‘Climate Change’

In New York City, Local Coverage Declines—and Takes Accountability With It

‘That kind of stuff, it’s not being covered nowadays. It’s going to be a field day for local corruption.’

04.03.17 1:00 AM ET

Were it a city, New York’s Queens County would be the nation’s fourth largest. Police record some 35,000 major crimes a year and the local courthouse calendars upward of 200,000 criminal cases annually.

But for all that activity, the courthouse pressroom is locked and unoccupied: There is no reporter based in the courts of a county with more than 2.3 million residents.

Having reported from that pressroom for Newsday back in 1985, I made it my first stop in a journey to discover what gaps have opened in local news coverage since I left daily journalism to teach in 2001. It says a great deal that even in the nation’s media capital, there is not one reporter regularly roaming this courthouse.

Surveying the state of local reporting in New York City now for the Urban Reporting Program of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I found that core news-making institutions such as police headquarters, City Hall, and courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn are still covered, as are key beats such as education and transportation. But there is a kind of journalistic version of climate change best seen on the periphery, much as global warming’s impact is most visible in distant places like the Arctic and the South Seas.

The remaining New York City-based daily newspapers—three of the country’s 10 biggest—have long since receded from covering the Long Island suburbs to the east and media-parched New Jersey to the west, and now their retreat is visible within the city itself, in Queens. It’s symptomatic of a larger shrinkage in newspapers’ local coverage across the country.

“The state of local reporting in New York City is at the lowest depth that I have experienced since I started as a reporter in 1974, and it’s not healthy in the long run for New York City to have a weakened media,” Arthur Browne, editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News told me. “Now I say that taking into account that there are many new producers of content.”

It’s questionable whether online newcomers will be able to fill the gap newspapers across the country are leaving in local news coverage. For, as the comedian John Oliver put it in a wonderful rant on journalism: “The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.”

The Federal Communications Commission said much the same in a 2011 report, noting that newspapers do most of the reporting that holds the powerful accountable. “In theory, TV and radio could have filled the vacuum left by newspapers, but our research indicates they are not doing that,” it said. “That means the ecosystem is missing a key element.”

Steve Waldman, who wrote the FCC report, said the situation has mostly worsened since then. “The collapse of local reporting is a crisis,” he told me. “It’s a crisis in the country, and it’s a crisis locally.” New York presents “a very strange situation,” he added. “The media capital of the country is not set up to cover New York City very well, especially Brooklyn and Queens.”

In recent years, hundreds of online local news organizations have sprouted across the country as the dailies’ local coverage faded. In New York, a Politico website with the largest City Hall-based bureau—five reporters compared to two or three for each of the dailies— has become a favorite of political junkies. Chalkbeat is enhancing school coverage, as it is also doing in Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee.

But Waldman said that Google and Facebook are sucking up local advertising money, tough competition for a startup. “Most of the experiments in new local startups either haven’t worked at all or ended up being very small scale and haven’t been able to replace the loss in capacity that came from the contraction of newspapers,” said Waldman.

The problem for local news coverage is the simple fact that a story aimed at a national audience is likelier to generate heavy web traffic than a local one. Original local news reporting is threatened not only by layoffs but by the transfer of jobs to writing on whatever is of interest to a national web audience.

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The Daily News closed its bureaus outside Manhattan—leaving Queens in 2015 —and has replaced veteran editors and beat reporters with lower-paid cub reporters rewriting trending national stories. The New York Post buries most metro news on its home page and even on many of its print covers in favor of splashy rewrites of shockers from around the world.

And The New York Times is styling itself as a worldwide digital newspaper as it cuts local coverage. Last August, the paper announced that it would cut back on space for local news and focus what remained on big-picture stories, ones “with real impact, that will resonate beyond the city," as metro editor Wendell Jamieson explained. “Covering all the small stories is just a way to pretend you’re in the neighborhood.” Three months later, the Wall Street Journal shuttered its Greater New York section, launched with great fanfare in 2010 as a competitor to the Times, due to “an accelerating industrywide decline in print advertising.”

Browne recounted how important community news reporting was at the News when he started there 43 years ago. The paper had close to a dozen reporters in the Queens bureau; he was assigned to southeast Queens and wrote several stories a day on his beat—hyperlocal coverage. Fellow rookie reporters like Michael Oreskes, now running NPR News, and former Times columnist Bob Herbert did the same.

But the intensive local coverage didn’t draw the advertising needed to sustain it, he said, and the Queens staff was gradually reduced. Now, it’s gone from Queens. So too is the paper I worked for, Newsday, which maintained a Queens bureau from the late 1970s until 2005. From the mid-’80s into the ’90s, Times Mirror Co. invested $100 million in building New York Newsday, which featured an all-star lineup of columnists and a 60-reporter staff known for in-depth coverage of social issues, neighborhoods and immigrant communities. The new competition pushed the Times, News and Post to up their own coverage, and ushered in the last era of big staffs and big investment—but not, as it turned out, enough investment in the fledgling internet.

At it shuttered its borough bureaus, the News accelerated its effort to become a national website for trending news rewritten in its zippy tabloid voice. Browne said he doesn’t see that expansion as trading off community coverage for national, but said staffing had to reflect that the far-flung web audience differs greatly from the newspaper’s local readership.

“The stories about Mayor de Blasio don’t travel very far on the web,” he said.

And indeed, the News’ web traffic is formidable for a local news organization. According to the News, comScore reported that 25.9 million people visited its site last December. Internal figures show that just 18 percent of unique visitors come from the New York metropolitan area; local people comprise 37 percent of the page views, however.

Given how thinned out the News staff is, the paper is probably putting out more local news than might be expected, with occasional scoops, and extensive coverage that’s raised public concerns about the failures of the city’s public housing and child welfare systems. Browne said it’s really not possible to cut the local news staff much further.

“We’ve established a beachhead beneath which you can’t go if you’re going to seriously cover New York City,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any significant reductions to be had. I think we are at that point.”

But for local news consumers, much has already been lost.

Robert Holden sees that. He is president of the Juniper Park Civic Association in Maspeth in northwest Queens and had worked closely with News and Newsday reporters when they were based in the borough.

Holden credited steady coverage from the News staff in Queens with persuading Mayor Michael Bloomberg to turn an old industrial site, the Elmhurst gas tanks, into a six-acre park instead of letting a utility sell it for a big box store.

After the News closed its Queens bureau, he canceled his subscription. “The paper’s not covering local issues anymore,” he said. The Post, he added, never did that coverage. The Times “would do bigger stories,” he said, but they were “few and far between.”

New York City has an ample array of weekly community newspapers and news websites, but a paper like the News is more likely to raise a local concern to City Hall’s agenda. “The people’s voice gets louder through the media,” Holden said. But the climate has changed.

“I definitely see a difference,” Holden, a professor of graphic design, said. “If you’re not in the media, it doesn’t seem like the administration is taking notice.”

Paul Shin, who left the News as Queens bureau chief in 2013, said the staff had aggressively covered the Queens borough president’s office, looking for conflicts of interest and misspent money. He recalled such stories as the one on an armored-car company that avoided thousands of dollars in parking tickets by registering the vehicles in another state.

“That kind of stuff, it’s not being covered nowadays,” he said. “It’s going to be a field day for local corruption.”

Shin pointed to DNAInfo.com as a website that might fill the gap the News has left. “I think they’re doing a good job locally,” he said.

Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, has established neighborhood news websites in Chicago and New York. He’s hired former News staffers and built a very competent staff. Established news organizations, especially television, often follow the citywide scoops it finds through hyperlocal coverage.

The problem, though, is that it’s not clear whether DNAInfo has found a way to make money, Shin said.

Waldman had a similar reaction. “DNAInfo does really good reporting,” he said, but he questioned whether it has a business model beyond having a wealthy investor willing to lose money.

Sarah Rothman, a spokeswoman for Ricketts, said he declined to comment. But the investor’s patience seemed to be growing thin in February, when the site laid off five of its best—and most highly paid—reporters and editors, several of them tabloid veterans, who were responsible for an outsized share of DNAInfo’s citywide scoops. In March, it was announced that DNAInfo had purchased and would merge with the Gothamist, a local news site network focused on stories of citywide interest and traffic potential rather than the more expensive and labor-intensive neighborhood-based reporting it has provided.

New York has always had a rich collection of neighborhood media, and there is a lot of movement among them as they try to find paths to profitability and capitalize on the void they see as the biggest outlets withdraw from zones of coverage.

“Wherever legacy media close out of an area or a niche, it presents an opportunity for digital where costs are lower,” said Ned Berke, who founded two profitable news websites, Sheepshead Bites and Bensonhurst Bean in southern Brooklyn.

Berke sold the sites to Corner Media Group, which created news websites in five other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Corner Media’s coverage was intense and highly local; reporters were pounding out four to five stories a day for a single neighborhood. But it proved difficult to support such labor-intensive coverage for individual neighborhoods.

“I mean the reason that The New York Times and the bigger papers are not focusing on it is because it is not lucrative,” said Liena Zagare, the publisher. “It doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s super important.” In January, Zagare folded the neighborhood sites under the umbrella of a borough-wide one, Bklyner.com.

The smaller news websites and newspapers can occasionally step up with a good piece of accountability journalism, but it’s not common because their resources are stretched thin.

Michele McLellan, a digital media consultant and researcher, said it would be unfair to expect startups to have the breadth and depth of coverage found in traditional newspapers.

Occasionally the neighborhood media step up in a big way. One of those occasions came when Bernard Stein, then editor of the Riverdale Press in the Bronx, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.

I asked Stein, a retired journalism professor, whether he thinks community news media are capable of taking up the slack the dailies are leaving. He answered in terms of what he knows best, the Bronx:

“They aren’t. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the experience to take up the slack where the Daily News and the Times used to be,” he said. “They are good on local controversy and adequate at bringing people together to face a local issue, such as a zoning matter, but they don’t have the resources or in some cases the will to do accountability journalism.”

***

Back in my old haunt, the Queens courthouse pressroom, the steadiest visitor is the vendor from the newsstand in the lobby; he has a key to get in and use the bathroom. The fax machine had a grimy dispatch from 2005. The computer by the window has a 3 ½-inch disk drive. Curled front pages taped to walls show big stories from the 1990s. One clipping, from 2005, is an article about the pressroom by the last Times reporter based there: “Where Scoops Go to Die.”

“It’s like a museum,” said Kevin Ryan, spokesman for the district attorney. “They closed the door and everything stays the way it is.”

(Part one of a two-part series. Read part two, The New York Times Turns Its Sights Away From New York City, here.)

This article was reported with the support of the Urban Reporting Program of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. CUNY-Brooklyn College journalism students Brennen Johnson, Jhodie-Ann Williams and Aleah Winter contributed research.