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We had a choice to make. The reporter at the other end of the line had some off-the-record information about a company that was apparently pulling off a scam. It wasn’t illegal, just unethical – and no one would speak on the record about the issue. Nonetheless, the reporter called the company and asked the press representative whether the company had a comment on the allegations. He did. He denied them.
The problem was, the company was denying something that no one in the story as written had accused it of doing. So we found ourselves in the classic tabloid journalism position: “Senator Soandso denies that he beat his wife.” No one charged him with beating his wife, but he denied it, so there must be something to it, right?
We finally decided that such guilt-by-association tactics weren’t consistent with fair play or with Habitat’s mission for the last 30 years: giving board members news they could use. Accusing a company, indirectly and with nothing on the record, helped no one. Better to tell our readers that this unethical practice was going on than simply getting involved in name-calling.
As Walter Cronkite used to say, “That’s the way it is.” Indeed, over a period of three decades, Habitat has been engaged in the process of helping boards educate themselves in the best way to run their buildings. But we didn’t always have that focus. When I started working here in 1982, the second issue was in production. It was a different animal altogether: the cover, featuring a window curtain blowing in the wind, with patterned wallpaper in the background, made it look like we were a home improvement magazine.
The stories inside further highlighted the schizophrenic nature of the beast: although there were stories on mortgages, energy, and managers that would seem right at home in Habitat 2012, there were also features on doorknobs, repotting plants, and buying paint – not to mention a simple-minded piece of (serialized) fiction, “The Story of Lofthome,” featuring such stylized characters as Silas Loftlord, Sitting Duck, and Clarence Mason (Clarence Darrow crossed with Perry Mason, I guess). A later issue even featured a wine column.
A lightbulb lit up over our heads only after we started getting reader responses like this one: “I love the stuff about running my building. Why do you waste space with those home improvement stories? I can get them – and a wine column, too – from other magazines. And they do them better. But what I can’t get are stories about subletting policy, boiler repair, and board dynamics. You do that best.”
Well, you didn’t have to hit us with a hammer (a simple slap in the face would do), and we changed our focus on assisting boards in running their buildings.
It hasn’t been easy. Over the years, we have encountered resistance from some corners: while many professionals welcomed the opportunity to educate (“An informed board is an effective board” was a favorite saying of the late Charles Rappaport, longtime leader of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives & Condominiums and an early supporter of the magazine), many others were wary or even downright hostile. A number of managers (especially in New Jersey) refused to promote Habitat to their boards, presumably because they didn’t like “educated” boards interfering with the way they ran their properties.
One professional once joked to me: “I would tell them about some topic they should act on, but they would ignore me. Then Habitat would write about it and they would get on my case about that same topic. It was like if it hadn’t appeared in Habitat, it hadn’t happened.”
While many often referred to us as a trade book (and called us “The Habitat”), we never focused primarily on the trade, instead concentrating on board members and their stories. The board was and is our primary concern. That became clear when 83 managers were indicted on corruption charges in 1994. Although our main source of advertising revenue came from management firms, we felt our first duty was to our readers, giving them all the news they could use. We printed names of all the managers and firms affected and wrote a series of articles over several months on the ongoing scandal.
I remember that our coverage incensed many managers, some of whom felt we were not supporting the industry that had made us. (One large management firm pulled all its advertising with that very charge; three years later, the principal of that firm was indicted, convicted, and imprisoned for taking kickbacks from contractors.) But managers – or the other professionals who advertise in the magazine – didn’t make us. Although we appreciate (and thank them) for their loyal support over the years, it is the readers we serve who have turned the magazine into a 30-year success story. And I like to think that’s because, in some small way, we have tried to make their lives in a “thankless” position less burdensome.
Thank you, all.