This is a Letter to the Editor style post in response to two articles in the Mountain Xpress. The first was published in the print edition December 5: No easy answers: Lexington Avenue’s uncertain future by David Forbes. The second was published online December 12: Merchants protest Dec. 5 Lexington Avenue story by Caitlin Byrd.
I used to work in the production department for a daily, independently owned and published newspaper. We frequently heard the kinds of concerns expressed in Ms. Byard’s article and we had to tread carefully. I listened carefully to the in-house editorial discussions about what to do when advertisers expressed concerns about publicity they perceived as negative.
First and foremost, a newspaper has to be honest to its readers, otherwise readers will feel cheated and look elsewhere, which ultimately hurts the newspaper’s bottom line and diminishes the sense of community that a quality newspaper provides. A reader who is less likely to trust the editorial content is also less likely to trust the advertisements in such a newspaper. For an extreme example: Ask yourself how much you trust the advertisements in the tabloids in the checkout line. About as much as their exposé story of ‘Bat Boy‘? A newspaper with integrity is a better place for consumers to make choices about where to spend their dollars. Pulling advertising because of a ‘negative’ story hurts the advertiser and the consumer more than than the newspaper.
Can an article on increased crime lead to less crime in the future? Because of the respect that the XPress has in our community and it’s continued ability to start constructive dialog (such as this one), I think so. A negative story can increase and maintain the integrity of a newspaper, leading to positive change for the entire community. The Xpress has that legitimacy because it doesn’t look the other way when confronted with an uglier face of reality than we would all like to see. I put a high value on that.
The December 5 article says that crime rates are relatively stable. If that’s the case, the article loses a lot of punch. Let’s look at a scenario. In response to a handful of high profile crimes and anecdotal evidence (blood on the street, fights, nameless transients) a few business owners cry wolf. Police add more resources and officers, get more arrests and write more citations which shows up as an increase in reported crime. If law enforcement works, this should occur right before the actual level of criminal activity goes down due to the added law enforcement. I think we’re in the middle of that scenario right now, before we see the benefits. Another thing to consider when evaluating law enforcement comments about rising crime rates – their jobs depend on the populace maintaining a certain level of fear. I’ve never known a police officer to say “everything’s great, you’re all safe as possible, you can lower our funding now.”
A problem to be overcome with this sort of ‘trend investigation’ journalism is how to weigh the positive developments that have come recently to the neighborhood, and how to get an apples-to-apples comparison with the negatives. Safety and fun is difficult to measure, while crime rates are readily accessible (see CrimeReports.com). Another question to ask might be: Has the crime risen in proportion to the revenue growth of downtown business? That could be instructive. I suspect that the dollar-spent-per-crime rate has gone down. Mr. Forbes could perhaps look into this aspect of it.
My call to Xpress advertisers and readers is simple. Look at the bigger picture and think about where we’d like to be in a year or two or five. Seemingly ‘negative’ publicity can be like paving a road – in exchange for traffic problems now, we get less problems in the future. I know that doesn’t help a small business-owner who’s trying to make payroll this week in the offseason. But take a deep breath – you’ll be alright. I work, drink, eat, walk, shop and hangout on Lexington Avenue nearly every day. Warts and all, it’s my favorite part of town. And I think it’s changing for the better.