The New York Times Solves the Amazon HQ2 Puzzle: An Interview with Reporter Emily Badger

October 2, 2017

The Project - Episode #29

Of the hundreds of articles written about Amazon’s HQ2 search, only one publication has taken the bold step to apply the criteria outlined in Amazon’s public request for proposal and independently conduct its own search. That was The New York Times, which published “Dear Amazon: We Picked Your Headquarters for You” on September 9, 2017. The article has been widely read and created a storm of discussion on social media—so we decided to interview Emily Badger, the reporter behind the somewhat controversial piece. Here’s our conversation.

Patience Fairbrother (DCI): There have been literally hundreds of articles written about Amazon’s HQ2 search, but only one publication has actually taken the bold step to apply the criteria outlined in Amazon’s public request for proposal and independently conduct its own search.

Andy Levine (DCI): That was The New York Times that published “Dear Amazon, We Picked Your Headquarters For You” on September 9th. The article has been widely read and created a storm of discussion on social media.

Patience: So we decided it might be a good idea to interview the reporter who wrote the article, and that’s what you’ll hear in today’s episode. So welcome to episode 29 of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions. I’m Patience Fairbrother of Development Counsellors International.

Andy: And I’m Andy Levine, also with DCI, and Patience’s co-host of The Project.

Patience: So last week, Andy had a chance to interview Emily Badger, a San Francisco-based reporter for The New York Times. And here’s the interview.

Andy: So Emily Badger of The New York Times, we’re delighted to welcome you to The Project.

Emily Badger (New York Times): Thanks so much for having me.

Andy: I have some questions to ask you here. There are dozens of reporters writing about the Amazon HQ2 project. The New York Times was the only one that chose to mimic the company’s site selection process. I’m curious, how did this story idea come to you and your team?

Emily: Well, you know, everybody was immediately speculating last week about which places is Amazon going to choose, who would be on the shortlist. And, you know, anyone who just takes a quick perusal of their RFP could pretty quickly come up with, you know, a half dozen to a dozen places that would seem, on their face, to meet their criteria. You know, there’s not a ton of places in America that have a fairly good mass transit, that have a fairly good international airport, that already have a sizable tech labor pool. So there was quite a lot of speculation going on at the time, and we were interested in playing that game as well.

But what we sort of focused on at the upshot at The New York Times is that we do a lot of data journalism and, sort of, working with quantitative data about things. So we figured, you know, since they’re quite specific about all the criteria that they’re looking for in the RFP, that we could come up with existing data sets that would try to enable us to get at each of those criteria.

And, you know, I think it’s just sort of our instinct that it’s more fun to carry this to its logical conclusion and try to name a single winner than to do what several other media outlets have done. So I think that was sort of our intent, was to get people really thinking about how do we measure the differences between places, what are the differences between places, what do we think the company is looking for.

Andy: So in the world of site selection consulting, what you did is sort of create five site selection screens, and they were job growth and labor pool, quality of life, like that. And you basically went from 50 plus communities to 1. What was that research process like? Did that take a lot of time to pull that together, or was it a fairly quick process using publicly available data?

Emily: Some of their criteria were fairly easy to come up with data for. So, for instance, you know, they’re looking for a place with good public transit, and the American Community Survey has very good data on the share of workers who commute to work every day by public transit. So it was immediately obvious to us, for some of these criteria, what types of data we would use. There were a couple things in here that were particularly tricky. One of them, the very first filter that we used, we looked at job growth over the last decade…meaning effectively the full, last business cycle. And, you know, it doesn’t say in Amazon’s RFP anywhere, “We’re looking to go somewhere with good job growth.” But what they do say is, “We’re looking for a place that has a stable and good business climate for growth and innovation.”

So you could interpret that to mean a lot of different things. But in trying to figure out how we could translate that into something that we could measure, what we ultimately decided to use was, you know, job growth and Bureau of Labor statistics data over the last 10 years, in part because that’s a measure of where other businesses think the climate is good for growth. You know, where businesses have been growing is a good indication of where it is good for business growth.

And I would say that was probably one of the most controversial metrics that we used because right off the bat it’s eliminated some interesting cities would be really intriguing homes for Amazon, but have simply been growing more sluggishly than a lot of other places over the last decades. So that metric was a little tricky. The other one that we spent a lot of time trying to figure out was, you know, they’re interested in going to the kind of place that a tech worker would want to live in, and to me, this speaks to amenities. You know, urban economists talk a lot about the importance of amenities in cities, and amenities in luring young, educated workers to certain kinds of cities.

But amenities are really hard to measure because we’re talking here about, you know, a place that’s got good climate, that has great outdoor recreation, that has lots of restaurants, that, you know, has bars and cultural activities and things like that. And, you know, there’s no one great census dataset that covers all of that, but there’s been a fair amount of interesting work by economists trying to measure amenities.

So we relied on the work of a couple of economists in particular who had come up with an amenity index that we relied on. And sure enough, we also heard from a lot of people in Raleigh and Charlotte in particular who were upset that they did not fair very well on that index.

Andy: Yeah, I do wanna come back to the feedback in a moment, but before that…so Amazon is going about this in a very, very public way. What do you think is the company’s motivation behind that?

Emily: I would guess that they already have a very clear idea of what they want. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know exactly where they want to go, but I have to think that they have a very short list of places in mind, and it’s much, much shorter than the full universe of communities that have raised their hand and said, “Pick me, pick me, pick me.” So if you’re Amazon and you have a pretty good idea of what you want, what would be the purpose of opening this up everybody? You know, I suppose there’s a slight chance that some community that they don’t have in mind will just offer them some tremendous package that will change their thinking.

But I think the larger goal here is that they’re interested in getting, you know, not just the best location for the company, but the best deal that Amazon can get to go there. So a lot of the RFP asks communities, you know, “What kinds of incentives could you offer us? Not just at the municipal level, but the regional level, the state level. Tell us what the timelines for the approval process on amenities like that would be…or incentives, rather.”

They’re not super specific about exactly what kind of incentives they’re talking about, so I could imagine that this could take a number of different forms. I mean, there may be, you know, some locations that have government-owned land that could become part of a real estate deal in addition to sort of more traditional tax breaks, things like that. But I think that they’ve opened this up and made this so public because, quite frankly, I think they’re looking to create a bidding war.

Andy: So as of when I looked on this this morning, there were 269 comments on your story. First of all, is that unusually high, and can you summarize, sort of, what is some of the different elements of the feedback you’ve been getting from readers?

Emily: Yeah, you know, the comments on the story itself are probably a tiny fraction of all of the feedback we’ve gotten. I would say that there has been much more robust discussion on Facebook and on Twitter, on social media. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from readers. And, you know, it’s kind of funny. I didn’t think about it this way while we were working on it, but this project, it was a great way to anger readers pretty much everywhere in the country. You know, except Denver, you would think, but all of the reader emails that I’ve gotten from people in Denver are saying, “No, no, no. We don’t want this thing.

You know, housing costs are already rising here. We feel like the traffic congestion is already bad. Like, you know, please don’t tell them to come to our community. We don’t think that we can handle it. We don’t wanna become Seattle or San Francisco.” So in fact, as it turns out, lots and lots of people are unhappy with us, except for the mayor of Denver, who I think is quite pleased.

Andy: Okay, okay. No, that’s interesting. So let me ask you this. If Amazon actually selects Denver for its headquarters facility, how are you gonna celebrate? Are you gonna do some sort of incredible happy dance or victory lap around the office there?

Emily: Well, I will definitely be retweeting out our original project in the event that that happens several months from now. There will probably be a little bit of gloating. But I’ve also thought about this, and I think we’re going to claim victory if they pick Washington or if they pick Boston, among the other cities that we winnowed it down to. I mean, Denver is not head and shoulders the clear pick among all of these other cities. I mean, I think that there’s a group of places that are quite plausible. Denver just happened to sort of edge out among the others in the particular data that we used. But yeah, I would be delighted if they went to Denver, even though some of the readers I’ve heard from in Denver would not be.

Andy: Okay. I think that’s a good note to leave it on. Thank you so much for your time today, Emily. I appreciate it.

Patience: So Andy, what is the next step on Amazon’s HQ2 project?

Andy: Well, here’s what they say. On October 19th, all of the communities need to submit their response to the company’s RFP. It’s expected that somewhere between 100 to 200 communities will submit responses. And what they’re saying is that in early 2018, the company will actually make a final selection.

Patience: So we’ll be watching closely, as will the entire economic development and site selection community, and we’ll see if Denver comes out on top. So that is a wrap on episode 29 of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.

Andy: We want to sincerely thank Emily Badger of The New York Times for coming on The Project with us, and for being so open about her reporting process.

Patience: The Project is sponsored by DCI. We’re the leader in marketing places, and have served over 450 cities, states, regions, and countries. You can learn more about us at aboutdci.com.

Andy: We hope you’ll keep listening. There are many more projects to come, including Amazon’s HQ2 decision in early 2018.

 

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