Hotel story illustrates value of good reporting

August 21, 2005|By Paul Moore

WHEN THE City Council voted Monday to approve $305 million in public financing for a new convention center hotel, it followed the scenario that The Sun's Doug Donovan had reported four days earlier.

This demonstrates what good reporting is supposed to do: Tell readers what is likely to happen, and then put it in context - in this instance, what the hotel deal meant for taxpayers.

For much of the summer, the hotel story - the question of whether the city should create a corporation to develop, own and operate a hotel next to the Convention Center - has been one of the most important issues facing the City Council and Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration.

This is more than a debate over public vs. private financing, bond ratings, revenue projections and potential community revitalization. It is a story about money and politics.

A continuing story like this must reflect all aspects of the issue if it is to make sense to readers, because for many people articles about hotel projects can be as compelling as watching paint dry.

By this spring, as the lengthy hotel planning process finally moved toward the City Council (with strong support from the O'Malley administration), it was clear to Sun editors that politics were about to become a significant part of the debate.

The newspaper then assigned reporter Jill Rosen, who covers downtown development, to oversee the daily reporting with assistance from Donovan, who covers City Hall.

Despite a broad array of questions raised by The Sun over the next few months, the newspaper did not change the course set by the city's political and economic development leaders. That was not the newspaper's intention.

But The Sun's coverage did have a significant impact: It helped politicians, business leaders and citizens better understand the opportunities and risks presented by the planned hotel.

The coverage also helped force political leaders to recognize the needs of other city neighborhoods, and about $72 million was eventually promised for community revitalization programs.

The reporting was timely and the articles received the prominent display they deserved. Giving the continuing story such visibility should make those guiding the project more accountable for its success or failure because readers are more aware of the issues.

Over the past few months, Rosen and Donovan have covered everything from relatively small Planning Commission hearings to the first indications that community groups were determined to press for greater neighborhood investments in return for supporting the hotel.

By July, the story began heating up. Rosen wrote a detailed piece that showed how many council members were grappling with seemingly conflicting information about the project's financial feasibility. Two articles in late July described the neighborhood redevelopment funding plans, which helped change the minds of several council members who had been opposed to the project.

The reporting by Rosen and Donovan on the political infighting and deal making was a big part of the story. City editor Howard Libit said: "Doug's sources on the City Council helped him get a fix on how the O'Malley administration secured the support of two key votes in the final days - including the specific promises of neighborhood projects."

On the weekend before the crucial council vote, Rosen and Donovan produced articles that provided needed context for readers.

Rosen wrote a front-page article that examined the successes and failures of other convention hotels around the country. "Mixed reviews on city-owned hotels" (Aug. 14) examined the experience of cities such as St. Louis, Houston, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Overland Park, Kan., and noted: "The convention market that Baltimore wants to further invest in is anything but a sure thing."

O'Malley criticized this article Tuesday in an e-mail to business and community leaders. "The article ignores market factors that make or break hotels," he wrote. "And amazingly, in 2,400 words, there is no mention of the facts that we have another publicly financed hotel in Baltimore - the Hyatt Regency - that is doing well, returning $3 million annually from the city's investment."

The Sun's Libit said: "The mayor's comments clearly show that the story struck a nerve."

Donovan's Monday piece, "Council finds its own voice on hotel," described how the hotel debate illustrates that the City Council had become a more powerful force in city politics.

Reader John Manna said: "Good story. Finally some backbone from the City Council - even though it is for politically selfish (what an oxymoron) reasons. How can it be that Baltimore, with its explosive growth, can only obtain one private bid to finance this hotel?"

Rosen said later: "Supporters of the hotel plan often seemed uncomfortable with questions being raised and comparisons being made because they thought they were negative."

Asking questions is what reporters do. There should be more scrutiny as the project moves forward - to the entire community's benefit.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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