Some seven years after the housing bubble burst, the story is still unfolding in many American cities: damaged neighborhoods, broken tax systems, and blighted homes; a search for justice and an accounting of blame; uneven progress toward recovery.
In swathes of the country, capturing this story in all its continuing complexity is among the most pressing items on the public-affairs agenda—especially since much of the press, both local and national, failed to see the crisis coming. “It goes without saying that the media missed this story on the front end,” said John Gallagher, a business reporter for the Detroit Free Press. “I don’t think anyone believed that a recession of that depth was even possible in the modern age.”
Yet the reporting challenges are undeniable. The work of untangling what happened and scrutinizing the ongoing response effectively demands the expertise of five beats in one: finance, real estate, City Hall, community development, and environment. Things are changing quickly on the ground, from new policies attempting to foster recovery to the rising influence of land banks. And translating issues like “zombie” properties into clear prose that doesn’t alienate readers is an added challenge.
It’s also immensely difficult to get accurate data. Reporters that I spoke with in Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia all bemoaned archaic record-keeping. “A lot of it is still on paper, and it will be at a lot of different departments–the department of revenue, the department of law, the department of public works,” said Claudia Vargas, a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’ll put in a right-to-know request for the data I wanted and wait a month or month-and-a-half to get it. … And then when it comes, it’s sometimes not even accurate. There are so many mistakes, it’s no wonder the city’s having issues in not being able to collect money” from taxes.
Another challenge for local reporters, especially those in distressed cities: striking a balance that is vigilant about the continuing fallout but steers clear of easy tropes. We’ve had enough “ruin porn.” At the same time, a narrative template that focuses on gentrification concerns might make sense for high-market coastal cities like San Francisco or Boston, but in cities like Detroit or Cleveland it “risks masking, or not giving enough attention to, the many more miles of neighborhoods where people are still leaving in droves, where foreclosures are still common, where people feel left behind in the housing recovery,” said Chelsea Allinger, communications director for the Center for Community Progress, or CCP, a national nonprofit that works to turn around systemic blight.
A couple of recent ambitious reporting efforts showcase two different approaches to confronting these challenges.
Rachel Dissell, a reporter on the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s new enterprise team, made an able effort to elevate the human element of foreclosure recovery in a 10-part series on the city’s Slavic Village neighborhood. She zeroed in on what happened after a Florida man was convicted of illegally flipping hundreds of dilapidated homes and ultimately sentenced to live and work in the very neighborhood he’d impacted. (The house-flipper pleaded with the judge to send him back to prison instead.) Dissell took a narrative approach that followed a compelling character in a novel situation, with data and policy tamped in the background.
“I started doing tons of research … but it was really hard to balance that in a way that doesn’t just feel like a bunch of numbers that don’t mean anything,” Dissell said. “I ultimately decided that you can get a better feel for where [the neighborhood] is at now through the stories of regular people, rather than a bunch of numbers and experts. That’s a choice I made, but that’s not the only way to report it.”
The response showed strong reader interest in that tactic: Dissell said that she got an unusual number of emails and calls about the series, and internal metrics showed that the report had people “reading for 15 to 20 minutes, which is a huge time online.”
Conversely, Christine MacDonald and Joel Kurth at The Detroit News elevated the numbers and wonky details for a series on the unprecedented impact of mortgage and tax foreclosure in Detroit. (One eye-popping stat: More than one in three Detroit homes have been foreclosed upon since 2005—a number that eclipses all the houses in the city of Buffalo.) While Dissell narrowed her focus to one neighborhood and emphasized the path toward recovery, MacDonald and Kurth took a citywide, data-rich approach that seeks to provide an authoritative account of the damage to Detroit. The series includes “before and after” slider images, an interactive database of five years of foreclosure auctions, and a list of the lending companies with the most properties that have been reduced to blight. In one story, they examined the record of Detroit-based Quicken Loans, the lender that saw the fifth-highest number of mortgages in the city end in foreclosure, and the unusual role that Quicken founder and chairman Dan Gilbert has in doubling as an anti-blight advocate. Though there were few bombshells in that piece, it represents the kind of accounting we called for at CJR last summer. (Gilbert didn’t like it.)
One goal of the series, Kurth said, “was to challenge, however slightly, the narrative about Detroit’s decline.” Much of the discussion about the city’s sharp drop in population has focused on a collapse in public services in quality of life, he said—and while those factors played a role, “I think the impact of subprime/foreclosure has been minimized or not properly discussed.”
MacDonald said she wishes the News had tackled this project in 2011 or 2012, nearer the heart of the crisis; she believes it would have had more impact that way, before “foreclosure fatigue” slowed the resonance of these kind of reports. A lack of accurate records and stretched newsroom resources held back a swifter investigation. (There were, of course, plenty of other big stories to chase in Detroit—like the impressive 2013 series MacDonald and Kurth worked on that explored the city’s dysfunctional tax-collection system.)
The enormity of the data they were combing through also slowed them down, and it took patience to find community members who trusted the paper with their stories. “A lot of people wouldn’t open the door to us. They thought we were bill collectors,” MacDonald said. Their persistence paid off when they found sources like Ronda Morrison, who took the News team on a tour of the home she lived in for 20 years before losing it to foreclosure. It’s now blighted and will cost the city thousands of dollars to demolish.
Strength in numbers?
There’s no way to make this an easy story to cover. But one thing that might lighten the load for local reporters is a stronger infrastructure to share ideas and relevant research, and maybe even foster collaboration.
In an effort to improve coverage and create space for that kind of exchange, CCP partnered with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to host a summit for journalists at the national Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in Detroit last month, which I attended. With support from the Knight Foundation, it was a free opportunity (travel and lodging included) for about two dozen journalists around the country to be briefed on the latest policy, research, law, and innovation about vacant properties—just one of the issues that will have to be dealt with on the path to recovery, but an important one. While reporters for national and southeast Michigan outlets were well represented, there were few reporters from other regional outlets. Next time, CCP’s Allinger said, they want to find way ways to make it more accessible to local reporters who are “on the ground writing about this, block by block.”
The experience of MacDonald and Kurth shows the value of drawing on expertise from outside the boundaries of your newsroom. In the course of their work, they stumbled upon a doctoral student at the University of Michigan who was researching the same issue, and collaborated with him—he assisted by analyzing a different set of mortgage foreclosure records, which added detail to the report and helped ensure that the astonishing numbers the News was coming up with were realistic.
Collaborations between news organizations in different (but not too-different) cities might provide another value: a comparative look at the varied ways that cities are responding to the crisis, and what each might learn from the other. A slightly wider perspective might also invite sharper questions to public and private leaders from reporters—which in itself can prompt improved policy.
Of course, it’s easier to propose projects like these from the outside. When I raised the idea of collaborations to reporters, most expressed interest in the idea, as well as in more modest measures, like email listservs, that would help them get a better sense of how their counterparts in other cities are tackling the story. But the major barrier to moving on this is sheer overwhelm, and the avalanche of news that reporters must stay on top of daily. So outside support could be helpful here—like the assistance Marquette University provided for “Poor Health,” an award-winning 2014 project on healthcare in low-income neighborhoods jointly published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
However it happens, there’s plenty of this story left to tell—and progress in our cities will depend, in part, on the strength and depth of that coverage.
“When it comes to creating a climate where positive change can happen, there needs to be a certain level of dialogue among the public about cities as places of value, that deserves a future and has hope despite the challenges it faces,” Allinger said. Journalists, she said, are the best way to heighten the conversation.