By Christine Bellini
In my weekly perusal of the local papers I am reminded of the myriad decisions editors make determining what developments, actual events that have already occurred, and those expected to occur, are deemed newsworthy enough to make it into the paper. Then there’s the question as to which ‘stories’ make it to the front page and which get relegated to interior sections for the more contemplative reader.
As much as the traditional print venues have been turned on their ear with the advent of real-time mobile reporting, certain fundamental components remain unshakable from the very roots of their origins in the days of the town crier and local tattler. When folks coughed up two pence to hear the tidbits of sure gossip from the local scat-about, they gleaned the inner workings of the powerbrokers of their provincial — albeit intricately and generally wildly co-opted — working class communities.
Such remains the case today. A schooled reader of the local papers can divine changes afoot as they gain critical mass, determine the preening of next year’s town council candidates and unveil the gauzy disguise of business interests in planning board discussions. In most of these aforementioned scenarios, the stalwart newspaper maintains its ‘other’ status as chronicler (non-participant) as best as is humanly possible considering it is of the very community of which it speaks.
Some papers are better at threading this objective journalistic thread than others and generally, over decades, they get branded as such – the liberal paper, the conservative paper, the ‘alternative’ paper (a humorous favorite in that it’s entire existence is based on discerning an alternative view of the facts).
Yet, newspapers (news corporations) do not exist in a perfect world of moral certainty and they are managed by mere mortals — and therein lies the rub. That is why it continues to be increasingly important to study how a paper reads, particularly in today’s nano-second, sound-bite driven, hyper-amped, gigabyte crazed techno age.
Locally this gets played out most obviously in the real estate pages. First and foremost, newspapers are businesses employing wage earners who rely on their weekly paychecks to feed the family. Regionally, the fatter a newspaper, the more real estate ads it sells, the more symbiotic the relationship grows between the development of commerce and reports of a rosy real estate outlook. Recall the heyday of Dan’s Paper when it was fat as a pregnant cow, chock-a-block with real estate ads and the idle fabricated musings of Dan Rattiner. No local paper worth its journalistic salt could compete for real estate ad space to wanna-be Hamptonites when it was obliged to report on the front page of a wobbly real estate market heading into the high season of 2008/2009.
What brings all this to mind are converging articles in local and city papers which, if you are not schooled in the art of comparative news reading, could easily appear unrelated. The East Hampton Star took its annual assessment of real estate activity in the village commercial district as it customarily does this time of year, concluding the market is heating up with commercial rents in the region on the rise. No surprise there, although a clear distinction is being drawn that the vacancy rate for retail space appears to be finally dwindling ‘in the current upswing.’ Good news about business begets good business for both realtor and newspaper alike, particularly when a wishful trend could use a needed push to become reality.
Reports of the Community Preservation Fund hitting a six-year high for the first three quarters of 2013, which made the rounds in Newsday, 27east, and the weeklies, is a sound indication of rising property transfers, but it does not shed light on which end of the market is making a comeback until you tally the number of transfers into the gross figure to find they are mainly ultra-high-end properties. The excitement tempers when you realize the resurging real estate market does not necessarily represent us common folk.
A survey of the rentals in the classifieds section tells a much different story as winter rentals are priced at year-round rates and year-round rentals are priced above the national mortgage average. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal telegraphs a “‘Mini-Wall Street’ Rises in the Hamptons” (Oct. 20, 2013) as ‘Hedge Funds, Brokerages, Investment Advisors Quietly Set Up Shop.’ According to WSJ reports, some 33 investment advisers and broker-dealers registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission are located within five miles of the 11968 code, an additional 16 within five miles of 11937 and another 16 in or near 11932.
Sounding a clarion bell, Bloomberg.com reported Oct. 24, 2013 “Hamptons Sales Surge Fuels High-End Home Tear-Downs,” in a headline which fears no pushback from locals. “Luxury homes in the Hamptons, the top 10 percent of deals by price, sold for a median of $4.45 million in the third quarter, up 14 percent from a year earlier,” Miller Samuel of Douglas Elliman was reported to have indicated. “Prices for the top 4 percent of transactions, which includes ultra luxury estates, jumped 21 percent to a median of $10 million,” the article adds.
For the local news reporter, there’s a story in here somewhere that questions the ramifications of the rising market as it continues to change the very complexion of the region. It is not enough to report a 36 percent rise in building permits through September of this year without explaining that, in large part, smaller homes are being replaced by bigger ones. If the Wall Street Journal can get the town’s chief building inspector to make this observation, perhaps local editors need to get back into the reporting business long enough to ask what kind of towns are we creating?
A former news editor, essay writer CHRISTINE BELLINI is an editorial consultant who spends a good deal of her time pondering the cultural curiosities of The Hamptons from her Sag Harbor tree house.