Last month, the Seattle Times’ Project Homeless — a special initiative that focuses on the region’s ongoing homelessness crisis — quietly announced the dissolution of its community advisory board.
In a short email obtained by Real Change that was sent to the remaining board members on June 29, Project Homeless Editor Molly Harbarger wrote, “We recently revisited the mission of the board when it was convened five years ago and realized that it has fulfilled its mission.”
When the project launched in 2017, it was initially slated to be only a two-year initiative. The board, involved from the get-go, had the goal of providing community feedback on the project’s articles and overall direction. Funding for Project Homeless comes from a number of notable local companies and nonprofits, including the Seattle Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Seattle Mariners and Starbucks.
In an emailed response to questions about the decision to dissolve the community advisory board, Jonathan Martin, investigations editor for the Seattle Times and the founding editor of Project Homeless, described the board’s work as “invaluable,” adding that “each member brought an informed and diverse opinion.”
Real Change Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy, who alongside Real Change Executive Director Camilla Walter replaced Real Change Founder Tim Harris on the Project Homeless community advisory board, offered a less rosy picture of the board’s composition.
“Seattle Times staff, [Seattle Times] editorial [board] staff, Real Change and [former Seattle City Councilmember] Tim Burgess — and then [representatives from] the foundations that fund Project Homeless — that was the advisory board,” she said.
Burgess is now the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Mayor Bruce Harrell, which caused him to step back from the board. McCoy added that, as far as she could tell, the board did not include people with lived experience with homelessness. The Seattle Times did not respond to a question about whether the board included any members with lived experience with homelessness. An agenda for a board meeting in May 2019 obtained by Real Change indicated that it did include a youth advocate, as well as a representative from the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
The board did feature a lot of Frank Blethen, the Seattle Times’ outspoken publisher and CEO, McCoy said.
“In the two or three meetings I was in, it was definitely also a bully pulpit for the [Seattle Times] editorial board, specifically Frank Blethen,” McCoy recalled. “I remember the first meeting I was there, it was very clear that Frank Blethen deferred a lot to Tim Burgess. [He] would always ask Tim what he thought: What did [he] think of this article? What does he think of the direction of this city?”
This was in early 2021, around when Compassion Seattle, a group led by Burgess, had proposed Charter Amendment 29, McCoy said. The measure would have enshrined encampment sweeps in the city’s charter — declaring that there was “no right” to camp in parks or public spaces — while offering an unfunded mandate to build 1,000 new emergency shelter beds. Homelessness advocates were incensed over the proposal, arguing that it effectively criminalized homelessness. McCoy, who was overseeing Real Change’s “No on Charter Amendment 29” campaign at the time, said Blethen invited Burgess to speak about the proposed amendment.
Additionally, McCoy noted that Blethen was very concerned with the Seattle Times’ reader survey.
“Frank also used one of the meetings as an opportunity to go into the reader survey — the reader survey [audience] is predominantly home-owning, upper-middle-class or upper-class white men and women — and to talk about how that informs what they do. And how people want more coverage on crime and homelessness, and how we are too permissive with these policies,” McCoy said.
His other focus, she said, was on accountability, specifically around city spending.
“It was definitely more about oversight over how the city council was spending money. Not the mayor: the city council.”
Did that focus affect Project Homeless’ coverage? No, according to Harbarger.
“Advisory board members are just that. They have no special access to stories, to Times reporters or to other sections of Times. We bought them coffee, they gave us feedback,” she wrote, in the same email response as Martin.
As noted in the April 13 Real Change article “Telling the same old story at Third and Pine,” compared to coverage from other sections of the Seattle Times, Project Homeless reporting has been noticeably more nuanced about and sensitive to the experiences of unhoused people.
McCoy said the main Project Homeless reporters at the time, Sydney Brownstone and Scott Greenstone, were not present at the advisory board meetings. She praised the work of Brownstone and Greenstone, as well as that of their predecessor, Vernal Coleman. Ultimately, she said, the quality of coverage depends a lot on who the reporters are.
In the email announcing the end of the advisory board, Harbarger wrote, “Now that Project Homeless has matured and built institutional knowledge, we realized that we have taken a less hands-on approach with the board in recent years. Sunsetting the board will allow us to still hear your expertise by freeing up our team to create deeper source relationships with you all.”
Asked if turnover — Coleman left for the Boston Globe in 2019, Brownstone is now on the paper’s investigations team and Greenstone recently went to NPR — has affected the project’s institutional knowledge, Harbarger said no.
“Between our current reporters and editor, we have many years of experience covering homelessness and poverty issues,” she said in the emailed response.
As for the idea that the end of the community advisory board could negatively impact the project’s accountability, she strongly disagreed:
“We do not have an absence of direct community input. We are in contact with our community literally every day, whether through our reporting processes, through the significant outreach, events, feedback solicitation and engagement work we do as part of our mission or through our publicly advertised names, phone numbers, physical address[es] and email addresses.”
In McCoy’s opinion, having an open channel to the community might be better than listening to the board anyway. While Blethen talked frequently about accountability, she said it didn’t seem like it was to the community.
During one meeting conducted via Zoom, McCoy recalled asking, “You are talking about accountability with all these programs and public money being spent, but is it accountability to the clients? Is it accountability to the voters?”
The question went unanswered. She checked, but she was not on mute.
Read more of the July 20-26, 2022 issue.