Inquirer reporter has crush on SEPTA

I love reading the daily newspaper.  But some days the Inquirer is so mediocre, I seriously consider giving it up.
Take Paul Nussbaum‘s reporting for example.  Nussbaum is the Inquirer’s transportation beat reporter who does almost all of the SEPTA reporting.  His SEPTA coverage, unfortunately, is a bit underwhelming and uninspiring.  Frequently, his stories are simple reprints of SEPTA press releases–although occasionally, he does call over to SEPTA HQ for a quote. 
By my count, Nussbaum has written 42 stories about SEPTA for the Inquirer since the end of March 2008.  10 of those stories were brief regurgitation of SEPTA press releases that did not appear to involve any independent reporting and did not include any interviews.  
Who gets quoted for the other stories?  27 of those 32 stories featured interviews with SEPTA management.  Only 6 stories featured interviews with SEPTA riders.  
SEPTA management was quoted 111 times.  Riders were quoted only 19 times.  Regional Rail riders were quoted more than twice as often as bus, subway, or trolley riders (13 vs 6).  
Let’s put that another way:  In the past seven months, Nussbaum has given the microphone to SEPTA management almost six times more frequently than SEPTA riders.
That’s like writing stories about the housing crisis but only talking to realtors and not home owners.  Or writing stories about the presidential election without talking to voters.
Sure, it’s important to get SEPTA’s party line on an issue, but is it that hard to get out and actually talk to riders about our concerns and what we’re dealing with every day?
UPDATE:  Be sure to read the thoughtful (and extensive) response to this story from Matthew Mitchell (of DVARP) in the comments section below.
(image credit.)

3 thoughts on “Inquirer reporter has crush on SEPTA

  1. Well, what do you expect, really? I had to go to the Daily Pennsylvanian (Penn’s student paper) to get info on the South Street Bridge, so I can’t say I’m surprised about this.

  2. Agreed that some of the blurbs with Nussbaum’s byline are rewritten press releases, but those tend to be the very routine announcements. His full-length stories have been well-researched, and he has found some good topics to write on. I can also say from experience he edits quotes fairly (I don’t always speak in neat sound bites). What’s different now from a year or two ago is top management. They’re addressing the system’s problems instead of denying them. That makes for a much less adversarial relationship with riders, the city, and the media; and in turn, fewer negative stories. If you want to see a good example of the change, go to the last Strategic Plan public meeting Monday in Doylestown. We’ve been beating on SEPTA for 15 years to develop a plan like this, and now they’re doing so. And the stuff you’ll see in it is truly a breath of fresh air–stuff like finding ways to get accountability at the individual level and not just systemwide. So a lot of advocates who’ve spent a decade or more trying to get management to change its ways are getting listened to, and we don’t necessarily need to go through the media to have a say in things. Compare the Silverliner V design a few years ago with the fare project development going on now. Management ignored our concerns about the Silverliner V until we made enough of a stink at board meetings that it got into the paper. Now SEPTA is actively reaching out to stakeholders like us and the counties in planning the fare system, and there is very constructive dialogue going on behind the scenes. Also, the facts of a story don’t always square with what might be seen on the surface. A real good example of this was the RRD crew hours story last month. Nussbaum came to me looking for a quote about the large amounts of overtime pay many engineers and conductors get. He didn’t say so, but I got the impression that he thought there was some kind of mismanagement that caused this, and hence a story. In fact, it’s a rather complicated trade-off between paying the OT and paying for a lot of other stuff including crew hiring and training, fringe benefits, and railroad-specific payroll taxes. I spent some time explaining all this, and to his credit, Nussbaum changed direction, followed through and wrote a very fair and informative story on the issue. Would I like to be called more often? Sure. But I don’t feel that he’s ignored the riders. Criticism on story selection might be a little more in order, but he’s not gonna write ten inches just because there was a trolley accident or the railroad has a rotten day (like today–there was a pantograph fire up on the Doylestown, my train was 40 minutes late, and a host of late trains everywhere else). It [fouled] up the day for a lot of people, but that’s not deserving of a reporter’s time and space. The average house fire won’t make the Inquirer either.Could Nussbaum write some of the same kind of stories about the transit side as he has on the railroad? Sure, but right now that’s not where the action is. There’s the new cars, overcrowding, and more. Finally, transit coverage at the Inquirer has been lame for a long while, and that’s for several reasons. Part is the lack of competition. Another is that the editors got a thrill up their leg from Lou Gambaccini, and bought his line that criticism of SEPTA was somehow disloyalty to the cause of public transportation. Some pretty good stories got spiked or never reported over the years because the higher-ups thought they’d give ammunition to SEPTA’s opponents (we get some criticism in that vein too). And the editorial board of the Inquirer has suffered from the same condition, and told us so in about as many words a coupla times in earlier days. Ultimately, it’s up to management of the paper to decide what the priorities are, and for the Inquirer, SEPTA isn’t one of them. I’d much rather have the kind of transit coverage in the papers in New York, North Jersey, and Washington.As I tell every journalist coming on to the transit beat here (going back to Mark Bowden almost 20 years ago), SEPTA is a target-rich environment. You can’t swing a dead cat at 1234 without hitting a story worth telling. It’s been frustrating to see so much go unreported for so long, but things are better now journalistically than they have been most of the time that I’ve been riding the system. Nussbaum is definitely not part of the problem, and he’s been fair to all sides.

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