The Seattle Times Responds

I sent a critical letter on a recent op-ed in the Seattle Times challenging the use of a picture. As I say in my follow up to this response, maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I’ve been doing this too long. But the Times’ Mark Higgins responded in a very complete manner and I followed up with him. I think we do need a full and more in depth dialogue on these topics to move things in a better direction. 

Hi Roger,

Thanks for writing to us and sharing your feelings about our coverage of real estate and your concern about a recent Op-Ed.  You raise some legitimate points and questions, and I appreciated your ideas and openness on future coverage.

I can only speak to your concern about how we illustrated the Op-Ed and not to your larger issue about overall newsroom coverage. I hear what you’re saying and would urge you to reach out to City Editor Matt Kreamer or Business Editor Rami Grunbaum (who edits our real estate coverage). And as you mentioned in your email, you and I did just recently work to publish an Op-Ed that you wrote. I look forward to working with you again.

You’re right, too, that it would have been ideal had we sent a photographer out to Jade O’Neil’s house. However, given our time and limited staffing, that was not possible. When situations like that occur, we look for options to illustrate our work. Ms. O’Neil sent me a photo of her and her daughter, at my request, but the image was not quite right. By way of background, so that you know we don’t take these matters lightly, before we use any staff photo we turn to our Photo Editor(s) to discuss the appropriateness of pairing an image with our opinion pieces. In this case, the Photo Editor agreed with me that, in this case, it was fine to do so.

Respectfully, I disagree with your statements regarding the use of the photo we ran with O’Neil’s Op-Ed. In the 500 or so comments on the piece, I don’t recall seeing a single honest expression of confusion as to whether the house pictured was tied to the incident Ms. O’Neil described. The cutline made that clear.

Your statement that including the photo of the new homes going up in the CD is somehow an indictment of all such housing is, well, ludicrous. As Ms. O’Neil wrote in her Op-Ed, it’s the pace of change that has so rattled Seattle residents. Just read the comment stream. As older homes are bulldozed and new, often larger homes erected, the fabric of our neighborhoods are changing and that is certainly true of the CD, where many long-time families have chosen to move farther south, as this newspaper has documented in multiple stories. As Ms. O’Neil wrote, “Today, it’s different. I’m raising my family here, but sometimes it’s hard to feel at home.”

With tens of thousands of new housing units going up, and as house builders seek new opportunities across the city, this topic of growth and change will be debated and analyzed for months if not years to come. I’m happy to work with you and your clients as we document that profound change and the issues and opportunities that accompany it.




Mark Higgins | Deputy Opinion Page Editor | THE SEATTLE T I M ES

206.464.2094 |@markhiggins |


Hello Mark,

Thank you very much for the thoughtful and complete response. I know you get lots of helpful advice about how to do your job, so I also appreciate your patience.
I think you addressed the concerns and I will concede that as a person who spends just about my whole life immersed in this issue, the economics and politics of housing and growth in Seattle, I have a very high level of sensitivity to the relationship between what is covered as news, what local papers and writers say as opinion, and how these things interact with policy. So maybe I am just paranoid.
I think we’ll just have to disagree about the picture’s importance in terms of the broad generalization that new housing is the problem. You said,

it’s the pace of change that has so rattled Seattle residents. Just read the comment stream. As older homes are bulldozed and new, often larger homes erected, the fabric of our neighborhoods are changing and that is certainly true of the CD, where many long-time families have chosen to move farther south, as this newspaper has documented in multiple stories.

But let’s consider climate change for a minute as an analogy. Many doubters will point to a weather event (e.g. snow in June in Wyoming) as proof positive that there is no climate change or global warming. It sure does feel cold and I can see the snow, but wider trends indicate something different. Small shifts and aberrations in weather outside my window will confirm my bias. But what is going on beyond what I see and feel.
My issue with coverage broadly is that to write stories about a family that moved, even when placed in the context of data, tends to reenforce the idea that massive numbers of black people are being “forced out” of neighborhoods because we’re building more housing. I can just about assure you that that contention is false. If you read my Forbes article our city is changing, but there is zero quantitative data to support the statement “black people are being forced out of Seattle because white people are moving in.”
Framing matters in these issues. What’s really going on is that populations are, indeed, redistributing themselves as many factors change.  What I’d like to do is engage with your ed board and reporters in a discussion, perhaps a series of meetings, with people who research and build housing  (not just me) on the following issues.
  • Gentrification and displacement — I have yet to see a sustained and peer reviewed definition of these terms, and I have yet to see a way to measure them quantitatively. It is simply irresponsible to use these terms in the discussion without first asking what they are and how to measure them. Something is going on, but what? Are these terms about the feelings about the disutility of change versus an actual consequence of policy? Is it appropriate or even ethical to create a normative standard of racial mix in a set of census tracts? What is the correct racial mix and ratio of white people to other people?
  • It’s too hard to build — I am sure you believe in supply and demand. Again, I don’t want the Seattle Times to agree with our point of view, but each aspect of this issue and story would greatly benefit if you could hear from actual builders about the hassles and difficulty of getting their product to market. If we were talking about a food shortage, the front page of your paper would be frequented by stories about the many hurdles, mostly political and bureaucratic, that a slowing down the production of and thus boosting the price of food in grocery stores.
  • The high costs of non-profit subsidized housing — As I pointed out, this is worthy of investigation. And as I have only partially joked with reporters, it’s an award winning story. I want to point out, that the Chair of the Mayor’s HALA Committee, Faith Pettis is an attorney that make millions of dollars from transactions related to tax credit non-profit housing, the very thing that her committee advised needed more money from our builders to sustain. That’s a big story. If Jack McCullough had been chair of that committee, you would have written about the conflict. We need to shine a light on how the non-profit industry is driving policy in a very unhelpful way. Again, that’s my opinion, but it’s worth a story or two or three.
  • What are the solutions? — Obviously we all want to answer these questions. And I have appreciated the Seattle Times’ efforts over the last several years to create a dialogue on this topic. We need more. And frankly we need help. Today, the dialogue is taking place in a largely unmediated and unfacilitated political arena dominated by Kshama Sawant and her allies. People in the community concerned about this issue are being offered demagoguery and promises about lowering their rent and policies are being considered and implemented without any consideration or consultation with people who build and operate housing. We must widen the menu options for the community to consider.
I’ll repeat: I’m not trying to make the Seattle Times “pro-developer.” The truth is that the person on the street likely already believes you, the City, and the elected officials already are “pro-developer.” This makes our job much more difficult and frustrating because we are in a cycle in which we are blamed for high prices, displacement, and anecdotal stories of pain while at the same time we have almost no influence over the process, media, or the larger public discussion. We’ve got the worst of both worlds.
Let me know if you’re interested in a get together on any of the topics I mentioned.

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