the wrong focus

In this New York Times article, the perspective of workers is absent. That's a huge mistake.

In journalism school, I was taught that a good story usually involves a conflict of some kind.

I was taught many things in journalism school, but this one is good advice: People are more interested in story plots with conflict than without. And there are plenty of conflicts in journalism: Renters fighting with landlords over rent increases. Large businesses and unions clashing over workplace conditions. Nation-state governments disagreeing over everything from natural resources to who counts as a citizen.

Sometimes, there’s a clear good guy and bad guy. Most of the time, though, life is a lot more complicated, and nuances matter. Finding those nuances and writing about them appropriately is a tricky but necessary part of a journalist’s job.

But just because you have to consider the nuances, it doesn’t mean that you always have to find them — or come up with one of your own if none plainly exist.


Many people I follow on Twitter have criticized this New York Times story, “Some Small Businesses That Got Aid Fear the Rules Too Much to Spend It,” for giving sympathy to small-business owners as they hold onto cash from government loans given out during the present coronavirus pandemic.

The article reports the stories of several businesses that have received these loans but are holding onto the cash while trying to figure out how to spend it. A few of the business owners are quoted as complaining about the lack of clarity and clear guidance from the government about how loan funds are to be spent.

The story begins with the founder of a woodworking company, George Evageliou:

When a $192,000 loan from the federal government’s small-business aid program arrived in his bank account last month, George Evageliou, the founder of a custom woodworking company, felt like one of the lucky ones.

Under the program’s rules, Mr. Evageliou has eight weeks from the day he received the cash to spend it. But nearly three weeks after the clock started on April 14, he hasn’t used a penny.

His quandary? If Mr. Evageliou wants his loan to be forgiven, he must spend three-quarters of it paying the 16 workers he laid off from Urban Homecraft, his Brooklyn business, in late March. But bringing his workers back now, when they can’t work in their fabrication shop or install woodwork in clients’ homes, won’t help his business. And if New York City remains shut when his eight weeks are up in mid-June, Mr. Evageliou would have to lay off his employees again — something he wants to spare them.

The government has “made this so hard to use,” he said. “It starts to feel like a lose-lose situation.”

[…]

Now many of the small businesses that did get loans are sitting on the money, unsure about whether and how to spend it. That’s compromising the effectiveness of a program meant to help stabilize the country’s reeling economy.

Some owners don’t see the point of hiring back workers when business is so slow. Others chafe at having to use the money within eight weeks, when they would like to keep the financial cushion for longer. And many of the owners are confused about whether they have any flexibility. They would rather use the cash to retool their operations for an altered world or buy protective equipment for workers, but the rules require them to spend it on specific expenses, like payroll.

The criticism: The Paycheck Protection Program, enacted by Congress, was meant to support the workers, not their employers. By focusing upon the plight of the business owners without including this context, the story reads as though it is sympathizing with the difficulties of the small-business owners by giving legitimacy to the idea that this government-assisted loan program is meant to support them.

There are some good parts. One section that caught my attention was when the Times reported on the worries of one business owner over the legal documents involved, which weren’t prepared properly because of how quickly the program had been put in place:

Since the S.B.A. has not provided lenders with customized application forms, many banks are using a generic document with provisions that do not apply to the paycheck program.

Dutchess Maye, the owner of eduConsulting Firm, an educational services provider in Raleigh, N.C., received a contract from her bank that made no mention of having her $20,000 loan forgiven.

Ms. Maye, who plans to use the money for payroll, balked at signing a legal document that didn’t seem to describe the forgivable loan she thought she was getting. Her business has no debt, and the idea of incurring any — especially as the economy is nose-diving — spooked her.

“I felt it was predatory,” she said.

This part of the story is meaningful: Because the program was put together so quickly, banks, lenders and regulators are unprepared for the particularities of the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s causing uncertainty and worry for small-business owners, who are being asked to sign written agreements that don’t match the terms they’re expecting, and are don’t have the money necessary to pay lawyers if these loan documents becomes a problem in the future.

But this point was buried within the article, right before another segue into the story of a chain of bars that had laid off their bartenders as the pandemic hit but kept their managers, only to furlough the managers after receiving the money and keep the funds in the bank.


After that one part, it’s hard to say good things about this article. It feels rushed and under-reported. There are quotes from business owners, from bankers and lenders, and a statement from a Small Business Administration spokesperson, but the perspective of the workers is noticeably absent. There is no mention of any of the workers laid off by these businesses and their plight while their former employers hold onto money that was intended for them.

Having interviewed business owners and executives during journalism school, I would not be surprised if these owners declined to provide the contact information for their former employees, making it difficult for the reporters to contact them.

I also know that my instructors would not have accepted this as an excuse not to have interviewed them: In the age of the Internet, it is fairly easy to find employees of any business by looking through LinkedIn, Facebook, and other publicly-available sources.

If I had been editing this story, I would have asked for the perspective of the workers. If it was unjustifiably challenging to contact any employee for their perspective, I’d have added a sentence to that effect: “The Times attempted to contact several former employees of the business, all of whom were either unreachable or declined to comment.”


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It’s my first post! Let me know what you think in replies, and thanks for reading~!

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