Morning Crank: What the City Calls a Homeless Crisis

1. On Friday, after significant pushback on social media (including dozens of folks who retweeted my coverage on Twitter), KIRO 7 news took down a map identifying the precise location of unsanctioned homeless encampments around the city, submitted by viewers and verified by the station. The map page also encouraged viewers to approach encampments and take photos and videos.

The map was posted on Wednesday and identified as a tool to help KIRO “track” homeless encampments, which can be as few as three tents, “amid what the City of Seattle calls a homeless crisis.” The explanation went on to say that “Seattle leaders do not keep a public map of homeless camps, so we are working with the community to make one.”

The mayor’s office told me there’s a very good reason the  city doesn’t publish its list of homeless encampment locations: To do so could put homeless people in even more danger than they already are. Fifty-eight percent of homeless women experienced domestic violence, according to the city’s recent survey of more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness; mapping the precise locations where homeless people are camped out, with photos that may show identifying possessions is an invitation to abusers to go looking for their victims. (Originally, the page said nothing to discourage viewers from photographing people’s faces, but the station later added a disclaimer to that effect ).

On KIRO TV Wednesday night, a reporter promoted the encampment map while standing in front of several tents directly across from KIRO headquarters.

On Thursday, under pressure from the public to stop doxxing the homeless (doxxing, here, refers to the practice of finding out where people live and identifying that location publicly in order to encourage others to target and harass them), KIRO changed the justification for the map. The map was a bit more specific (and less skeptical) about the “homeless crisis, included information about how to submit a “service request” for the city to clean up an encampment, and noted that the city also had information about shelter on its website:

Meanwhile, KIRO continued to promote the tracking map on its nightly news broadcast and on Reddit.

Finally, on Friday—two days after the “tracking” map went up—KIRO replaced the map with a generic-looking new one, with shaded areas designating giant blocks of the city where viewers had reported camps to the station. The new map is useless for tracking, and it’s unclear why KIRO left it up; what it does reveal is that the KIRO viewers who felt motivated to report and, in some cases, approach and photograph encampments are all on the western half of the city. To look at the map, you’d think Southeast Seattle—where encampments certainly exist, just as they do all over the city—is encampment-free, whereas Queen Anne and parts of Ballard and Magnolia are overrun by tents.

KIRO’s explanation for this latest version of the map was that they had talked to experts and received new information from the mayor’s office that the city does, in fact, have a map of encampment locations, “an important detail they would not previously disclose.” They also changed their justification for the map yet again, saying it was intended to “[show] just how widespread the homeless encampment problem is across the city.”

KIRO’s claim that they thought the mayor’s office doesn’t know where encampments are is highly implausible, as is the notion that self-reporting by “the community” (which, as the new map shows, is a highly self-selected group) will produce an accurate or helpful picture of encampments in Seattle. I simply don’t buy the explanation that KIRO just thought the city wasn’t tracking encampments and decided to help by asking their readers to send in locations as a public service to the city, especially given that this wasn’t their justification until they got pushback from viewers concerned about the wellbeing of the people’s whose locations KIRO had identified.

KIRO didn’t respond to my messages seeking comment. But one thing struck me as I watched this map evolve, and read KIRO’s ever-changing justifications for its existence: To think a map like this serves any useful purpose, you have to see homeless people and their tents as messes to clean up or problems to be solved. Then the map becomes a kind of “Find It, Fix It” app, but for people.

But people aren’t potholes, and identifying their precise locations—especially in Seattle, a city where anti-homeless sentiment is at a fever pitch right now—can put them in danger.  In the same way that it would be considered inappropriate to create a map identifying where KIRO employees live, it’s inappropriate to create a map of where homeless people are sleeping and trying to survive. I’m glad, for the sake of the people who could have been targeted because KIRO identified where they lived, that KIRO took the original map down. I’m disheartened that the only lesson KIRO appears to have learned is “when you fuck up, double down.”

2. In case you missed it: Yesterday, I broke the news that the city, county, and state have settled with the Alliance for Pioneer Square, which sued over the width of the proposed new Alaskan Way surface street. Under the agreement, the city will build the street as originally planned—102 feet wide, similar to the new Mercer Street in South Lake Union—and narrow it to 79 feet, by eliminating two transit lanes, around 2033, when light rail opens in West Seattle.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Crosscut-KCTS Merger: A “Good Day For Local Journalism”?

Seattle’s shrinking local media will be stretched even thinner in the new year, after several local media firms announced consolidations, layoffs, and contractions that will leave fewer reporters to cover the growing city. Crosscut, whose editors and news reporters are all white men, says the move will improve its “diversity of voices,” but neither entity has plans to add any full-time reporting staff.

Last week, after KUOW announced that it was absorbing KPLU and the Stranger revealed that Seattle Weekly plans to lay off most of its editorial staff, Crosscut, the eight-year-old local news site, announced it would be absorbed by KCTS, the local PBS affiliate. Although technically a merger, the move means Crosscut will be “under the umbrella” of the larger TV station, as the official announcement put it, and will dissolve its governing board of directors and give up its independent nonprofit status. Contributions to Crosscut will still go to Crosscut, but the joint venture, to be called Cascade Public Media, will be headed by KCTS CEO Robert Dunlop and be accountable to KCTS’ board.

Crosscut and KCTS have taken pains to sell the merger as a mutual win, saying it will give Crosscut’s journalists access to KCTS’ resources and “expertise” and allow them to do more in-depth journalism and video production. In announcing the move, Crosscut trotted out a parade of former editors and publishers, including founder David Brewster, who issued the following curiously worded statement: “Synergy, news across multiple platforms, a broader funding base, shared traditions of media in the public interest…. What’s not to love?” Brewster continued: “That Crosscut is teaming up with KCTS, long a prime media asset in the Northwest, makes a huge amount of sense for both organizations. It bodes well for a stronger, stabler future for local journalism.”

Does it? Crosscut editor Greg Hanscom, who just took the reins earlier this year, acknowledges that Crosscut will “definitely be the junior of the two” partners, but says the new joint venture will give Crosscut access to more digital and video resources and, importantly, money. “The thing the merger does is, suddenly we have all these resources at our disposal for building this business model that we’ve started,” Hanscom says.

Crosscut has a tumultuous financial history, and the merger reignited questions about whether the organization (which former Weekly publisher David Brewster founded as a for-profit company in 2007 before restructuring it as a nonprofit one year later when ad revenues fell short of expectations) was financially viable. Although both KCTS and Crosscut declined to answer questions about Crosscut’s solvency, Hanscom says the joint venture allows Crosscut to turn into a “professional media organization that pays real salaries and offers real benefits and pays freelance writers what they’re worth. To do that, we’re going to need about twice the money that we currently have.” KCTS certainly has the money–in 2014, the station had nearly half a million dollars in profits–but its commitment to local journalism is far less clear.

Both KCTS and Crosscut have emphasized that the merger will improve local reporting and require “no layoffs”; in fact, Hanscom says, Crosscut will now be able to double its freelance budget (historically, many of Crosscut’s writers have been unpaid) and bring one social media producer to full-time status. In its own statement about the merger, KCTS said “local journalism and content are getting a much needed boost” from the absorption of Crosscut into the established public television company. “A Good Day for Local Journalism,” the announcement proclaimed.

However, that sunny spin ignores the fact that KCTS already laid off almost all of its editorial production staff back in May, in a bloodletting that Joel Connelly called the “Thursday Night Massacre.” The layoffs were part of a shift at KCTS toward national PBS programming like PBS NewsHour and Masterpiece Classic, supplemented by reports from freelance writers and photographers. One victim of the cuts was KCTS’ short-lived weekly public affairs program, “In Close,” on which KUOW producer Deborah Wang and a panel of local pundits discussed the news of the week.

I sent KCTS communications director Hilda Cullen, who preferred to communicate by email, a list of seven questions about the merger. Cullen provided brief answers to two of them, including one about the role of freelance reporters and production staff at the station, and referred the rest to Hanscom. In her responses, Cullen confirmed that “KCTS 9 contracts with freelance multi-media journalists to create content for KCTS 9 and KCTS9.org,” and said KCTS does have “personnel on staff who create original content.”

However, she would not provide a list of current staff, saying only, “we don’t publish our staff list,” and did not respond to a request for further information about why a public TV station keeps its staff list secret.

Hanscom was much more expansive. He told me most of the conversations Crosscut has had with KCTS over the last two months have been “about ‘Can Crosscut still be Crosscut even if we join forces?'” Answering his own rhetorical question, Hanscom says, “I will not claim it’s free from risks,”  but “I feel really good, honestly, that KCTS and Crosscut are going to be able to do their own things. I’ve got a lot of assurances from Rob Dunlop that we will remain editorially independent.”

One final issue I wanted to ask both Hanscom and Cullen about was diversity. Although Cullen did not respond to my question, “Will any efforts be made to improve the gender or racial diversity of editorial staffing at either Crosscut or KCTS?,” Hanscom (who, like all the full-time editorial staff at Crosscut, is a white man) did. Hanscom was reportedly hired, in part, to bring more diverse voices to Crosscut, and he said he hopes to do that by bringing on a broader cast of freelancers and, potentially, reporters (although neither Crosscut nor KCTS has any plans to add full-time reporters to the staff of the new joint venture), and by partnering with other publications with more diverse staffs, such as the South Seattle Emerald and the International Examiner.

“There’s no denying that the old white dude factor is a little glaring around here,” Hanscom says.  “What I can say there is that we already have really shifted our attention to diversifying the voices that are in Crosscut. If you were to pick back through the last four months with a fine-tooth comb you would find more women and people of color like Samantha Larson, Ana Sophia Knauf, and Reagan Jackson.” They’re also doing a year-long series about race, Hanscom says, featuring voices like Raymond Fenton, a former Crosscut intern who heads up the Black Student Union at Lewis and Clark University. As for gender diversity, Hanscom says, “We’ve been limited on that front because our freelance budget has been limited and our staff is mostly male, but I think that if you look at the little freelance money that we have had to dole out, much of that has gone to women.” With that freelance budget set to quadruple, he adds, readers should expect to see more diverse voices represented on the site.

I’ll reserve judgment on that claim until the new regime has been in place a few months, but I will note that “greater diversity” is the kind of feel-good goal media companies often adopt then abandon when it proves more difficult than issuing an aspirational mission statement. For now, it’s worth noting that of 24 stories currently on Crosscut’s politics page, 23 are written by white men.