COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW — April 29, 2019 — Last September, during a heavy downpour in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, Luis Sánchez Almonte was buried alive. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Sánchez Almonte, who was 47, had been living in northern Manhattan since 2016 and working construction jobs to send money back home. He was digging at the base of a 30-foot wall when it gave way, covering Sánchez Almonte in mud and debris. In the hours that followed, more than a hundred firefighters arrived on the scene—along with search dogs, listening devices, and assorted heavy machinery—but the rain hampered recovery efforts. It was not until the next day that Sánchez Almonte was dug out and pronounced dead.
Jere Hester was in the newsroom at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, at the City University of New York, when news of the accident flashed on TV. An awful tragedy, he thought. Over the coming days, Hester, then the director of the school’s NYCity News Service, found the story sticking with him.
The incident had occurred not far from the one-bedroom apartment where Hester grew up. It also reminded him of a story he had worked on in 1999 as an editor at the New York Daily News, about a construction worker from Mexico who fell through the floor of a construction site in Williamsburg and drowned in three feet of wet concrete. Back then, Hester and the Daily News crew—along with journalists from a host of other city publications—did what Hester says journalists are supposed to do when something like this happens. They pestered the Buildings Department. They hounded the developers. They wrote columns and follow-up reports. They advocated that justice come down on a builder who, it turned out, was no stranger to workplace accidents. The event even inspired a book by Jimmy Breslin, the beloved city columnist, called The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez (2002), in which Breslin excoriated local corruption and American immigration policy.
In the case of Sánchez Almonte, however, after initial coverage of the accident, weeks passed and then? Nothing—at least not as far as Hester saw in the press. Community leaders had told reporters that safety measures at the worksite were substandard. An investigation by the Buildings Department was ostensibly underway. But soon it seemed as if the death had never happened. “You walk down pretty much any block in this city, and you see building sites,” Hester says. “But we don’t report on these things like we used to.” It’s not that there aren’t still great reporters out there, he adds. “It’s because they’re stretched too thin and on to the next story.”
Days before, Hester, who is 52, had signed on to become editor in chief of The City, a new digital news nonprofit that launched this month with the aim of investing in local accountability journalism. Hester was on the lookout for stories that he believed deserved better coverage. It was not hard to find examples.
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