Point-counterpoint in the News’ recession coverage
As the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression took hold, the News engaged in point-counterpoint coverage of the historical moment.
By the time the 2000s came around, the Yale Daily News more closely resembled the News of today. With the rise of the Internet, the News created a website to broaden its reach. Journalistic standards evolved with the times, preventing insensitive jokes and racial slurs from being published. New rules requiring by-lines for articles and limiting the use of anonymous sources increased transparency and accountability. And the desk system, particularly the City desk, helped to focus and enhance the News’ reporting of Yale and New Haven. But while the News had come a long way from the errors in its coverage of the nation’s biggest economic downturn, it still repeated some mistakes in its articles about the nation’s second largest economic downturn in recent history — the Great Recession. Like during the Great Depression, the majority of the News’ reporting during the Recession was focused on the University. Stories about the financial crisis and subsequent recession were told through the lens of the University endowment, budget and implications for students interested in careers on Wall Street. And while at first glance it would seem that the News had fallen prey to the same pitfalls of the 1930s, the coverage coming from the City Desk tells a different story. In the depths of the Great Recession, a piece was published in 2009 about the “financial health” of the University. The piece described the Yale Corporation’s meeting about the economic downturn and how it planned to manage its operating and capital budgets for the coming year, including the over $500 million project to build two new colleges on Prospect Street, known to us today as Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges. On its own, the piece would be reminiscent of articles published during the Depression describing Yale’s expansion despite national economic malaise, but the piece was followed by another about poverty in Connecticut. The second piece extensively explored poverty in the state and in New Haven, which had the second-highest poverty rate in Connecticut, as well as the recession’s impact on nonprofits serving New Haven’s impoverished communities.
This point/counterpoint pattern continued into the months and years following the recession, providing a balance between the News’ university and city coverage that the YDN had not previously been able to find. When, at the beginning of the recession, a report about the financial crisis’ impact on Yalies focused on the few hundred students who could no longer work at Lehman Brothers instead of the millions of erased pensions or low- and middle-income jobs lost because of Wall Street speculation, an article was published a day later reminding those same students that all was not lost and that they could seek “alternatives to the finance jobs they once coveted.” The piece forced students to focus on the world around them rather than solely themselves and their job prospects.
When an up close was published towards the end of the recession in the spring of 2009, titled “The recession at Yale,” the piece not only explored the endowment and budget, but mentioned the recession’s effects on New Haven businesses and elevated the New Haven employees bearing the brunt of recession-era cutbacks. On the same day, another up close was published by the City Desk exploring local labor unions and labor relations between the University and its unions.
The shift in focus of the News’ reporting represents the growth of a newspaper entering its 130th year and reflects the goals of the first managing board of the new century; to stay true to its tradition of journalistic integrity while reshaping and improving by casting “an even wider net over [New Haven and City Hall] while focusing on the interactions between the University and its host city.” Those goals were not always met in pieces published during the Great Recession. Reporting on the corporatization of Yale University, supply shortages in New Haven food banks and City Hall’s efforts to aid the unemployed were published alongside editorials like “In downturn, an opportunity for Yale,” which were similar to pieces published after the 1929 market crash encouraging Yale students to profit from the downturn. The editorial applauds the University’s efforts to continue faculty hiring, but brags about its endowment “only eclipsed by Harvard” and the prospects for its unmatched fund managed by David Swensen, at a time of financial crisis and economic difficulty for the rest of the nation. The News’ vaunts about Yale’s endowment would continue well into the 2010s, with reports of the University’s rising endowment returns bringing its value to all-time highs while the country was still recovering from the recession and millions remained unemployed. Though the News is expected to write about the University, these reports did not put Yale’s gains into the context of the national despair. From The New York Times and Washington Post to local newspapers and stations across the country, news organizations — including the Yale Daily News — covered the Great Recession from the perspective of big businesses, Wall Street bankers and government officials. A study by The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 76 percent of economic stories in the early months of 2009 were focused on New York and Washington D.C., 55 percent of coverage was driven by the actions of government and business leaders and that less than a quarter of economic stories in the press were original reporting — leaving a combined two percent of all economic stories to be driven by ordinary citizens and labor unions. What’s more, as the financial situation of Wall Street stabilized with the passage of a $700 billion government bailout, media coverage declined even as the after-effects of the financial crisis were beginning to take hold in most of the country. While it is difficult to collect such data from the Yale Daily News, it does not take long to notice similarities between the study’s findings and the News’ archived coverage.
The City Desk, for example, told the story of the recession from the perspective of federal and city government officials and, like the rest of the News, focused on the experience of Wall Street financiers and speculators. Like the national media, Yale Daily News economic stories published in 2009 focused primarily on the Obama administration’s $831 billion federal stimulus package, the New Haven City budget and the condition on Wall Street with less concern about the condition of “Main Street” and the inclusion of individuals in the city.
Some of these editorial decisions could be attributed to the sensationalization of modern journalism and the tendency of 21st century reporters to tell the news that can get the most clicks and reads, but this coverage hurt impoverished communities and communities of color the most. The Yale Daily News is a college newspaper, but its responsibilities go far beyond the University. It is a storied publication that continues to train future generations of skilled reporters, great journalists and devoted leaders. Its history is not perfect, but the News of today can learn from the mistakes of the not-too-distant past and improve its coverage of marginalized communities and economic crises, especially now as the country prepares for the growing possibility of another recession.