Circulation War

timestower Circulation WarThe 20 or so protesters milling about outside the New York Times building this afternoon were largely white, middle-aged and frumpily dressed. Just like Times readers, maybe just like Times writers and editors, except they were so steamed about how their morning read had been covering the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, they were just about ready to … call a customer service rep and cancel their subscriptions!

“I never looked at the Post until this whole thing,” said Susan Butler, a Fort Greene resident of 22 years. “Or the Daily News.”

The occasion for the gathering was the trumpeting of a 173-page treatise declaring that the paper of record had been papering over Forest City Ratner Companies’ Atlantic Yards proposal. It wasn’t a “release” because the report didn’t arrive in time to be distributed to the few reporters on hand. (It is up on the Web, though.)

The report makes all sorts of charges, among them that the paper downplayed opposition to the project, and that it failed to examine the public subsidies, which reputable sources have put as high as $1 billion or higher.

But what really ticked off Norman Oder, a journalist and tour guide, enough to contact the anti-Ratner group, Develop–Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and to volunteer to write this master’s-degree-in-journalism-criticism thesis, was a July 5 article headlined “Instant Skyline Added to Brooklyn Plan.”

Brownstone Brooklyn people don’t like anything instant–coffee, mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, chicken noodle soup–and they like least of all instant 600-foot towers. The non-instant version is bad enough to the Brooklyn sensibility.

Besides, there seemed something odd about characterizing bulk and congestion as something quaint like a skyline; though, to be fair, the writer did get in a good jab at the plans, designed by architect Frank Gehry, by calling the skyline “reminiscent of Houston or Dallas.” (Of course, if we want to go there, Gehry was an early collaborator on the Times building going up on Eighth Avenue; he was replaced by Renzo Piano, architect of the current design, after a dispute about which accounts still conflict.)

Here’s the issue: The developer of the Brooklyn project, Forest City, is the Times’ development partner in building their new headquarters on the West side.

Oder wouldn’t go so far as to say that the paper’s coverage was biased, though he did not fail to point out Times ombudsman Byron Calame’s wrist-slap; in a column, he complained that the paper failed to mention their relationship with the developer in a Q & A they published with the company’s CEO Bruce Ratner.

Does any of that matter, if the paper covers the issue fairly? No, not really. Whether they have, dear reader, is for you to judge if you care to pull on your Wellingtons and wade through it all.

Times spokesman Toby Usnik e-mailed The Real Estate when we asked him about the report.

“Please note that the Times newsroom operates wholly independently of the Corporate operations of the Times Company,” he wrote. “The Company’s development project with Forest City Ratner Companies is not remotely a consideration in the newsroom’s editing decisions. The newsroom discloses the Company’s relationship with FCRC in its pages when it is relevant, just as it would disclose any other such relationship — for example, a review of a novel written by a Times reporter.”

“We report fully and fairly on any newsworthy project, ours or others’,” he further wrote.

We can’t wait to see tomorrow whether the Times covers itself covering itself.

- Matthew Schuerman

Oh, and a quick disclosure of our own: The Observer comes off pretty nicely in this report, but we swear that has nothing to do with our directing you to it.