That reporter was a part of our community,” he says, of Rachel Holliday Smith, who was on the beat. Witherwax and the neighborhood development council have since attempted to fill the gap, through the council’s website and email list serve. “But we are necessarily a conflicted party,” Witherwax says. “We have an agenda.”

Smith says that, after she received an email announcing her site’s shutdown, distressed inquiries from sources followed. Who are we going to talk to now? they asked. Who will we go to with stories? When it made sense, Smith pointed them to outlets like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or Brooklyn Paper. But often the stories her old sources had in mind were so specific to their neighborhoods that she had no answer. “It was horrible,” Smith says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know who to direct you to. There is nobody who will cover this.’”

 

It’s a dire picture that threatens to look worse. “Fewer local stories lead to a less-informed readership, which then grows less interested in local news, thus further reducing the incentive to support local stories,” Tony Proscio, a researcher, explained in a 2018 report on local news in New York published by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

The Times, for one, has pledged to reinvest in city coverage, with the appointment of Levy, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Metro veteran, as the section’s editor. Recent investigations—into wasteful spending by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and lead paint in public housing, for example—have been impressive. But neighborhood coverage can feel superficial. With some 90 percent of the Times’s readership coming from outside of New York, Levy says, wide appeal is still the goal. “We want to be an indispensable resource for people who live in New York,” Levy says. “But we also want to be indispensable for people who live outside of New York.”

On the bright side, a recent surge of philanthropic support for local news has fueled promising growth and experimentation, especially among nonprofit outlets. Early last year, WNYC, New York’s public radio station, was able to revive Gothamist, a hyperlocal news site that had been shut down along with DNAinfo. And then came The City. Within the first 24 hours of its announcement—via an article in the Times last September—more than 80 applications flooded Jere Hester’s inbox; some 500 followed in the next months. The applicant pool stunned Hester, not just for its size but its quality. “I could easily have staffed this place five or 10 times over with excellent people,” Hester says—putting him in an enviable position, if one that spoke darkly to how many talented local reporters were looking for work. Hester hired 17 journalists, including Smith. (“I feel like I’m on a life raft in the bleak, terrible sea of local news,” she says.)

The City has leveraged a combination of membership and donations to fund its operations, rather than ads. It received $7.5 million in seed funding, with $2.5 million from a few large foundations, including Craig Newmark Philanthropies (Newmark is also a member of CJR’s board). The team has raised an additional $1 million since, making for a secure financial runway of about two and a half years, according to John Wotowicz, The City’s publisher, and there are plans for growth.

The staff of The City gathers for a meeting. Photo by Andrew McCormick.

The focus is on hard-hitting accountability reporting, as opposed to breaking news. Still, Hester says, “There are no small stories, if they affect people’s lives.” Establishing name-awareness has been a challenge. (“Hi, I’m from The City,” doesn’t immediately scan with would-be sources.) So for a few months, Hester sent out reporters to introduce themselves to people and ask: “What can The City do for you?” Feedback ranged from general—people want to see better coverage of housing—to very specific—a man said that someone should write about the need for more showerhead filters in apartments.

In February, while its website was still in development, The City began publishing stories on New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog. (Adam Moss, New York’s former editor, is a member of a council that advises The City on editorial matters; there is also a board of directors, which provides financial guidance, led by Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News and Zagare of Bklynr’s husband.) The City’s inaugural stories looked into the persistence of racial discrimination by police in the Bronx, the suspension of the Housing Authority’s elevator chief for making false maintenance claims, and the routinely broken subway escalators at the Hudson Yards station.

The City launched formally in April, with reports on displacement that will result from the 2nd Avenue subway; the bloated costs of public restroom construction (a bathroom in a Bronx park cost taxpayers $4.7 million); and the city’s failure to follow through on plans to furnish every public school classroom with air conditioning. Some showed tabloid snark: “No relief,” read the headline on the bathrooms story. “Not cool,” quipped the story on school A/C.  

A story by Claudia Irizarry Aponte surveyed the aftermath of Luis Sánchez Almonte’s death. The subcontracting company he worked for, it turned out, had a history of violations and criminal ties; after the Sunset Park accident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration judged that the company had willfully disregarded safety regulations, and fined it $63,647. Sánchez Almonte’s family, Irizarry Aponte discovered, had received a rush of support from city officials following the accident, only to see promises broken. To Hester, the story was exactly in line with The City’s mission. “We’re here to listen,” he says, “and we’re here to act.”

The City occupies space in a narrow building in Koreatown, constructed in 1904. On the fourth floor, it sits above a dentist’s office and a catering company. A banner on a wall displays The City’s logo, with its mascot, a carrier pigeon named “Nellie,” a reference to the pioneering investigative journalist Nellie Bly.

On a recent Monday morning, staffers crowded around a conference table. It fit only half the team, so the others pulled up chairs and sat to the side, looking up between glances at their phones and notebooks. Hester, who has a gentle face and a tidy bald-eagle haircut, was unpresuming in a dark V-neck sweater, khakis, and rectangular glasses. He sat facing a TV screen, on which he projected talking points from his laptop.

The mood was upbeat. Traffic to the site was high, Hester said. Two hundred people had donated to The City in its first 24 hours—a feat, given that there had been no formal membership drive. And many of the reporters had been invited on TV and radio programs to discuss the findings of their reporting. Most important, The City was getting results. In response to a story on an excessive $369 million that the mayor’s office had spent on ferries, Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, proposed a different plan. Within a day of The City’s coverage of public bathroom costs, de Blasio vowed to rein in procurement processes.

There were kinks still to work out. Getting the daily combination of stories right, for example, and figuring how to promote them on social media. “I actually gave some feedback to Greg this morning on Twitter,” Alyssa Katz, The City’s deputy editor, said. When tweeting a story about the Housing Authority, Greg B. Smith, an investigative reporter, had written “Exclusive.” Katz had a problem with that. She wanted readers to associate The City’s brand with always having stories that no one else does—if one article is exclusive, what does that mean for the rest? She continued, “I just sent you a little message—I don’t know if you saw it—saying, ‘Greg, every story The City does is or should be an exclusive.’”

“But there’s a reason you do that,” Smith replied. “It’s not because of regular people, because regular people don’t give a shit about that. But other journalism organizations see it, and it’s just like, ‘Look at this thing!’”

“Cliff Levy puts things like ‘Scoop’ before everything he tweets,” another reporter said.

Katz was firm: “Everything you’re going to read in The City is going to be unique.”

Hester changed the subject. The mayor was coming to visit later in the week, he told the staff. “We’re not sure how we’re going to do it,” Hester said. “I’ve told his team that I want to do it as an on-the-record round table with all of our reporters, which may not be practical, but we’ll figure out some ground rules.” (In the end, de Blasio never showed. Whether or not this had to do with The City’s reporting, Hester wasn’t sure. “He’s welcome to come see us any time,” he says.)

Wrapping up, Hester told the staff that they set a high bar for themselves, and then sent them back to work. He has no illusion that The City is the remedy to the woes of New York’s local news, but he’s hopeful. “I woke up today and had that Monday morning feeling that I haven’t had in a long time,” he said. “We’ve got a week to fill with stories.”

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.