Thursday, November 20, 2008

Failing Home Journalism

Two days ago, in the website feature "Talk to the Newsroom," Times home reporter Penelope Green defended herself against a reader who charged that Home section stories focus mostly on people "at the top of the economic ladder."

"We do try to explore the experience of home at all levels," Green replied, "not just the high end."

But Green's 1895-word cover story in today's Home section proves the reader's point. The piece, "Failing Home Economics," addresses the ways Americans have struggled with the economic downturn, and have been forced to figure out ways to effectively cut costs.

Here's who Green writes about:

--Jill Andresky Fraser, a New York-based financial journalist and author (who has previously written for the Times herself), wondering whether she should have bought $7 artichoke hearts at an overpriced Upper West Side grocery.

--Rick Angres, a screenwriter in the affluent city of Santa Monica, California, pondering the disproportionate amount of money he spends on lilies and orchids.

--Carol Prisant, American editor of The World of Interiors Magazine, who wonders whether she should have recently spent $500 for two oyster-colored dog beds.

--Richard Winkler, an executive producer at Curious Pictures, a television production company in Manhattan, who is so upset with hidden charges on his Verizon bill that he may soon drop premium channels from his cable menu.

--Terence Lance Buckley, a Manhattan public relations executive who just spent $400 on an electric fireplace, to help cut his monthly heating costs.

A professor of behavioral economics at MIT also shared with Green the example of the student who, numb from the meaning of a $40,000 drop in the value of his stock portfolio, just went out and spent $4,000 on a mountain bike.

How, in light of her response to the complaining reader this week, does Green justify her narrow focus today on the spending habits of a privileged few? Surely she knows that her examples hardly reflect the real dilemmas facing fixed income workers around the country -- or even this city -- as they make painful choices in order to survive the current crisis.

How did Green end up with this mix? A reporter getting an interview with a public relations executive doesn't represent much of a challenge. Two writers and an editor? Given that Green has been both, these likely came from personal connections. And he fact that Fraser has appeared in the Times before -- as both a writer and an anecdotal quote -- should have disqualified her, but didn't.

And can anyone figure out how a reporter from the Home section might have gotten an interview with an editor of an interiors magazine?

But the issue here isn't just Green's laziness.

To readers -- if not to Green and her editors -- it's that the trials and tribulations of screenwriters, publicists, TV producers and editors seem trivial by contrast to the real world problems of New Yorkers who can't figure out how to make ends meet.

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