Covering the Land Use Story
Fulton, William, The Quill
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Reporters and editors don't usually think of it this way, but the main job of most newspapers is to cover growth and change in the communities they serve. Whether they are in the booming Sun Belt or the declining Rust Belt, communities are dynamic. Murders and fires aside, the best running story in town is usually how that change is taking place.
Although change can take many forms-population increase or decrease, changing demographics, economic cycles-he most visible and controversial way that communities typically change is by altering the way their land is used. Agriculture land is converted to subdivisions. Small retail centers become large shopping malls. Older neighborhoods are recycled for new uses. Cities and other government agencies build new facilities. Often, they subsidize the construction of convention centers, sports arenas, entertainment complexes and other development projects in hopes of stimulating new investment in targeted geographical areas. At its core, the ongoing story about the growth and change of a community are what public-policy wonks call a "land use" story. It is the story of how communities plan to use their land, how private real estate interests (and sometimes public agencies too) propose to alter the way land is used and how government regulators make decisions about what kinds of real estate development projects to permit.
Increasingly, too, it is a story of national importance, as inside-theBeltway lobbying groups and presidential candidates deal with questions about "urban sprawl" and "metropolitan growth." The land-use story is a staple of local newspaper coverage, but because land use permeates the geography of every newspaper's circulation area, it is a much broader and more multi-faceted story than most reporters and editors recognize.
Most obviously, it is a politics and government story. Land use disputes usually arise in the political arena, as neighbors, homeowners and others concerned about their community's well-being fight development proposals they dislike.
It is a story that often emerges on the beat of environmental reporters, because a major change in the use of land affects the environment. A new project may pollute the air, reduce farmland or impinge on habitat for rare plant or animal species.
It is a real estate story about how buildings that people use-including houses-come into being. It is a lifestyle story because how people live on a daily basis affects the need for buildings and the way land is used.
The land use story is a business story. It deals with private businesses making investments and seeking to satisfy market demand. The businesses involved are not just real estate developers. Every development project has behind it business tenants (such as retailers and factories), homebuyers and investors meeting market demand by altering the way land is used. Increasingly, the land use story is even an entertainment and sports story. Multiplex cinemas and stadiums have become favorite vehicles for local economic development. The proposed construction of a sports stadium, often with a public subsidy, is usually reported at least as often in the sports section as in the metro section.
The Common Problems
Not surprisingly, so complicated and overlapping a topic often falls victim to the standard litany of deficiencies found in daily journalism. Because land use is a multi-faceted story, pervasive in all communities, these sins have a major impact on the view that newspapers give their readers of the communities in which they live and work. The three biggest problems are:
* One-dimensional stories. A proposed real estate development project will be covered by the political reporter as a political drama, by an environmental reporter as a saga of environmental degradation, and by a business reporter an indicator of economic prosperity. …