Q&A: Norman “The Mad Overkiller” Oder

oder Q&A: Norman The Mad Overkiller OderNorman Oder, the blogger behind the Atlantic Yards Report, recently had two scoops that were widely picked up by the dailies. In December, he reported that the state had reduced its estimate for net tax revenues from the project by $465 million. In January, he discovered that the Mayor’s proposed 2008 budget directs an additional $105 million toward the Brooklyn arena.

The Real Estate’s Matthew Schuerman recently had coffee with the guy who is showing how this project is costing the public more and giving it less.

The Real Estate: Daily News columnist Errol Louis once called you “The Mad Overkiller,” and NoLandGrab calls you that, too, albeit tongue-in-cheek. What do you think about being called that?

Norman Oder: I think it is sort of amusing and encouraging, because it implies that I care about this enough to look really, really carefully. I think that I would be less of a mad overkiller if we lived in a city with a daily devoted to Brooklyn. Can you imagine that a project of this size received just one op-ed in the Times? So, if I write versions of op-eds, does that make me the mad overkiller or does that mean I am filling a vacuum that should be filled?

To read more, jump.

TRE: Tell me a bit about your start in journalism.

Oder: I was on my college newspaper, the Yale Daily News. I took a class, I think I it was pretty important, about my thoughts about journalism, with John Hersey. He said something about how journalists have a tripartite responsibility. You have to be responsible to yourself, to your subject, and to your audience. What that means is that you really want to write things that are as thorough and complete as possible.

I ended up going to Charleston, W.Va., and worked for the Charleston Gazette. I covered a lot of different things. When the Bhopal disaster occurred in India, the only other place where they made the same chemical was outside Charleston, and I ended up covering the chemical industry partly because no one else was covering it. It was just a void, which is a big parallel.

TRE: What do you do at Library Journal?

Oder: I’m a news editor. I write news. I write features. I edit news. I edit features. I cover funding, legislation, intellectual freedom.

TRE: How old are you?

Oder: 45

TRE: How did you get started on the Atlantic Yards Report?

Oder: In March of ’04, I went to a meeting in one of the schools in Park Slope and [Forest City Ratner executive] Jim Stuckey was there, BUILD was there, and someone from [architect Frank] Gehry’s office was there. I thought, ‘Why are they selling this thing so hard to us?’ And then at the end of November ’04, there was a public hearing of community boards. I went with a couple of friends and again, ‘What’s going on here?’ And then in ’05, I wrote three letters to The New York Times criticizing their coverage of Atlantic Yards, and, of course, they were ignored.

And so I decided that I was going to write an article about the Times’ failure to cover this project. I proposed an article for Extra, which is the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. The day they rejected it for being too local was the day that the Times came out with ‘Instant Skyline Added to Arena Plan.’ I was like, ‘Instant Skyline’? We knew there was going to be a skyline.

I thought I was going to write this 20-page paper. It turned out to be this massive thing that nobody read, and some of it could have been more judicious and some of it stands up enormously well, like the error about downtown Brooklyn, which they finally corrected.

TRE: How many people read your blog?

Oder: I have no idea. I don’t have a counter. I know that people who are very interested in the project read the blog, people in the neighborhoods, people at the developer’s office, various people dealing with this in government and nonprofits. One person said, ‘You know, I wasn’t able to go to that event, but I was pretty confident that you would cover it pretty thoroughly.’

TRE: How much time do you spend on your blog?

Oder: At the time the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] came out in July, I said to interviewers it was 20 to 25 hours a week. Since that point, it’s been 30 to 35 probably. I used to review books, and I don’t review books any more. Every year for the past seven, eight, nine years, I have taken a significantly lengthy international vacation, and last year I didn’t. I don’t have a wife and kids. If I had a wife and kids, it would be much harder.

TRE: What’s your relationship like with the project’s opponents?

Oder: My relationship is, we talk, and some of them talk to me more than others. But I don’t speak for them and they don’t speak for me. They like a lot of what I do. Sometimes they don’t like what I do, or they don’t like aspects of what I do.

I’ll give you one example. The judge came out with a decision that said the demolitions are OK, and she was going to remove the lawyer from the case, and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn put out a press release that said, ‘Victory! Remove lawyer from the case,’ and, parenthetically, ‘demolitions.’ I did get one opponent that day who said, ‘I saw what you wrote. You really should have emphasized the lawyer–that’s the big part of the story.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s my judgment.’

TRE: Do you have ambitions to turn this into a book?

Oder: I have interest in making it a magazine article. I submitted it to The Nation, The New Yorker, Salon–not even a ‘no thank you’–well, I got a ‘no thank you.’ It’s a little hard to get your grip around, and I’m not Jonathan Lethem. He got a piece in Slate. I do think it’s worth a book. I know I can’t do the 360-degree version of the book in which you get inside Gehry’s office, but there is a lot out there in terms of the public events, all these documents. There is a lot of a narrative there. It just needs to be woven together and contextualized.