Transit coverage that’s for the birds


Covering the ins and outs of transit news isn’t necessarily a sexy business. The vast majority of New Yorkers couldn’t care less about safety regulations, debt financing, bond issuances or the behind-the-scenes politics of the MTA Board. The stories that sell rather focus on MTA waste and bloat, fare hikes and infrastructure expansion. It’s far easier to understand and cover a story about a bunch of seemingly altruistic politicians who are trying to save something that likely doesn’t need to be saved — in a recent case, a successful five-stop extension of the G train into Brooklyn — than it is to explain how a decades-long pattern of divestment has led the MTA to be up debt’s creek without a paddle.

Lately, as I’ve tried to understand why transit isn’t more of an issue in local New York politics, as I’ve tried to understand how a small cadre of anti-transit folks, some NIMBYs, some not, have dominated the storylines, I find myself routinely looking at media coverage of transit. It’s been, in a word, disappointing.

Let’s take a story that appeared in the Monday New York Times. As we’ve heard on and off, the MTA often has to fight pigeons that like to roost in its open infrastructure. Some of the old el structures make for comfortable birds’ nests, and the droppings can be both disgusting to people and corrosive to metal. The street-level area on Roosevelt Island is particularly prone to pigeons, and the MTA has deployed a bird whistle to keep these flying rodents away.

The $375 whistles are a creative use of resources that could solve a quality-of-life and subway cleanliness problem. The Times decide it was worth a 700-word article in the New York section. Meanwhile, State Senate Republics are threatening to deny the MTA enough state funding to qualify for a billion-dollar loan for the federal government, thus jeopardizing the future of the Second Ave. Subway and East Side Access project. Plus, the head of the MTA promised fare hikes in 2013 and 2015 simply so the MTA has enough money to pay off its future pension and health care obligations. Those happenings have warranted zero words of coverage in the so-called paper of record.

Of course, once The Times picks up something, it spreads like wildfire. WABC and WNBC both re-reported the news about the bird whistle as though it weren’t something the MTA had been trying for months. It’s not a big story; it’s not going to impact riders; but it’s getting attention because The Times can drive the dialogue.

So should the Grey Lady be a driver of the news? Does The Times have a responsibility to report the news and distill complicated stories into items casual readers can understand? I think they do, and I also think that one of the reasons why New York voters aren’t as clued into transit issues as they should be rests with the stories that get coverage. Print journalism is a business, after all, and headline-grabbing tales of overtime abuse or kitschy bird whistles sells better than a diatribe on bond finances and the history of MTA debt.

Ultimately, though, the transit system is too important to go ignored. We can’t just cover the news when a fare hike looms or when the MTA is forced to cut service. The tales emerging out of Albany concerning GOP Senators playing Russian Roulette with the MTA’s capital funding warrant front-page stories. It impacts everyone from the transit-devoted among us to the person who needs the Q train to get from Midtown to Midwood. But New Yorkers can’t view transit as a major political issue because it isn’t covered like one. So how do we change that dialogue? It can’t all be about bird whistles.

18 Responses to “Transit coverage that’s for the birds”

  1. Larry Littlefield says:

    That’s why I don’t pay for it. Pretty much all our institutions represent Generation Greed.

    You want a bigger and more telling criticism of the Times? How many articles does it run about the objectives and viewpoints of candidates for state legislture against sitting incumbents?

    • SEAN says:

      You think the Post or Daily News are any better? The Journal News was a great paper at one time, but now a 3rd grader would find the quality of the reporting to be suspect.

      • Bolwerk says:

        NYDN does report on transit, at least. And its op-eds tend to be supportive of at least nominal reforms.

        Not to say it’s a good paper. It’s really a POS, but the transit reporting is on the better side for our region.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Somewhat OT, but Larry, this is for you.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        FYI policies that transfer well being from the young, who have other advantages, to the old are legit, as long as they are sustainable. As long as the old were willing to pay as much when they were young, and today’s young will be able to benefit as much when they are old.

        If today’s young think they have it bad now, wait until they are old themselves.

  2. John-2 says:

    It’s been a given for 60 years that broadcast news outlets on the local and national level make a large part of their daily news budget out for their evening shows based on what’s in The New York Times that morning. If the Times decided tomorrow morning that the Chambers Street J/Z station was a horrific embarrassment to the city, you’d see camera crews and reporters from six TV stations down there reporting the story before noon.

    The problem is as far as transit goes, the Times generally sees covering it as more of a curio than as a regular beat. Find some unique/weird angle that can be turned into a 500-word feature and you’ll get the occasional Times story that’s given a fairly prominent spot in the local news hole, or if you have some major incident that’s wide ranging or sensational enough (the Rockwell/Flxible debacles from the 1970s/80s, someone in midtown Manhattan pushed onto the tracks by a psycho) you’ll get decent play on it. But the ongoing nuts-and-bolts of mass transit operations/funding just isn’t something the Times feels like obsessing about (and when the Times decides to obsess about something, they do saturation coverage better than anybody else).

  3. Bolwerk says:

    Well, look at the Maslin Nir hit piece Streetsblog pointed out yesterday. The Times isn’t just a conservative paper, it’s the conservative paper. The more right-wing NYP and NYDN cater to a much dumber, more kneejerk audience that just doesn’t care about nuance.

    The reality is, most people who still read papers are old. The Times, sadly one of the better options, isn’t even read by the Subway-riding crowd because its broadsheet format makes it uncomfortable to read on the Subway. The aging, self-congratulatory types who imagine themselves to be sophisticated and read it probably don’t use the Subway that much even if they do live in the city. Ironically, the best transit reporting comes from right-wing rag NYDN, I guess because they at least recognize who their audience is.

    • John-2 says:

      I’d figure nowadays, reading the Times via iPad of Kindle kind of eliminates the ease-of-reading advantage on the subway that the News and the Post used to have.

      However, if the executives who run the Times and decide what goes in the news hole aren’t the ones who regularly use mass transit it doesn’t really matter if the Times for iPad is an easier read for the hipsters on the L train. If they only see a need to do transit stories when transit is in obvious crisis, people are never going to knew before the fact that the problems are looming for the system(s) they use until it’s too late.

    • Gorski says:

      No, no no. The Times is a significantly easier paper to read on the train than the others in a tabloid format. Take the paper, fold it lengthwise so you have three of the six columns facing you all the way down. Now you’ve got something that you can easily hold with one hand while your other hand is doing the straphanging.

      Want to turn the page? You can do it by fourths (fold over to the page you want, then flip it inside out if necessary) instead of whacking the guy next to you in the face. If you do that with a tabloid the whole thing will fall apart in your hands.

      Broadsheets were designed to be read on trains. BROADSHEETS FOREVER.

      • Al D says:

        and fold it 1 additional time at the horizontal center line to really focus in on the article, and making it smaller than the other papers. these things are lost on youth like Bolwerk, since apparently i am 1 of those old cranky self congratulating fellas who rarely ride the subway. my god…

        • Bolwerk says:

          Uh, I wasn’t saying every person who reads it is like that. But the quality of the paper has significantly degraded, and its readers who seek out meritorious reporting are retreating to new media. It’s pretty hard to deny that. I still read it myself, largely because there isn’t really an alternative for well-reported general local news.

          I used to just skip over Stanley Fish, but now almost everything the Times publishes may as well have been penned by him or someone similarly pedantic. Like Ed says, it’s a lifestyle periodical now.

  4. Ed says:

    What John-2 and Bolwerk said.

    The Times is something of a bad example because its been coasting on its reputation. Its becoming a lifestyle focused newspaper that throws in some hard news stories as filler. And the local coverage has always been bad and is getting worse. I’m increasingly finding more actual news in the two tabloids, though its more of a matter of the Times getting worse than the tabloids improving.

  5. Subutay Musluoglu says:

    Agree with all sentiments. I confronted Michael Grynbaum of the Times about this last year. He was moderating a panel on why infrastructure financing doesn’t get the kind of attention it deserves. I couldn’t get to say my thought during the Q & A, but afterwards I found him and pointed out to him that it doesn’t help matters when his paper runs an article focused on a hatmaker who was going to have to move out of the commercial building where she was renting – the building on West 34th Street was going to be demolished to make way for the ARC project. It may have made a good human interest story, but it did nothing to advance the cause of one of the most important transit projects in the country. After NJ Gov you know who cancelled the project, the Times revisited her and ran a piece on the woman’s joy that the proejct was cancelled. Not a word on the thousands of daily riders who will suffer for at least another generation. In response, Grynbaum just grinned and told me that they are doing the best they can. Probably was really thinking how can I get away from this guy fast enough. I am a paying subscriber to the Times, but their transit coverage is insulting and doesn’t amount to crap. Randy Kennedy was the last guy there who did a decent job but that was 10 years ago.

  6. Al D says:

    Like that stupid AMNY article about the G? The article completely failed to point out 1 of the main benefits of the extension, the transfer at 4th Ave. I usually just end up rolling my eyes after reading most articles.

  7. Bruce M says:

    A year or so ago The Times, in an effort to cut costs and consolidate in the face of a shrinking circulation, eliminated the Metropolitan section, and began putting all local stories towards the back of Section A. Since then, detailed, hard-hitting coverage of major political issues has dwindled, leaving more of these “lifestyle” pieces to fill up the pages. The Metro section in the Sunday Times is now completely useless: all lifestyle stories that could have been written at any time during the previous three months.

  8. peter says:

    Hey Ben, I agree wholeheartedly with your observation that transit coverage in the Times, and other media outlets, tends to focus on silly or sensational stories while ignoring the complex, important stuff — like budgeting. I think, though, that the Times’s silence on the latest budget kerfuffle is somewhat defensible. As yourself have pointed out, the Republicans’ stance is a negotiating ploy, and no one actually expects the draconian budget cuts they’ve proposed will come to pass. I imagine — I hope — that if the Times’s reporters in Albany saw this as more than a tactical maneuver, it would’ve gotten some serious attention in the paper.

    The Times has become more focused on a national audience and has cut back a lot on its metro coverage — that may be a good business model for them, but it’s a loss for readers. On the flip side though, we now have a lot of blogs (like yours) focusing on a wealth of niche issues. It is always good to have a big, influential news organization with access to powerful figures asking tough questions, but I daresay that despite the lack of good mainstream coverage of transit issues, it may be easier than ever now to keep up on this stuff, thanks to blogs.

    • JohnS says:

      I love reading SAS and think Ben does a fantastic job. And the quality of the comment threads here is generally quite good.

      Having said that, while I understand your point about the value of ‘niche’ blogs, Peter, the ability of the Times to drive the conversation, as Ben said in the post, is rare and powerful. The lack of good, solid transit coverage in the Times definitely has negative impacts on the average voter’s understanding of what’s going on.


  1. […] immediate challenge is to overcome both a skeptical public and media prone to superficial transit coverage as he shapes and reshapes the MTA’s image. He should also serve as a set of ears for the […]

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