Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't Shoot! Local Press Tries to See the Money

Here in Newton we're watching a new high school grow up on the site of the old-old Newton High, the one that pre-dates the current brick fortess that we call Newton North High School. If you live in Massachusetts you've probably heard it derided in the press as an overpriced bungle; at $200 million it is the most expensive high school in the state. Of course, it's a high school that is also a vocational/technical school and community center, but everyone likes to call it just a "high school."

In any case, the local paper wants to photograph the site as part of its reporting. Back when construction began Dimeo, the company in charge, told the Newton TAB that safety prohibited them from allowing a news photographer on site. However, they did agree to supply a photos. The company has followed through on that promise, though while you can view the images here you can't embed them or download them to use on another site. Also, you can't view historical images, just those that the company currently wants you to see. A better method may have been to share them on Flickr and allow all of us to download and use them.

Without going into the whole history of this project, let me just say that "trust" has emerged as a major issue in regards to its building and handling. A failed vote to pause the project held back in January of 2007 hinged on the idea that the process was not transparent and that as taxpayers we needed to better understand what we were buying. Also, current Mayor David Cohen kept promising that the price hikes would stop at about $140 million but they didn't. This project did, in short, cost him both his job and his reputation.

So you can imagine that the TAB and its readers would have a problem trusting the company put in charge of this project, so would prefer someone else to go in and photograph its progress.

The issue came up again recently when the city put on its public meeting calendar that members of the Board of Alderman were going to get a tour. Believing the tour was public, the TAB sent a reporter and photographer, only to be turned away, told that this was a private tour, not a public meeting. Dimeo agreed to provide the TAB with a tour another day, but without a photographer.

Today the TAB asked the Mayor about this issue at his weekly press conference. The mayor responded that the photographs aren't necessary for reporting the story.

This brings up a few thorny questions:

  1. Why is it up to Dimeo and the Mayor to decide how the story should be reported? In this environment in which audio, video and text are produced and consumed from handheld devices, how can you put limits on this? In fact, Alderman Ken Parker (who is also a candidate for mayor) used his iPhone to snap a picture and send it to the TAB (picture above). Parker did not, however, challenge Dimeo on its plan to keep the TAB photographer out.
  2. Is this type of photography important to the story? The TAB is free to photograph the construction from just outside the site itself, does it need to be on the property to get the real story?
  3. Should the TAB get access to a construction site that a typical citizen would not? I'm a photoblogger and media blogger who happens to live in Newton. I don't have the readership of the TAB, but should I get access to the site too in order to shoot some pictures? What about Doug Haslam or Sean Roche, both of whom have strong local audiences? In a tweet the TAB says it would support a "pool" situation, but how does Dimeo handle that kind of situation? Also, what if one of the freelancers with the Boston Globe asked to have access, can Dimo keep the TAB out but let the Globe in?
In my mind, a lot of this comes down to an old-school media relations tactic of trying to "control" the story. Mayor Cohen and his main spokesman, Jeremy Solomon, continue to try to control this story by limiting access. Dimeo, like many construction companies, seems to be trying to control its image by taking its own pictures and only allowing people to view them where the company can control the content.

But in today's enviornment control is only perceived. I still believe the key issue with this whole school is trust and if you're a company that wants people to trust you, then allow the users a little more control over the information and content.

Of course, that's only if you want to build trust.


Greg Reibman said...

The TAB is not seeking exclusive rights to photograph the site. We'd be happy to be part of a photo pool that included the Globe, local bloggers and anyone else.

We are only looking for independent access to the site from the same vantage point as has been available to aldermen and others on these tours.

Michael Pahre said...

Ummmm... you can't download the larger versions of the images (public records) from the city's (public) website?

Quick look at the code says that the images are located here:







Oh, come on... You can try harder than that to download the images!

Chuck Tanowitz said...

Thanks Michael. I actually came across that different site a few minutes ago, which I hadn't seen.

But as Greg pointed out on the TAB blog, none of the pictures have captions. I'm sure some are self explanatory, but how about the others? What are we looking at? When? Where? What is the photo telling us about the progress of construction?

This Brokedown Life said...

Undoubtedly the Tab is working on this -- but is there a precedent to consider? Has Newton built any other project that reporters and photographers have had access to?

Also, were the aldermen and anyone accompanying wearing hardhats and goggles and other PPE? (Steel-toe boots, eg?) If not, then the mayor's safety objection is demonstrably bogus.