Part of the frustration with reading local daily media is, as HA denizens know, the failure of perspective. It’s sort of like hiring a contractor to build you a deck, and the guy shows up with the tools and supplies and lumber and says, with a wave goodbye, “Figure it out yourself, bub.” So when the P-I and The Times both run stories that a judge has released police reports on Councilman McIver’s arrest, one would kind of like to know why the reports were not released in the first place. That might be a topic worth explaining. And why, if they were withheld before, they’re being released now. This all falls under the heading of media transparency, which means media as well as the cops and courts should be working for you and me, the reader and the public, and not for the privileged and powerful. What the McIver case has become is a poster child for domestic abuse prosecution. The Weekly stirred this pot a few weeks ago, but dailies updates on the case show almost no sense of a larger context: OK, reader, you figure it out. Goldy and I have both observed that in another metro this probably would not be the case; it certainly isn’t in S.F. and Philly.
The housing crisis is another huge local story with virtually no enlightened reporting. Yes, we’ve got the guys showing up with the boards and bricks. The P-I took a stab last Saturday, even including a nearly useless “What’s A Townhouse?” sidebar, and again today with a report on Seattle slipping from No. 1 in housing price increases. One nugget worth noting: “The 4.7 percent change is healthier and more sustainable than the double-digit appreciation the Seattle area saw in prior years, Crellin said Tuesday.” Funny, I never saw a reference to “unhealthy” and “not sustainable” in real-estate stories during the boom years.
To be fair, Seattle is a trailing edge indicator. Housing nation-wide is in a precipitous plummet, down 4.5 percent for the quarter in the worst drop since at least 1988. It was almost spooky during my recent Bay Area visit to hear and see almost no signs of home construction. For years the sawing and hammering and cement trucking has been incessant and pervasive. If Seattle goes as S.F. goes, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The problem with stat-based reporting is the unavoidable data latency. No one walking around Seattle’s once-hot neighborhoods actually believes prices are going up 5 percent. They’re already in decline, and with all the still-unfinished (an unpainted, girder-visible condo on Phinney that just got glass in the windows has a hilarious banner, “Move in this December!!!!”) housing coming on the market, they’re not going back up any time soon. Year-to-year comparisons disguise this, of course, giving no sense of street trends and acceleration. (The stat to watch for, which apparently the locals don’t understand, is number of sales and time on market. Housing prices may hold, but if there’s huge inventory and little turnover, as can happen in a tony neighborhood, the real truth is a cancerous psychology.) And then there’s a bogus inflation index (Krugman has been nailing this in the NYT, pointing out how figures ignore staples like bread and gas), which undermines supposedly inflation-adjusted graphs like this one, skewing the housing boom even more.
Media don’t really want to report dire real-estate news, since housing ads are one of the few revenue streams still buttressing the news business. So it comes as little surprise that the big story is being ignored: How does all this affect those bullish transportation and housing forecasts, fed in big part by Mayor Nickels’ insatiable boosterism of 50,000 new jobs and 22,000 additional housing units. For a stampede, I haveta say it’s awfully quiet out there.
Finally, as a coda to our Cyber Monday skepticism, there’s today’s joy and exultation over a 21 percent sales jump, put in true perspective only if you factor in a 38 percent increase in buyers. So sales increasing, but number of buyers increasing even more, means…guess you’ll just have to figure that out for yourself, bub.