How events-as-journalism cast a New York Times story in a different light

By Dan Kennedy

It was an unremarkable story. On Jan. 26, The New York Times published a real-estate feature about Robbinsville, New Jersey, a community that has become increasingly prosperous and desirable since changing its name from Washington Township 15 years ago. But the article contained within it the kernel of an unpleasant truth that it would take a smaller news organization to highlight.

The Times story, by Dave Caldwell, included this:

A few years after the opening of the mixed-use Town Center development of shops, restaurants and residences, one of the first of its kind in the state, Amazon opened a fulfillment center in Robbinsville in 2014, and a corner of the township became a warehouse hub. So the township was able to build a high school, a municipal building and a police training facility without raising property taxes. That drew more residents and, in turn, more businesses….

The Amazon fulfillment center and other warehouses are on the eastern side of the Turnpike, providing separation from Town Center.

Pretty innocuous-sounding. But warehouse development is a hot issue in New Jersey — so hot that it was the subject of an hour-long event last Wednesday sponsored by NJ Spotlight News, one of the news organizations being tracked by Ellen Clegg and me for our book project, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Spotlight, a nonprofit that focuses on state politics and policy, merged several years ago with NJ PBS.

Events can be another way of doing journalism, and Spotlight does a lot of them. The one I attended, titled “Warehouse Growth in New Jersey: Impacts and Opportunities,” shed some unexpected light on the Times’ assertions. The keynote speaker, Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, explained it this way:

About a month ago, The New York Times had a great profile of Robbinsville and all its progress. And it gleefully pointed out that its proud warehouse development was sited far from its Town Center, as if that were some remarkable feat. What the Times didn’t mention was that Robbinsville residents enjoy all the tax benefits of those warehouses with none of their impacts. Because what they’ve managed to do is outsource them completely to Allentown and Upper Freehold, where they’ve dumped them on their border. The traffic, air pollution, crime and noise that are all centered on the residential areas of two communities that derive exactly none of their benefits that don’t stop at the municipal border. It’s a nice trick if you can manage it, and it’s Exhibit A for why we desperately need to think beyond municipal borders.

Rasmussen’s point was that regional and state governments need to regulate runaway warehouse development in New Jersey in order to prevent exactly the kind of situation that the Times praised — locating the facilities on the outskirts, where they detract from the quality of life in other communities.

Micah Rasmussen

Before sitting in on the webinar, I had no idea what an issue warehouse development is in New Jersey. I am not going to go into any details except to observe that Rasmussen and the panelists, moderated by Spotlight reporter Jon Hurdle, had plenty to talk about.

One of the panelists, Kim Gaddy, national environmental justice director of Clean Water Action and a New Jersey activist, spoke passionately about the disproportionate effects of warehouse development on communities of color.

“When we think about the proliferation of warehouses throughout our region and concentrated in Black, brown and low-wealth communities that have historically borne the brunt of this,” she said, “it is for this reason that we believe that we cannot talk about where or how warehouses are distributed but why is it that we need these facilities in the first place.”

Kim Gaddy

The rest of the panel comprised a representative from the warehouse industry; an official from the New Jersey League of Municipalities; and the executive director of New Jersey Future, a planning and land-use organization.

My purpose in attending was not to become an expert on New Jersey’s warehouse issues. Rather, I wanted to see how a small news organization makes use of events to extend its reach. The webinar itself reached nearly 250 people, and is now the subject of a story on Spotlight’s website. The discussion also provided ample material for follow-up stories.

There was nothing especially wrong with that New York Times story. But there was a lot more to it — and it takes journalism that is invested in the communities it covers to bring that to light.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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