(Yet Another) Letter to the Seattle Times

IPeople might say that it’s a mistake to pick a fight with the region’s daily paper, the Seattle Times. But, at this point, I don’t think the coverage of growth and development could get any worse. My hope in communicated directly and bluntly is that the Times might try reporting and writing about growth in a different way. I’ve made suggestions before. I think the people at the Times are doing what they think is best, but I think their coverage is making the conversation about how we grow more difficult and not easier. 

Dear Mr. Blethen,

I am writing you to express an ongoing concern with your editorial choices about housing and growth. I’m also concerned that your staff is dismissive of legitimate criticism and overly defensive.

Last week you did a really great and important service by publishing Jade O’Neil’s first hand and emotionally devastating account of racism. I believe that her words about the event could have been a great opportunity to facilitate a dialogue about race and privilege.

I say, ‘could have’ because you chose to put a picture of a newly constructed house at the top of the article. First, this exposes the family in that home to potential derision and disapprobation. Are we to believe that this home is the one where the angry driver lives? The implication is a real one and you should have considered that before potentially exposing someone that may not have had anything to do with this incident.

More importantly, your paper has consistently demonstrated a sensationalistic approach to the housing and growth discussion. Again and again your real estate reporter, for example, writes stories about reports about increases in housing prices without explaining the basic fact that, new construction (like new clothes or a new car) is more expensive than older housing.

These stories never break down numbers based on room size and location. This matters since price is likely moving unevenly. Citing averages and putting the word “skyrocketing” in front of them do to shed light on what’s going on I the housing market. It is also a bit exploitative and unhelpful to pick tenants with problems and highlight their plight. In one notable story, the reporter cites numbers but fails to put them in context, giving a misimpression that likely proliferated throughout the discussion of housing prices.

These stories, with inflammatory headlines and photos, are confirmation that new jobs and growth are ruining the city and making life harder for poor people.

The fact that the stories don’t explicitly say those words (‘growth is ruining the city!’) doesn’t absolve you from being responsible for fanning the frustration of people who’ve made up their minds about the causes of “skyrocketing” prices: Amazon, brogrammers, and greedy developers and land lords. The stories are posted on social media with comments calling out anecdotes in them as further proof we need to clamp down on the production of new housing.

Worse, slapping a photo of a nice new house above O’Neil’s heartfelt expression stokes the issue of race then folds those flaming embers into the fire. It’s as if the implication is that the house did something wrong, and that’s exactly how many people upset about changes in the city and rising prices will feel. Had you used a picture of O’Neil in her car or something more relevant to her story, this might have inspired a different discussion. Had the headline used the word “privilege” and “public space” it could have provoked a dialogue.

These things matter. Please don’t issue the standard defense of “the stories don’t say that” or “pictures and headlines are chosen separately.” You are supposed to be professionals at the regions last daily paper. You can and must do better and recognize that content and form matter. Reporting and getting the facts correct are important, and I don’t dispute that your reporters work to do that. However, headlines and anecdotes and photos all contribute to angst about growth and stir up racial tensions rather than trying to facilitate dialogue to understand and heal them. This, inevitably, leads to bad policy.

We are happy, in fact I’m asking you, to work together on stirring up actual debate and discussion about why housing prices are what they are and how we can, as an industry, city, and government address them. Our city is at a tipping point; we either do the right thing now or watch our city enter an inflationary spiral that will make us the next San Francisco. I am not asking the Seattle Times to take our side, I’m asking for leadership of the kind that we have grown to expect in the past from journalism not just doing the equivalent of pointing at a burning building and saying, “Fire. Fire. Fire” over, and over, and over again.

Our members would be happy to talk about their work and the dramatic and onerous increase in regulation adding to costs (check out the long and growing list of costly regulations. This is news!). Talk to demographers that can explain that gentrification and displacement are very hard to define and measure. Check out the fact that Seattle’s black population in some census tracts really has dropped; but it has gone up substantially in others (I wrote a long post taking a closer look at Census numbers. It’s worth your effort to dig deeper here too). Also the numbers bear out that our city is rapidly becoming less white. Finally, your paper should take a deeper look into the exploding costs associated with subsidized, non-profit housing. Recently, two projects in Seattle built a combined total of 200 units at a cost of $92 million; almost $500,000 per unit, while in Eastern Washington 200 units of Farmworker housing was built for about $3 million. What’s going on? It’s worth investigating.

And I do appreciate the opportunity to respond to the City Council’s efforts to impose impact fees. Thank you!

I’m taking a chance that you’ll listen and respond constructively. Or perhaps, like Gene Balk, you’ll agree that it would be better to be rid of me, a phrase posted by Balk in a comment thread that sound strangely Henrician for a journalist. Instead, I hope it opens up a longer conversation.




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