All the World’s Eyes on the Globe’s Stage

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The Boston Globe has been through a tough year, or ten. The New York Times Company announced in February that it is putting the Globe up for sale. By shedding the New England Media Group from its holdings—which includes the Globe’s online presence and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Massachusetts—the media giant is ridding itself of its last remaining venture into print publishing outside of The New York Times.

This slow attrition of the Boston Globe’s life force began in 2009, when The New York Times Company announced that it would shutter the Boston newspaper within 60 days if unions didn’t agree to $20 million in cuts. The equivalent of 50 full-time jobs were eliminated through buy-outs and lay-offs. Union employees had their pay reduced by 5 percent, and pension contributions ended. Later that year, the company tried unsuccessfully to sell the Globe.

This week, potential buyers have weighed in with their initial bids, all far less than the $1.1 billion paid by the Times Co. in 1993. The deadline for initial bids is tomorrow, and it’s anyone guess where the Globe will go next.

But even on this unsteady ground, the beleaguered newspaper was the nerve center of media coverage on the twin bomb explosions in Boston on Monday. The paper had the dexterity to shift from covering the celebratory Marathon—Boston’s landmark local event—to becoming another kind of first responder. Caleb Solomon, the Globe’s managing editor and head of multimedia operations, described this process to me in an email:

Covering the Marathon itself is huge for us. We had a small army of people at the finish line, along the route, and in the race – reporters, photographers, videographers. We also had extra editors and producers working for the websites in our newsroom. We were covering the race like a normal marathon when the explosions went off. For a second, it was unclear here in the newsroom what was going on. It became clear quickly something horrible had happened. What was most amazing but in no way surprising was that our journalists sent out to cover a sporting event instantly started covering this huge tragedy in our city.

If you look at the video our Boston.com sports producer Steve Silva shot from the finish line, it was remarkable that when the first explosion went off, which he captured, he ran toward it while others were running away from it. And in that video, you see one of our photographers, John Tlumacki, already at work.

Tlumacki, who has photographed 20 Boston Marathons in his 30 years at Boston’s largest newspaper, shot some of the images on Monday that are already iconic, including the photo of the 78-year-old runner blown over by the explosion, as police nearby search wildly for what happened. Tlumacki spoke to TIME about his experience as an eyewitness journalist: “My instinct was … no matter what it is, you’re a photographer first, that’s what you’re doing. I ran towards the explosion, towards the police; they had their guns drawn. It was pandemonium. Nobody knew what was going on.”

The Globe’s first order of business was ensuring that its “small army” of journalists was safe. (“The last person we heard was safe was actually a reporter running in the race,” Solomon said.) It went on to do a tremendous job in providing ongoing reporting in a time of chaos (and wifi/cell outages). The newspaper took down its paywall for all stories on the day of the incident, making its content available to nonsubscribers. In the hours following the attack, the homepage redirected to a live blog about the explosions. Boston.com, the freely accessible Globe site, dropped its automatic registration request, which readers receive after they visit a particular number of pages. There was no pausing for the paper to praise itself for being named a finalist for two Pulitzer Prizes earlier that same afternoon.

As events were still unfolding, it was the Twitter feed of reporters like Billy Baker that were a crucial source of information. It was their local knowledge that made the difference, as well as their sheer numbers on the ground and the Globe’s vetting and consolidation of the stream. It did not indulge in panic and speculation. Baker narrated as he moved through the scene, both checking in with police officers and offering human context. “Boston Police officer at Newbury and Fairfield says they're ‘investigating multiple devices,’” he tweeted at one point on Monday afternoon. Another Baker missive: “Keep passing people making the ‘Mom, I'm safe’ phone call.” The ongoing dispatches from Globe staff, balancing speed with accuracy, were critical for others in making sense of a maddening and unfolding story.

More in-depth stories were crafted along the way: the comprehensive print edition on Tuesday—with a front page that got a lot of media play—featured stories on how Boston hospitals handled the emergency, what kind of security is now blanketing the city, and the devastating experience of a local mother whose two sons lost legs. Boston.com features a sidebar making residents aware of business and transportation closings and cancellations. Both sites ran a story on the runners who won the Boston Marathon, hours before “the innocence of the event was shattered.” Reporter David Abel wrote a column that was printed on the front page of the Globe: he was about ten feet from the first blast and wrote about the strangers who rushed in to help those who were injured. Abel’s video footage of the explosion is unnerving.

On Tuesday, the Globe reported that investigators uncovered the circuit board believed to have been used to detonate the two bombs.

The Globe also functioned as a major public service provider by, for example, connecting people through a Google Docs database where they could request help or offer their homes to displaced runners and others. Solomon told me that a veteran Boston.com editor conceived of the resource and had begun building it. But while she was working on it, “we realized someone had already started this,” Solomon said. “So we linked to it in a very big way. It was wonderful how many people in Boston offered their homes, and it also shows the power in being adept at every possible platform.”

This move also reveals a moment of grace: the Globe might have gone forth with its own branded version of the database, edging itself into the center of the story with a competing resource. Instead, it recognized the urgency of centralized information and stepped back, wholeheartedly supporting what others had offered the community. The instinct of many to turn to the Globe as a credible source for one of the most significant crises in Boston’s history amplified the popularity of the database: after the Globe’s promotion, the database went viral and thousands came through, their hands offered in help.

It’s important to note that journalists once with the recently-closed Boston Phoenix also contributed important crisis reporting that gives only a peek of what they might have accomplished if the Phoenix were still alive. Former staff editor S.I. Rosenbaum wrote about what the runners did when the bombs went off for The New Republic. Former staff writer Chris Faraone was in the heart of the crisis and wrote one of the most informative Twitter feeds (and contributed a story to this website). Carly Carioli, the Phoenix’s ex-editor-in-chief, did strong work aggregating social media commentary and writing—for the Globe—about how the horrific event was approached by national writers with Boston roots.

The Globe’s journalism this week is a reminder, as we talk about the evolution of media, that the best resources in local media are good reporters who know their city and know how to work together. It’s hard not to hear the echo of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, which, working on another scale entirely, contributed heroic coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. But despite being a celebrated regional paper with unusually strong penetration in its community, the owner of the 176-year-old Times-Picayune, Advance Publications, laid off half the staff last year and halted daily publication, citing the urgency of turning to digital platforms. While community partnerships rose up to save the paper by buying it from Advance and investing in it, Advance refused offers. Ryan Chittum’s scathing portrayal in the Columbia Journalism Review of exactly how the digital-first method is working our for New Orleans should give all of us pause. The diminishing of the Times-Picayune is a loss for its city. As the Globe faces its own moment of transformation, the debacle in New Orleans stands as a warning story.

This isn’t a turning point that establishes the Globe as a great local paper; it is a moment that reveals that quality journalists are doing vital work. The paper they put out on Tuesday is as good as the Globe’s ever done in its 141 years of publishing. Despite the uncertainty of its future and the limited resources of any regional newspaper these days, the Globe’s structure and its long tradition as trusted source of media proved to be able to function at the highest level when the explosions hit.

“Everyone here knows their role. There was a lot of noise at various points of the day in the newsroom but everybody got done what needed to be done,” Solomon said. Limited resources or no, “people here are committed to the mission, and they’re pros.”

Journalists, it seems, are hardy and resilient creatures. They thrive in crisis, whether rooted in financial balance sheets or acts of terror.

Comments

modern journalism is at a crossroads, facing a conundrum ably characterized in his article. i'm not sure that literal paper products can maintain itself if the Internet evolves more to suit consumers. the key to vitality for journalists is indeed that they maintain "boots on the ground" that permits depth to be attained online--and with smartphones being the trend, how to obtain ad revenue is still a problem for journalists. like others, I have a few predictions, an I've noticed others do too. but no effective consensus seems on the horizon. contenders seem sometimes to carry baggage that prevents their ideas from taking root. I take this to mean that no easy transitions are likely, but that certain paradigms will become evident simply because orthodox business models obviously cannot last. I commend any willing to focus on the vital utility that only journalism can maintain, and really look forward to what I expect that will provide more than superficials.

...sorry for all the hasty efforts (garbledness) in my comment and for the several typos--but surely generous sorts can overlook them.

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