» KEY POINTS
- Though a subject matter may be ridiculous and only meant for fun, writers should still treat it with dignity and respect.
- Being in the world of news and analysis means buckling down and doing the necessary detailed research to get real answers and not just posting quick nonsense to compete with social media.
- This is the attitude I take into my own work and expect of others.
As with every morning, I scrolled through my news feed and pulled up tabs of articles I wanted to read. One came up that was innocuous enough and seemed like it might be a bit of fun. The headline from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram declared “Perplexing interior of Texas house listed for $1M has ‘Zillow Gone Wild’ creeped out” and was accompanied by a photo of a seemingly normal—though overlarge—house.
Since Google has certainly learned my idiosyncrasies, they provided the perfect fodder to tickle my imagination. And the article did not disappoint in this regard! Author TJ Macías posted the peculiar photos of the house (appropriated from Zillow) showing a strange and brightly lit industrial interior inside an apparently ordinary house in a residential neighborhood. I followed the links back to the listing and saw even more, such as the lack of exterior windows. Ms. Macías further expounded on the suppositions from those on the Zillow Gone Wild Facebook Group, to which she attributed the finding. Their speculation and quips were equally as amusing as the original premise, and I was satisfied with a little entertainment.
However, the article then just ended right there. “Wait,” I thought, “what about the real story? We cannot just end this on rumors and jokes, right?” But that is exactly what happened. Sure, I had a good chuckle, but there was an actual truth to be revealed here. For Ms. Macías and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, that was enough. They had done all the work they were ever going to do.
Since this is the 21st century, the story then propagated outward to other and repeat news services. Briana Zamora-Nipper for KPRC declared in her headline “‘A property unlike any other’: This Texas home on the market looks totally normal. It isn’t.” and basically cribbed the entire article Ms. Macías wrote with some minor modifications. The story even crossed the pond where Sandra Salathe of the UK’s Daily Mail proclaimed “Creepy $1m Dallas home has huge concrete rooms and fake WINDOWS”. Ms. Salathe did at least try to do some research stating in part:
DailyMail.com has contacted real estate agent Compass for further information.
Yet that is where it ended for them, as well. When they did not immediately hear back, there was no decision to go any further. These articles would have you believe it is a mystery that could not be solved. Except I was able to solve it all in 10 minutes with minimal resources at my disposal.
» CRITICAL HIT
Does it seem pedantic that I am attacking a fluff piece with such vigor? Is it mean spirited of me to go after these columnists with such acrimony?
No, because this is about doing work and how I approach it. To be clear, I am totally fine with lighthearted journalism that does not add to the social discourse. Despite the serious nature of my portfolio, I can appreciate and delight in the ridiculous—but only if it is done well. Even the use of conjecture and sarcasm can be perfectly fine tools in storytelling, so long as the author is going to use them to make the real point in the end. I employ these instruments, too, to make an argument, and therefore am not dissuading anyone from their use.
What I am discouraging is the absolute refusal to do the work. No part of me would ever allow myself to publish an article like this without diving deeper into the subject matter and doing the necessary research to get complete answers. The drive I feel to review the actual data; synthesize it into a usable format; and read and edit it over and over again until it reaches the level I consider acceptable is overwhelming. Even a chapter such as the one you are now digesting represents days of research, analysis, and editing unto itself, not to mention the plotting and actual writing.
This has always been my approach, even when it leads nowhere. When I was writing my book New & Improved: The United States of America, I distinctly remember one part that involved an entire month of reading through thousands of pages of eye-watering government documents all to just fill out a single column on a table. And in the end, after alpha draft readers and my editor provided feedback, I ended up eliminating everything that had to do with it. Was the work a waste? It was not in my eyes. As I was doing it, I thought it was worthwhile, and I still learned things that were used elsewhere, both in that book and in future projects.
Even when I was writing about professional wrestling—as effervescent as a subject as you can get—I took it extremely seriously. Each one of my articles represented at minimum 15–20 hours of grind. While some (including the people I worked with) may have been satisfied with posting misspelled copy and paste jobs, that is just not my approach. It does not matter if I was employed by the goofiest third-tier website that was more known for posting scantily clad women than breaking news; I had and still have a pride in putting out a product that is as exhaustive as I could possibly make it. My creations are a reflection of my integrity and meticulous approach.
» JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY
Returning to our mystery house, almost every municipality in the country has a tax assessor or similar website to explore the real estate of the area. Dallas is no different and I asked Google for “Dallas property records”. The first result was exactly what I was looking for.
From there I entered the address from Zillow in the search field and got one hit:
This result presented two interesting tidbits. First was that the “Type” was listed as “COMMERCIAL” instead of “RESIDENTIAL”, which told me that this property served some type of corporate or industrial purpose. Pulling up Google Maps and looking at “Street View” further expounded upon the oddness of the estate:
The neighbors are for the most part small, single-story ranches. The house in question is quite a monstrosity compared to them and completely out of place. Reading through the comments on the Facebook Group that the articles referenced provided some additional direction here. People there mention commercial vans being outside on a regular basis and Dallas codes that say commercial buildings must blend into their surroundings. You see, I was not dismissing the social media aspect of this story, but was not taking it at face value, either, and just copying and pasting it. Instead, I used it as a springboard to further research. Social Media is the perfect place for speculation; news, analysis, and article writing are where we cut through the fog.
Following the links further down the rabbit hole brought me to a property map. When looking at that map, I saw those same single-story ranches, but another property right next door stood out. That plot was also registered as “Commercial” except with one key difference: it was owned by AT&T. Further, looking at that property on street view showed that it, too, appeared conspicuous compared to the neighbors.
Back to the property we are concerned with: the other key point we got was that it was owned by “FELDER NEIL”. Another quick search told me that according to LinkedIn (first result), Neil Felder is the owner of “Felder Property Group”. Now, a check on the business proved not only that they have a website, but that the site has listings for their properties. And among those listings was the one in question, spoiling all the fun we had been having with this simple line in the description:
Former AT&T Data Center House for Lease. Can only be used as a Data House, no other use permitted.
And there you have it, the mystery was solved! Just to go an unnecessary step further, I reviewed the property’s ownership history and discovered that AT&T used to own it from at least 2001 to 2011, where the following year they sold it to Mr. Felder who had been leasing the space back to them. We could then suppose that AT&T had moved operations out of the space and therefore it was available to be sold off. Or an investigative journalist could have followed the lead to find out when AT&T moved out, where they went, and why.
Yet I got to this point with the basic resources available on the open internet, which are nothing compared to a well-staffed newsroom with salaried employees. I found all of that and may never see one cent for this work; they have people on the payroll available to do this toil. And I was not alone in this approach as Dan Swinhoe of Data Centre Dynamics Ltd—a London-based company not exactly in the news industry—did a similar deep dive and wrote in part:
UK publication The Daily Mail was also confused, and was unable to ascertain what the building was used for, the answer of which was one Google search away.
Of course, I only discovered Mr. Swinhoe’s article because I was further researching the topic for this piece and appreciated the snark.
» PHOENIX DOWN
What is seen in here is endemic of the modern media in general and the news industry in particular. How many times have you opened an article where the banner was the entire story? What percentage of captions are knowingly misleading clickbait? Why is the same story reposted with just a different heading?
These are indicators of a desire to just get product out the door without being willing to dig in and do the work necessary to make quality over quantity and speed. In many ways, I do sympathize with news sources and other writers who must compete with lightning-fast reactions on social media. And yes, I readily admit that I have professional jealousy that some people can make a living out of posting top-whatever lists, writing seven sentences in response to a tweet, or have others follow their off-the-cuff short responses to everything. Here I will concede there is room enough in the world for these types of writers and content producers. I, though, cannot ever be one of them, and believe there should be more like me.
In a world filled with “who got there first” types, there is actually a unique value proposition in being thoughtful, doing the investigation, knuckling down on the labor, and producing detailed and complete stories. This is the niche where I see myself and how I approach work. It is not just important for me that my work have meaning, but a requirement I have given myself. Without that, I would not have purpose; and without purpose, I might as well be wasting my time in something much more lucrative.
The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.
Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.
About the Creator
J.P. Prag is the author of "Compendium of Humanity's End", "254 Days to Impeachment", "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of...", and more! Learn more at www.jpprag.com.