Weekly Digest: They Don't Know Your Neighborhood

Street Justice Newsletter: Vol 1, Edition 250 (11/10/2019)

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WaPost Produces Regional News, Not Local Journalism

This week, Washington Post editor for local transportation and development Victoria Benning attacked me personally in response to a substantive critique I made about their NTSB/bike helmet law coverage: “NTSB wants mandatory bike helmet laws. Bike advocates don’t.” Benning said, “you’re not a journalist you’re an activist.” I’m writing about it today to provide some context and explain why local journalism like Street Justice needs your support.

Benning is an editor who directs the effort and shapes the framing of stories in WaPost covering DC-area issues. She coordinates the work of very good reporters like Luz Lazo and Justin George (FYI: Justin is a Street Justice subscriber and dog-walking client). I can write about whatever I want in Street Justice, and set the context as I please. Lazo and George have to win over Benning to shift framing in a story, or to choose to cover events and topics. Benning has veto power on word choice and who gets quoted.

Benning attacked me when I said news coverage she directed was insufficient. But, it was — as SJ subscriber David Ramos explains here and here. Beyond any individual article’s faults, there’s her decision to direct Post resources to national and regional-trend stories with unhelpful framing. Of all the DC-area transportation news to cover, the NTSB’s helmet recommendation wasn’t close to the most important. Among the jobs of an editor is to best determine priorities for coverage.

It’s Benning’s failure the Post hasn’t covered the 6th/9th NW Eastern Downtown Cycletrack about which Street Justice breaks huge stories. Martin Di Caro keeps asking why they’re not covering it, and other politically-inert safety projects. It’s Benning’s failure that reporters she edits rarely come to ANC meetings, civic association meetings, agency open houses, and citizen advisories to local governments.

As Luz covers dockless mobility and Justin covers WMATA labor issues, remember the wind of their hard work and reporting acumen is trimmed by the sails of Benning’s proclivity, plus the Post’s in-house preference to write for Fairfax County retirees as much as for the working class in Mount Rainer.

The Washington Post is one of approximately a dozen established print news organizations in the country with stable funding, job security for its reporters, and rooting in a geographic place. However, it produces regional journalism, not local journalism.

Post reporters don’t show up to neighborhood-level meetings, so they don’t have many sources among community leaders and neighborhood non-profits. Like local TV news stations, the Post shows up after an issue has been percolating for months or years. The stories they produce are therefore superficial, proferring false equivalence when facts show truth beyond two or more claims appearing valid at face value.

It’s a damn tragedy the only good *local* journalism left is produced by perilously funded non-profit news organizations and below-living wage, contingent workers like freelancers. All of those deserve secure, salaried jobs if they want it (as I and most freelancers do). Instead of hiring more people to practice neighborhood- and Ward/District-level reporting, the Post does regional trend pieces and poorly explains the limitations of traffic studies.

There’s this big argument among journalists about what “objective” means. I apply objectivity to my reporting as a process ethic, not a results ethic. I give an equal hearing to all sides of an issue, but I’m partial to the facts, and my writing doesn’t offer unwarranted charity to demonstrably poor-intentioned and parochially-motivated actors like John Townsend of AAA-MidAtlantic. I’m a “rude journalism” practitioner. I don’t include the “to be sure…” paragraph as a nod to pre-internet-era fake-objectivity.

What Victoria Benning did with her attack was deny me the dignity of a voice in this journalism debate. Condescension is the strategy of those lacking the substance to compete. Journalism doesn’t have an entrance exam, continuing education requirement, or occupational licensing. If you apply journalistic approaches and publish it, you’re a journalist. Quality and systemic bias are ineffable. You know them when you see them.

It’s my goal every day to prove with Street Justice that I’m a reporter practicing excellence. Benning’s attack struck a nerve with me because Benning is a hiring manager for many of the Post’s local reporter job openings. She plays an important role in the paper’s staffing.

If you’re interested in high-quality local journalism in the Washington, DC region, I — of course — ask that you subscribe to Street Justice. Keep reading the Washington Post (I subscribe!), but understand its editors and management as targeting regional audience. Don’t criticize WaPost reporters so much as their editors and other bosses. I’ve met most of the locally-focused reporters at the Post, and they’re great.

Here’s a bunch of other local news organizations producing good local journalism: The DC Line, DCist, Washington City Paper, 730DC, Northwest Courier, Arlington Now, Alexandria Now, Tysons Reporter, Loudoun Now, Bethesda Beat, Source of the Spring, Route1Reporter, Hyattsville Wire. To buttress that local coverage with regional coverage, I recommend Max Smith at WTOP-FM, Alex Koma at Washington Biz Journal, and Adam Tuss at NBC4.

Montgomery County's "Snow Summit"

This week, DC-Area localities held winter weather preparedness events. Montgomery County held it’s “Snow Summit” on Wednesday at the MCDOT Gaithersburg Depot, where “preparations for the 2019-20 winter storm season were reviewed and equipment was rolled out by MCDOT’s Highway Services Division.” MoCo touted its new, more environmentally-friendly, approach to salt use. Prince George’s County’s Department of Public Works and Transit conducted a dry run Wednesday for snow clearing efforts. DDOT and DC’s Department of Public Works showed off their new bike lane and sidewalk cleaning vehicle. It’s a small Zamboni-looking thing with a rotating broom that clears leaves and light snow. [Full Story]

New Design Shows Catholic U Connection

DDOT released 60% plans late last week for their Crosstown Cycletrack — a new backbone for East-West non-car connectivity between the Park View and Brookland neighborhoods. The document now shows an off-street shared-use path on the Northside of Michigan Avenue, from the road’s junction with Irving NE east to Harewood St NE. [Full Story]

Palisades Trolley Trail Determined Infeasible?

DDOT is planning on completing the Palisades Trolley Trail and Foundry Trestle Feasibility Study by the end of November. That’s according to DDOT Public Information Officer Lauren Stephens, with whom I spoke Tuesday. A Palisades resident posted to NextDoor this week that Ward 3 CM Mary Cheh was telling constituents the Trolley Trail is infeasible. DDOT’s statements don’t refute what CM Cheh apparently was telling residents. It’s very possible the study is not done, but signs point to it being infeasible due to the expense of bridge construction. DDOT’s Stephens told me the agency does not have a public meeting planned to discuss the study’s results. [Full Story]

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