When Mountain Xpress hit the stands Dec. 5, few Lexington Avenue business owners found any holiday joy in the cover story, "No Easy Answers: Lexington Avenue's Uncertain Future."
"To me, the article gave off three main points: Lexington has a drug problem, Lexington is a violent street, and Lexington is not a safe place to be. I don't agree with any of those in any shape or form," said Alex Carr of Tops for Shoes.
Carr was among the more than 10 business owners who gathered in a back room at Nest Organics Dec. 14 to voice concerns, ask questions and demand answers about the story written by Xpress reporter David Forbes. Citing police statistics and interviews with APD Capt. Tim Splain and two Lexington Avenue business owners, the article explored the intertwining issues of crime, drugs and gentrification in the downtown district.
At the informal-but-tense gathering, angry business owners said they saw no news value in the story.
"It didn't seem like it was front-page newsworthy, especially at this time of year. It seemed more like an opinion piece, which was limited mostly to one person's point of view. There wasn't a lot of effort, it seemed, to get another side of the story," said Adorn Salon & Boutique owner Rebecca Hecht. "Irresponsible, sensational, outdated and negative was the tone of the article, in our opinion. There was no focus on how the neighborhood has progressed from the past, how we've evolved past what the story was focused on. It seemed like that was yesterday; there's a lot more going on today on Lexington."
After business owners questioned the article's credibility, Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes, News Editor/Co-Managing Editor Margaret Williams, Sales and Marketing Associate Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt and Forbes tried to respond to the concerns.
"What, specifically, was incorrect?" asked Williams. "I had [Forbes] look up police stats and talk to police officers, and a good bit of the story focuses on what Capt. Splain reported and what the stats reported: that the crime is relatively stable, but there have been some problems."
But the merchants pushed back. Honeypot owner Sara Legatski maintained that the story did not provide a comprehensive look at the neighborhood, noting that neither she nor the others in the room had been interviewed by Forbes.
"These are our livelihoods: That's why we feel so seriously about this," she declared.
Forbes then explained how he came to write the article, moving from a news tip through research and interviews to, finally, a story.
"I do my best, with this article and every single one I write, to reflect whatever topic is in front of me,” Forbes told the group. “That includes when it's positive and wonderful, and when it might be uncomfortable or extremely ambiguous and muddy as well.”
But one thing, countered Hecht, was clear enough: a decline in sales the weekend after the story came out. "I think you could look at the lot of advertising dollars that we represent in this room," she said.
In response, the Xpress publisher tried to explain the relationship between advertising dollars and editorial content.
"News isn't necessarily going to be positive," Fobes pointed out. "We have to go back and think about story ideas. If it's going to be a news story, [reporters and editors] have to feel the weight of that news. They're not just going to interview merchants to 'try and make it all good.'"
Several merchants suggested that they be given a free ad to make things right. Others asked for a more positive cover story about Lexington Avenue and its businesses.
Xpress’ Williams and Sezak-Blatt encouraged them to write letters to the editor or a commentary expressing their point of view.
Most of the merchants felt that these options wouldn’t be sufficient to undo the damage done by what they called a “sensational” article. But after more than 10 minutes of debate among themselves concerning what would be satisfactory, the business owners didn’t reach consensus. Several asked Fobes what could be done.
"None of us likes being pushed around," the publisher replied. "And if every time we write a story that people don't like, we have to write another one that they do, we would start to lose our keel, like when you're sailing."
He added, "I want to continue to support local businesses and local community, but I'm really struggling with this."
No easy answers
As the dialogue cooled down, Bouchon co-owner Vonciel Buchanan Baudouin said: "I agree with everyone in this room that the story seems slanted to the casual reader, and I would have liked if David had interviewed one or two more business owners. But [Xpress staff have] expressed support for our street. Even Bouchon had a bad weekend, which is shocking, but I'm not sure it was the article, to tell you the truth. There's no way to know."
And Josh Lawton, who’d been outraged about the story earlier in the meeting, now sounded a cautionary note.
“Let's pretend it’s not us and it's not the Mountain Xpress. I wouldn't want to live in a society where the Procter & Gambles and Cloroxes or the Coca-Colas or the Disneys of the world dictate what's said in a newspaper," said Lawton, who’s about to open Devotion Organics, a body-care-products shop, in the space vacated by TV Eye. “That's completely sketchy. To make demands that you guys cater to our whims, economically or not — I'm just trying to play devil's advocate here — there's a moral gray area, where we say you've harmed us with your media spin, so give us free stuff. I think it's going to be more powerful — the fact that we're all here together is going to honestly stir people's heartstrings way more than an ad."
— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.