Does the New York Times actually want anyone to read Angelina Jolie's piece?

If the NYT wants to ensure its pieces are never sullied by the corrupting eye of a reader, it can lock them in lead-lined boxes and drop them in the Hudson. But if it wants to help Angelina Jolie in her mission to spread awareness about breast cancer, it

The New York Times is famous for being either serious or boring, depending on your viewpoint. It's not nicknamed "the Grey Lady" ("referring to its historical tendency to present a higher-than-usual proportion of copy to graphics") for nothing, and at heart this comes from a praiseworthy aim: to never put commercial considerations above editorial ones. That motivation drives the decision to avoid flashy graphics as much as it drives the courage to run an 8,000 word piece exposing corruption in one of the world's biggest companies (and one of America's biggest advertisers).

But sometimes it goes too far. Here is the New York Times' front page today. See if you can spot the story they have which is driving conversation worldwide, and which, doubtless, a huge number of their readers have come to their site to read:

In case you aren't sure, it's this one:

Angelina Jolie's decision to write about her double mastectomy, performed after discovering that she has a genetic marker which vastly increases the chance that she will develop breast or ovarian cancer, has been rightly hailed. Not only does it serve to spread awareness about the genetic test she took (one which can provide an early warning to women like Jolie with a family history of certain types of cancer), but it will help destigmatise her operation – still one which, for many, strikes at the heart of their identity.

Getting that piece read by as many people as possible isn't crass commercialism, it's an inherent part of the paper's implicit bargain with Jolie. There is no point in writing a piece to spread awareness and then burying it on the front page under a vague headline and a six-word sub-head.

That's not to say that the piece needs to be headlined MY BREAST CANCER HORROR and be accompanied by glamorous full-colour photos of Jolie; but it needs to be findable in a way that it simply isn't at the moment.

Good site design, just like good internet-friendly headlines (another thing painfully lacking at the paper) isn't editorial cravenly bowing to the demands of its marketing department; it is there to ensure that people who want to read stories can actually read them.

If the NYT wants to ensure its pieces are never sullied by the corrupting eye of a reader, it can lock them in lead-lined boxes and drop them in the Hudson. But if it wants to help Jolie in her mission to spread awareness and "open a conversation", it needs to get over itself.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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