July 24, 2009

The Courant's slipping standards made clear

Let’s take a look at the evolution of a story that appeared in today’s print edition of The Hartford Courant, a once proud newspaper that apparently has thrown journalistic standards to the wind.

To begin with, take a look at Bristol Press reporter Jackie Majerus’ July 21 story.

BRISTOL — The city’s plan to spruce up Main Street is delayed at least another month..

The Bristol Development Authority’s streetscape project, which will add decorative enhancements like brick pavers, street trees, benches and lighting, is slated to extend along the east side of Main Street from Riverside Avenue to Center Street.

On the west side of Main Street, there won’t be any changes until past the railroad track at the edge of the city-owned former mall property, where some improvements are slated.

The project is supposed to mirror the work the BDA oversaw on North Main Street few years ago, but the non-profit board that oversees the 17-acre, former mall property hasn’t signed off on it yet, temporarily halting the streetscape project and possibly jeopardizing the state funding to pay for it.

The BDA expects the state to pay $1.5 million toward the work and the city to pick up the rest of the tab, about $250,000, but if the work isn’t started soon, the state might withdraw the money, according to Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of the BDA.

The problem is that state funds for downtown projects are now pooled, which means that not only the BDA, but the mall site overseers, the Bristol Downtown Development Corp., must also endorse projects and expenditures.

But some on the BDDC board — most notably, Jennifer Janelle — weren’t ready to give the go-ahead.

Because the BDDC just selected a firm to do a parking study, Janelle said, it only makes sense to let them do the work before the streetscape project that involves parking along the former mall property gets under way.

"Let’s give them the opportunity," said Janelle. She said the city could move ahead with signing contracts for the streetscape while the parking study is under way.

The study may end up recommending parking meters, pay stations or other things, said Janelle, that could impact the streetscape. The streetscape can wait a little longer to get the input from the parking specialists at Tighe & Bond, the company doing the study, she said.

City Councilor Ken Cockayne, who is the council liaison to the board and doesn’t have a vote, strongly opposed the streetscape.

By doing the work on Main Street, Cockayne said, the city would take away parking spots that are needed now. He also charged that the project is wasteful.

"We’re spending money because we have it," and it is important to do the parking study first, said Cocknye. But John Lodovico, a BDDC member, said he spoke with some of the business operators along Main Street and found they were unconcerned about the expected loss of two parking spaces under the streetscape plan.

Dick Harrall, the executive director of the BDDC, said the parking study would probably not get into the kind of detail on the east side of Main Street that the streetscape plan does.

Both Harrall and BDDC Chairman Frank Johnson said any new developer will have to take the parking needs of Main Street merchants into account when planning the use of the 17 acres.

Rosenthal agreed, saying the parking study will delve into areas behind buildings and other spots, while the streetscape is a much narrower focus.

But if the streetscape project isn’t approved and moving forward soon, according to Lodovico and Rosenthal, there’s a good chance that the state will yank the funding and the project either wouldn’t be done or the city would end up paying for all of it.

Rosenthal said he needed the BDDC’s endorsement before he could proceed.

"It’s not ours to hold up," said Gardener Wright, a BDDC member.

"I would say it is," said Rosenthal. "You’re controlling the money." If they don’t endorse it, he said, the message is that the city isn’t committed to the project.

The BDA voted a year ago on the streetscape design.

Johnson said the BDDC spent considerable time at two of its meetings arguing "over two parking spots" on Main Street. He said Main Street business owners care about more than parking, and that streetscape improvements will help them.

Johnson and others argued that the streetscape is a "separate issue" from the mall site and the parking study isn’t needed to proceed.

Janelle said it is about coordinating the work downtown, not just about two parking spaces.

"It should all just be done at once," she said. "To me, it’s inefficient."

After a heated exchange, at a BDDC meeting Monday, Johnson referenced Biblical King Solomon’s dilemma and offered to "split the baby" by having the parking consultants look at that block of Main Street first, make a recommendation about the streetscape and then proceed with the rest of their study.

Rosenthal — who was worried about the timing — said, "I think it’s a good compromise. It doesn’t delay things too much."

Johnson said he wants to see the streetscape project done on Main Street. It will help businesses on the street, show residents some progress downtown and also demonstrate to potential developers a commitment to the area. The BDDC will take it up again at its August meeting, he said.

On the Courant’s website, Aviv Blasbalg rewrote the piece in an abbreviated way without doing any original reporting (see it here). He did, however, credit The Bristol Press with almost all of the information contained in the piece, sprinkling his report with “the Bristol Press reported” or “told the Press.”

Just to be clear, here’s what the Courant put on its website on Thursday, July 23:

Main Street project delayed

BRISTOL — - A delay to a project to spruce up Bristol's Main Street, caused by another committee's decision to conduct a parking study, could result in the project losing state funding, the Bristol Press reported.

The Bristol Development Authority's streetscape project is supposed to add enhancements such as brick pavers, trees, benches and lighting along the east side of Main Street, from Riverside Avenue to Center Street.

The project is being delayed at least a month as a result of the Bristol Downtown Development Corp.'s decision this week to conduct a $36,800 parking study of a 17-acre former mall located near that stretch of Main Street.

The state is expected to pay $1.5 million for the streetscape project, with the city paying about $250,000, but if work does not begin soon, the state may withdraw the money, BDA executive director Jonathan Rosenthal told the Press.

State money for downtown projects is pooled, which means the BDDC must also endorse any projects and expenditures.

While the BDA has given the go-ahead for the streetscape project, the BDDC has not because some members of that board want the parking study completed first, the Press reported.

BDDC member Jennifer Janelle said the study could recommend parking meters or pay stations that would alter the streetscape project, the Press reported.

The two committees agreed to a compromise in which the firm conducting the study, Tighe & Bond of Westfield, Mass., will take a look at that stretch of Main Street first and make a recommendation before proceeding with the rest of the study, the Press reported.

— Aviv Blasbalg

That version was aggravating mostly because it is so irksome that a Courant staffer who could be out doing real reporting was instead rewriting someone else’s story. That’s pretty low. But at least the story was honest in telling readers where the information came from.

But now consider the final transition of Majerus’ story, in the Courant’s Friday, July 24 print edition on page A8.

I don't think the print version is online anywhere, but it reads, in its entirety:

BRISTOL – A delay to the project to spruce up Bristol’s Main Street could result in the project’s losing its state funding.

The Bristol Development Authority’s streetscape project will add enhancements such as brick pavers, trees, benches and lighting along the east side of Main Street.

The project is being delayed at least a month as a result of the Bristol Downtown Development Corp.’s decision this week to conduct a $36,800 parking study of a 17-acre former mall near that stretch of Main Street.

The state is expected to pay $1.5 million for the streetscape project, with the city paying about $250,000, but if work does not begin soon, the state may withdraw the money, said Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of the development authority.

Notice how it is essentially the same story as the one that appeared online, stripped down even further. But there’s no longer even a hint that everything in it came from the story in the Press that Majerus wrote three days earlier.

Just to make sure, I called Rosenthal. He confirmed to me today that nobody from the Courant spoke to him this week. Yet there he is, quoted in the Courant.

That’s sleazy, cheap and thoroughly unprofessional journalism by the Courant, a paper that once had integrity from cover to cover. Now it runs slapdash theft and calls it news.


Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com


Anonymous said...

Slapdash theft! Cover to cover! Slapdash theft! Cover to cover! Slapdash theft! Cover to cover!

Anonymous said...

Steve you are absolutely correct on this. Aviv is just about the worst "journalist" I've ever read, it goes way beyond this news story. Just about everything I've read from Aviv is weak. Is Aviv a real journalist with credentials or some temp. or intern?

Steve Collins said...

Well, I don't think it's just Aviv, though I don't get why he didn't call Rosenthal and write his own little version of the story to begin with. It looks pretty clear to me that an editor took Aviv's admittedly weak online story and stripped away the attribution before slapping it in today's paper.
So you have at least two people who should have known better. But I tend to think, based on the totality of the Courant these days, that journalistic excellence is not valued there any longer by the paper's top managers.
That doesn' mean there aren't great journalists at the paper. There are. Some Courant writers and columnists are absolutely first rate. But they're swimming against the tide

Anonymous said...

One digital world. One newspaper. We don't need no stinking attributions. Life's a mash-up. Live it or live with it. Internet killed the newspaper star.

Steve Collins said...

There won't be any news worth reading if there's no way for anyone to earn a living as a journalist.

Steve Collins said...

Plus, of course, there's still copyright law, which protects intellectual property such as news stories. You can't just steal them.

Anonymous said...

I much prefer the Courant to the Press. Take it as a compliment that the Courant uses the Press as a resource.

Steve Collins said...

There are a lot of things about the Courant that the Press can't touch. Heck, I subscribe to it, which says something.
But stealing is wrong. It's no compliment to be the victim of theft, especially when it's part of an emerging pattern that could ultimately undermine my newspaper.