New York’s Next Mayor and a Failure of Local Reporting

A big story arrives, but too late for voters to consider.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

Two weeks before the June 22 Democratic primary that everyone knew would be tantamount to the election of the next mayor of New York City, Politico New York published a story raising doubts about whether the emerging frontrunner, Eric Adams, really lived in the city rather than in a co-op he owns across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey with his partner.

Adams denied the story, which was based on conflicting filings he had made with the city and federal governments, filed an amendment to his federal tax returns before the story was published, and then took reporters on a tour of an apartment that appeared to some instead to be the home of his son. But there was no solid proof, not very much time left to inquire further, and Adams, who had received limited press scrutiny after months of press obsession with Andrew Yang, managed to win the primary by 7000 votes under the city’s new ranked choice voting system.

Late last month the proof finally seemed to emerge, when an excellent piece was published by the nonprofit The City—based on the amendment to his federal returns in which Adams said he had spent precisely zero nights in the apartment during 2017-19, one of four in a building he owns and in which he unquestionably rents out the others. The City’s story also noted that Adams hadn’t responded to repeated notices by building inspectors for six weeks in August and September to his supposed residence.

The response of the putative mayor: Mail to the building often isn’t delivered (this part could easily be true these days in New York), a posted notice may have mistakenly been affixed to another building (he offered no evidence of this), and the amended return was also in error likely because his accountant, having been accused of embezzlement and evicted from his own previous residence, was homeless and thus poorly organized. Adams indicated at a news conference that the latest return should have said he spent one day at the apartment (presumably each year), not zero; he did not say why he spent only one day in each of 2017, 2018 and 2019 where he supposedly lives, although he has long indicated that he lived at his office in the early months of the pandemic during 2020. A second amended return (that is, a third version) is forthcoming, he promised. I am not making any of this up.

All for naught?

None of this will make any difference in the short term in a town where Joe Biden got 76% of the vote and where the Republican nominee for mayor would be best described as a former vigilante and perennial gadfly. Which is to say that while the latest story by The City was very good, it came too late to affect the election.

I raise all of this not because of what it says about Eric Adams, but because of what it says about the paucity of timely, effective local journalism even in our nation’s largest city. While some newer entrants are trying to fill this gap, the retreat of the legacy players continues.

The New York Times sporadically parachutes in and out of its own hometown with major investigative projects (many of them excellent), but hardly covers the city day to day, the New York Post seems to view municipal affairs simply as another forum in which to vindicate the politics of its (mostly nonresident) nonagenarian proprietor, and the New York Daily News, long the epicenter of local journalism in New York, recently summarily replaced its top editor with someone whose day job is editing another paper controlled by its hedge fund owner, in a smaller city in another state one hundred miles away. The Daily News’s new news leader will be available “as needed,” which presumably won’t be that often.

The people best acquainted with city politics and government among those I know (admittedly not a random sample) all broadly suggest questions about Adams’s stability and ethics. They may or may not be right about that—we’ll know more once he moves into the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, in January. But if they are right, many of the 70% of primary voters who had a first choice other than Adams (and even some of those who did vote for him) will likely wish they had known more before completing their ballots.

When people talk about what the disappearance of local journalism is costing us, this is what they mean. And the deficit is a problem not only in America’s literal “news deserts,” but in the hollowing out of the press everywhere, even in the media capital of the country.

Second Rough Draft will likely be taking a break the next two weeks, and should be back in subscribers’ inboxes on October 28.

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