Communities

A Wild Media Experiment To Fix San Francisco’s Homeless Crisis

by Jesse Hirsch

May 17, 2016
Credit: tbo.com

Tech, in all its iterations and corollaries, tends to drown out most conversation about the current state of San Francisco. Are young tech workers destroying the city’s cultural and demographic core? Is it a bubble? What’s up with those Google buses? A slice of toast costs how much now?

But virtually all of San Francisco’s media outlets -- newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, blog -- want you to focus on something else, at least for a day. San Francisco is plagued with an epic and persistent homeless problem, and it’s time to start talking about it. For one day, on June 29, media competitors are forgetting all their traditional rivalries to blitz the city with homeless coverage.

“It’s like a proof of principle for the city,” says Jon Steinberg, editor in chief of San Francisco magazine. “If all these independent businesses and individuals can set aside their differences and break down their little fiefdoms, just think of what our government agencies could do if they followed suit.”

In 2016, it’s fair to say that media is fractured -- consumers access news in an unprecedented number of formats, from a vast array of outlets. The idea here is to flood the city with coverage from almost all of these news sources, so no one can avoid thinking about the homeless. This project is the brainchild of Audrey Cooper, head editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. “The thought is, there is not anywhere you could turn that day where you aren’t forced to look at this,” says Michael Gray, enterprise and investigations editor at the Chronicle

Gray is Cooper’s point person in the newsroom. While she builds partnerships and tends to big-picture strategy, he will manage the reporters and stories his paper is devoting to the cause. Though there is one official day for the citywide media event, the Chronicle intends to focus on homeless issues for the entire week of June 29th. It’s a massive project, and there are a host of moving parts to wrangle.

“Instead of just bemoaning the fact that this problem exists,” says Gray, “we want to move the dialogue in another direction.”

At last count, 30 organizations had pledged their involvement. This includes all the local television and radio stations, the San Francisco Examiner (Chronicle’s daily competitor), SF-based Mother Jones magazine, even the local arms of Buzzfeed and Mashable. Every outlet will tackle the problem differently, but the collective effect will be a deluge. 

San Francisco’s homeless population approached 6,700 at last count, plus around 850 homeless youth. The problem is very apparent when you walk through many city neighborhoods, with de facto Hoovertowns lining scattered boulevards, pervasive smells of urine and feces, distressed individuals accosting passersby. Cooper told the New York Times a colorful tale of losing her cool when a homeless couple had sex in front of her infant child. It was a formative moment, part of her impetus for the entire project.

It’s not like the residents of San Francisco -- or its government agencies -- are unaware of the problem. This is common water cooler talk, but the tenor is often anecdotal, lacking in hope or meaningful analysis. (Sometimes it’s downright awful.) But the leaders of this project feel the problem is not endemic to the city -- progress can be achieved. “Instead of just bemoaning the fact that this problem exists,” says Gray, “we want to move the dialogue in another direction.”

The Chronicle has devoted much ink to homelessness in the past, but this time will be somewhat different. Instead of the classic journalistic approach of simply shining light on a problem, their reporters intend to present an array of potential solutions. They won’t purport to have all the answers, but they want to at least acknowledge the problem can be tackled.

Some outlets are shying from the Chronicle’s solutions-driven approach. Public radio affiliate KQED, another of the leaders in this project, plans to stick with what they are calling “pure journalism.” San Francisco magazine intends to provide political analysis -- “Something we’re good at,” says Steinberg -- as well as a huge, data-driven series of profiles of homeless individuals, produced in collaboration with outside partners.

“This is not just some West Coast hippie dippie thing,” says Steinberg. “San Francisco has the same kind of experienced and jaded journalists as you'll find anywhere. I’ve lived and worked in other cities -- including New York -- and I think so many places would jump at the chance to embrace this level of real journalism.”

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A Wild Media Experiment To Fix San Francisco’s Homeless Crisis