Okay, let’s see if I can explain this without getting too meta.
A few days back, former Seattle Weekly columnist Geov Parrish posted to HA a kinda-sorta expose of an expose of an expose, highlighting a blog post by Real Change executive director Tim Harris, criticizing an anticipated hit piece in the Weekly. Harris wrote:
So this is what journalism at the new Seattle Weekly has come to. The paper owned and staffed by out-of-towners is out to do an expose on the fact that three or four vendors make as much as $24K a year selling Real Change. With no benefits.
At that rate, they can afford a cheap apartment. Hold the fucking presses!
This apparently pissed off Weekly managing editor Mike Seely, who dismissed Harris’s post as a “singularly bizarre pre-emptive diatribe,” and poked fun at the “sheer presumptive idiocy” of an angry letter aimed at an article that had yet to run.
Well, Huan Hsu’s article is now online, and… it’s not so bad. But then, it’s not so good either. In the end, there really isn’t much there there, though despite Seely’s pre-emptive prickliness, it’s pretty much what Harris predicted: “Not All the Peddlers of Seattle’s Homeless Paper Are Homeless.”
Hmm. To steal a line from Harris: hold the fucking presses.
It hadn’t occurred to me that some customers might feel cheated to learn that their Real Change vendor was not actually homeless. Personally, I would find it gratifying to know that my occasional purchase helped some unfortunate fellow off the streets. Call me naive, but I thought that was the whole idea.
So I’m not sure I get what Hsu is getting at. Some vendors are successful? A handful actually earn enough money to pay the rent? And that’s a bad thing?
I suppose I didn’t know that Real Change called its turf system a “turf system,” but it was pretty obvious that something like that existed. And I now know that most venders make 65 cents on every 1 dollar sale, but that the three top vendors each month get a nickel discount. Um, all in all, not exactly what one might call an “expose.” I mean, imagine if Real Change had done a 1600-word “expose” on how the Weekly used trucks to drop off bundles of papers at area coffee shops… that would be about as fascinating as this piece was.
Still, I think Geov’s presumptive sentiments hold true:
What pisses me off is when anyone – anyone – tries to make a buck or ingratiate themselves (e.g., with dimwitted readers) by pissing on the powerless. It’s one thing to lampoon the idiocies of Seattle liberalism; I might not agree with it (or think it’s well done), but it’s fair game. But trying to manufacture a “scandal” involving one of the few activist-initiated social service projects in town that truly does help people and change lives, all the time, is pure bullshit. Or, in Harris’ words, “What the Fuck”?
What the fuck indeed.
See, there’s a reason why you never read scathing reviews of small, inexpensive, family-owned neighborhood restaurants. What exactly would be the point? The regular patrons already like it well enough to keep coming back, while few outside the neighborhood are ever going to stop in anyway. So why waste column inches slamming some mom and pop lunch shack?
Likewise, absent a genuine scandal or a profound disagreement over the strategy (or goal) of helping the homeless get back on their feet, why on earth would you ever want to do anything but a fluff piece on Real Change? Maybe — just maybe — the Weekly might have succeeded in getting a handful of readers to think twice before forking over their dollar. But to what end? Hsu clearly set out in search of a controversy, and didn’t find one. That’s okay. Lots of stories don’t pan out. So why run the piece?
There is no shortage of important stories to write about, and plenty of worthy targets out there to skewer, but the Weekly chose to pursue an angle they knew could damage public support for an organization dedicated to helping the homeless. Huh. I have nothing against slaughtering sacred cows, but I’d hope the Weekly would view it as more than a blood sport.
Which brings me back to the springboard of this post, and one final observation. Seely sniped at Harris for his “singularly bizarre pre-emptive diatribe,” but from a PR perspective, there was nothing bizarre or singular about it. If Harris was expecting a negative piece in the Weekly (and from his questions, Hsu clearly wasn’t writing fluff,) why on earth should he wait until after it runs to refute it? Harris successfully got his message out in advance of publication, and quite possibly may even have succeeded in softening Hsu’s final edit.
That’s just smart PR. That’s being proactive.
And considering the fact that Harris’s efforts generated two supportive posts on HA, a handful of presumptive letters to the editor, and a preemptive prepublication post by Seely, I’d say it worked.
Chuck Taylor chimes in over at Crosscut:
We’ll never know how Harris’ preemptive spin helped shape the article — there’s no way it didn’t. If I was the editor, I’d have made extra damn sure there weren’t any problems with it, that it was factually ironclad and fair.
Exactly. Erica also picks it up over on Slog.
So all in all, a pretty effective “pre-emptive diatribe” on the part of Harris.