When I am not blogging bi-weekly about green buildings in New York at this space, I am writing for any other place that will have me, about whatever stories they’re interested in having me write. Sometimes, this can work out great — an editor emails to ask me if I’m interested in writing about the space shuttle program, and I am, and then I do it. For the most part, though, the ideas have to start with me, and they have to be the sort of thing that editors are interested in running. Their criteria for a good story, by and large, are different from mine — I might prefer to write a long essay about why the New Jersey Nets make me sad, say, while they might prefer something that people would be interested in reading. And while the places you go to read things online are still blessedly miles ahead of the nonstop frowny-face moron-carnival on television (unless you read The Huffington Post), the way that “things people would be interested in reading” is defined does not necessarily defer to the better angels of judgment. It has more to do with what’s trending on Google, and with things that can be given punchy SEO headlines, and with reporting things “controversial” enough to attract a bunch of comments and commenters. There are myriad examples of this at work — HuffPo’s corny and unending pursuit of Google trending topics; Fox Nation‘s hilariously cynical gambit of running bone-dry wire-service news stories with headlines designed to enflame the Tea Party scooter brigade — and they are all terrible.
But they are all, also, examples of the market imperatives of (online) journalism at work — because a site like The Drudge Report does several times the daily traffic of the Chicago Tribune’s site, getting an article linked on Drudge is a very big deal in terms of pageviews and ad revenue. And because Drudge is biased towards a certain type of story — one that is right-leaning, and preferably one exposing outrageous and hypocritical conduct by someone or something liberal — the publications that need his links adopt that bias in turn. Of course, whether a story engages or enrages has always mattered and will always matter — the idea, after all, is to get people reading and keep them reading. Where things get out of whack — and where “writing an intriguingly contrarian story” lapses into “trolling for clicks n’ links” — is when the story in question is not actually a story.
Which leads nicely into this facepalm-y anti-masterpiece of a story by Sheryl DeVore of the Chicago Tribune, which asks the never-before-asked question “are green buildings killing all our birds?” DeVore’s thesis, which is simple in the extreme — simple as in uncomplicated, and simple as in the old formulation for a-little-bit-slow — is that because the FBI Headquarters in Chicago (that lovely parking lot-ringed structure you see above) has glass walls, and because birds occasionally fly into those curtain walls and die, and because the headquarters is LEED Platinum certified… well, you can see where this is going. “The FBI building isn’t the only LEED-certified structure to cause problems for migratory birds,” DeVore writes. “Some of the more than 33,000 certified LEED buildings in the United States use glass to bring in natural light and save on energy. All that glass can confuse birds.” And all these ass-backwards syllogisms can confuse a reader, as well.
DeVore goes on to explore the world of bird-friendly buildings, LEED’s planned pilot-program on bird-friendly guidelines for green buildings, and highlights architect Jeanne Gang’s striking Aqua Building in Chicago, which won an award for its bird-friendliness from PETA and is (wait for it) also pursuing LEED certification. DeVore doesn’t mention this, which isn’t the biggest deal, but isn’t really a good look, either. Now, while the piece itself does not have the sort of trollish headline that Fox Nation may yet apply to it — “Sickening Green Buildings Murder Birds, Delight Obama, Pelosi, Mussolini” — the more internet-facing Tribune Cityscapes blog post on it definitely does, and adds the memorably reductive/wrongheaded lede “You might think that all ‘green’ buildings would discourage birds from flying into the structures and killing themselves. But you’d be wrong.” Taken together, it’s also a pretty good example of a non-story that, while it has the outlines of a man-bites-dog/liberal-hypocrisy-exposed lump of Drudge Bait (green buildings aren’t kind to nature at all!), is also crucially lacking the things that might make it, you know, an actual story.
Which is especially frustrating because there actually is a story here, and there actually are ways to make buildings — green and brown and otherwise — less dangerous to birds. That these tend to be prosaic things such as turning out the lights might have something to do with why DeVore leaves them to the second-to-last paragraph of her story; they’re not especially catchy, at least relative to the troll-ier stuff about how green buildings, despite the protestations of nanny-stating limousine-liberal greentards, are actually secret mass murder machines that will not stop until cities are free of birds, and trees bare and silent. At which point the buildings will raise our taxes, or whatever.
At Treehugger, Lloyd Alter manages to touch upon the ways in which buildings can be less dangerous to birds and critique DeVore’s story. It takes just a few sentences to pull the whole thing apart. “A building that is covered in glass is not necessarily LEED certified,” Alter writes. “In fact, glass is the de facto standard skin for every crappy energy-sucking environmental disaster of a building in North America. This isn’t a LEED problem, it is a universal building problem. Chicago, New York and Toronto all have guidelines for reducing bird kills, ranging from the basic and obvious (turn out the lights at night) to more sophisticated ones, such as using fritted glass (glass with ceramic dots or patterns baked on). Since fritted glass significantly reduces solar gain, saving lots of energy, it tends to be used more in LEED certified buildings.”
Of course, the sort of piece that explains all this and lays out solutions is what generally gets tabbed “service journalism.” It’s a lot harder to hang a sexy headline on these sorts of pieces, which is one area in which they are at a disadvantage relative to shoddy fake-muckrake pseudo-exposes. On the positive side, that explain-y, service-y, dutiful stuff is generally correct.