Monday, March 21, 2011

Media (self-)criticism

I love the New York Times and read it every day, as everyone obviously should. Also they pay me on time, and more or less in fair amounts, so I feel warmly towards them for that too. It goes without saying that they print lots of interesting stuff all the time. (Check out this great graphic explaining problems nuclear power plants. Though actually, before you do, check out this also-great Popular Science story about how nuclear power plants work. I lived in the same freakin' town as one of these things for 20 years and never knew this much about it. Now I'm embarrassed.)

But anyway. Great paper, the Times. But I have to say that the most memorable thing I've read in there in the last couple of weeks wasn't even a story -- it was a letter to the editor. I like reading the letters to some sections a lot. In the Travel section in particular, they have a great outraged know-it-all quality, because everyone who writes in believes that they are the true experts, and the ones who should be writing the travel stories. And also because the Travel section pretty often does do truly silly stuff, like make lists of "The 50 places you must visit this year," in which 48 of the 50 places on the list are there because a new $1,000-a-night luxury hotel just opened.

Anyway, anyway. The letter I'm talking about this time was in the Home section. It's not a section I've written for before, but the letter nevertheless hit uncomfortably close to, um, home. I'm new to this blogger etiquette, but I assume it's ok if I just reprint it (with a link, of course) :

Re “His Real Estate Agent? Craigslist,” (Feb. 17):

In this piece David Hay profiles a carriage house in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that was “cramped” and “uninhabitable” until its current owner, an architect, purchased and renovated the building for close to $1 million.

I lived in that house from 2002 to 2008 with three friends in their early 30s until a developer purchased the entire block and forced us out. It was neither cramped nor uninhabitable. In fact, that carriage house was the most spacious, affordable and habitable New York home in which any of us had ever lived. During the six years we were there, we put a lot of love into that house; we built a recording studio, a video-editing suite, created spaces to make art, grew vegetables, hosted bands, artists and travelers from around the world, and screened films in the backyard.

Last summer I stopped by the house and met the new owner, who graciously gave me a tour. I was heartened to see that he was putting so much energy into the place and was not a speculator intending to flip it for a profit. But, it was also a reminder that a building that once provided affordable living and studio space for four working artists (and their friends) was now the private home of a single person.

I find myself frustrated with articles about supposedly blighted buildings or neighborhoods being renovated by quirky, “pioneering” individuals. Such writing decontextualizes a larger story that is about development, race, class, power and money. I understand that Mr. Hay’s article is simply a profile of an interesting home in what’s perceived as an “up and coming” area of Brooklyn. But I believe it would be more responsible, engaged and interesting storytelling to dig just a little deeper and consider this home in the context of a changing neighborhood’s past and future.

Todd Chandler

That is a heck of a letter! The thing is, I had read the story it refers to, and enjoyed it, because it really was well-done. More to the point, I've probably written more than one story like it. Not stories that are wrong, exactly, but stories that, while smooth and compelling in their own way, also squeeze a messy or complex situation (which, really, is basically all situations) a little too neatly into a particularly tried-and-true narrative format.

It is possible to write stories for Home, or Real Estate, or whatever, without oversimplifying them, of course. But it's hard, which means it's important, if you're trying to do that, to be wary of the pitfalls. Those tried-and-true narratives work so well that they're easy, even a little tempting, to fall back on. My experience is that you get better, richer, more surprising stories when you resist that temptation, but also that doing so can be trickier up front. Still, I know that next time I have to write a story like this, I'll have this letter in mind.

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