How the Globe is leveraging social to cover #FITN

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A recent Pindell piece in Medium.

In his recent exhortation to accelerate the transition to digital, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory singled out — among others — James Pindell, who’s covering the New Hampshire primary (or #FITN, as they say) as a digital-first reporter, “rapidly pushing webbier (sorry) stories that allow the site to look less like a digital reflection of that morning’s and the next morning’s print paper.”

Now Mashable has a close-up look at exactly how Pindell is accomplishing that. Jason Abbruzzese writes that Pindell has embraced a wide range of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, FacebookMedium and — shades of steam-powered presses from the 19th century — an email newsletter. (Not all of this is new. Pindell’s Twitter feed has been a must-read among political junkies for years.) Pindell’s work is gathered at a Globe site called Ground Game.

The approach has allowed Pindell to cover stories that are worth telling even if they’re not quite worthy of (or suitable for) print — such as his first-person account of covering Donald Trump and his hair during Trump’s recent foray into New Hampshire.

The idea, Abbruzzese reports, is to leverage Pindell’s coverage of across a variety of platforms in order to compete with national outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post:

“We’re putting him out there deliberately in a very focused way saying, ‘This is our guy. This is the face of our coverage,'” says David Skok, digital adviser at the Globe, who helped form their strategy of pushing content out on social platforms via a single, recognizable reporter.

The strategy also fits with the Globe’s embrace of digital verticals such as Crux, which covers “all things Catholic”; BetaBoston, which follows tech and innovation; and more that I’ve heard are in the works.

Alas, as smart a move as Ground Game may be journalistically, it’s unclear, as always, how it will make money. From the Mashable piece:

The main question dogging media organizations that want to embrace this strategy of social publishing is how it affects their bottom line. Reaching more people is great, but the benefits are quickly offset if it comes at the behest of revenue.

Skok said that Pindell’s work outside of the Globe did not have direct monetization opportunities yet, but that the broader impact would hopefully attract advertisers that want to be associated with the paper’s authoritative coverage.

The folks at the Globe deserve a lot of credit for understanding the value of pushing ahead anyway.

Baron joins McGrory in thinking digital thoughts

It’s interesting that during the same week Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory exhorted his journalists to keep pushing ahead on the digital side, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron gave a speech on the same subject at the University of California Riverside.

Baron, who was McGrory’s predecessor as Globe editor, talked quite a bit about a discussion led by Clay Shirky at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center in 2009. As it turns out, I was there, and wrote about it at the time.

As with McGrory’s memo, Baron’s speech is worth reading in full. But here’s a taste:

If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten. That is the brutal truth.

So journalism’s Big Move from print to digital comes with discomfort for those, like me, who grew up in this field well before the 21st Century. We just have to get over it.

We are moving from one habitat to another, from one world to another. We are leaving a home where we felt settled. Now we encounter behaviors that are unfamiliar. Our new neighbors are younger, more agile. They suffer none of our anxieties. They often speak a different language. They regard with disinterest, or disdain, where we came from, what we did before. We’re the immigrants. They’re the natives. They know this new place of ours well. We’re just learning it.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

McGrory and Baron may be the two luckiest big-city newspaper editors in the country. Both work for deep-pocketed owners who are willing to invest and take the long view. As always, it will be fascinating to see what they make of that opportunity.

Where Boston’s papers stand on death for Tsarnaev

The Boston Globe today offers some powerful arguments against executing convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Metro columnists Kevin Cullen and Yvonne Abraham weigh in, as do the paper’s editorial page, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. (Columnist Jeff Jacoby has previously written in favor of death for Tsarnaev.)

Over at the Boston Herald, the message is mixed. In favor of the death penalty are columnist Adriana Cohen and editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen. The lead editorial calls for the death penalty as well. Columnist Joe Fitzgerald is against capital punishment for Tsarnaev. Former mayor Ray Flynn offers a maybe, writing that he’s against the death penalty but would respect the wishes of the victims’ families.

Let Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fade away in prison

Martin Richard

Martin Richard

Now the real Boston Marathon trial can begin.

A federal jury’s decision to convict Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of 30 charges related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings was the most anticlimactic of anticlimaxes. The 21-year-old’s lawyers admitted from the beginning that their client had participated in the horrific terrorist attack, which both scarred and strengthened this city.

The outcome of this first phase may have been preordained, but nearly two years after the bombing, the trial has held Boston and the region in thrall — more so than I might have imagined. The case regularly lands on the front pages of our two daily newspapers, the Globe and the Herald, and often leads the local television newscasts. The Twitter feeds of reporters covering the trial are avidly followed.

We haven’t learned much new, although harrowing details about the deaths of the Tsarnaev brothers’ four victims have come out. More than anything, many people find something cathartic in seeing the seemingly insolent, unrepentant Tsarnaev being brought to justice.

The only issue to be decided is whether Tsarnaev should be executed. Which is why the second phase of his trial is the one that really matters. Was Tsarnaev so thoroughly under the sway of his radicalized older brother, Tamerlan, that he should be spared lethal injection? Or had this seemingly typical teenager transformed himself into a hardened jihadist who obsessed over al Qaeda propaganda such as the article “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom”?

What kind of justice should Tsarnaev receive? There is no death penalty in Massachusetts, and in September 2013, according to a Globe poll, 57% of respondents supported life in prison for Tsarnaev; just 33% said he should be executed.

By moving the case into federal court, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made it likely that Tsarnaev would receive the death penalty. Keep in mind that no members of the jury were deemed eligible to serve unless they stated beforehand that they were willing to consider putting Tsarnaev to death.

But imagine a different scenario in which Tsarnaev had been allowed to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. He would have been denied the public stage he has been granted; although he has not testified (so far), his terrorist actions have been replayed over and over again for people to see the world over.

The 2015 Boston Marathon will take place in less than two weeks, on Monday, April 20. Thousands of runners will clog the 26.2-mile route, and tens of thousands will cheer them on — as they did last year, proving to the world that we will not be intimidated. And Tsarnaev’s lawyers will still be fighting for their client’s life.

It is a natural if disturbing reaction to events like this that it’s easier to remember the names of the perpetrators than of their victims. But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a loser and a nobody. He should be allowed to fade away into the obscurity of a maximum-security prison cell. The people who deserve to be remembered are those he and his brother killed on Marathon Day — Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu — and Sean Collier, the MIT police officer they executed in cold blood. It is they who should live on in our collective memories.

Personal photo by Lucia Brawley.

Originally published at CNN Opinion.

McGrory tells Globe staffers they need to think digital

If it sometimes seems like The Boston Globe is still a print-first, digital-later news organization, editor Brian McGrory agrees.

Despite success in selling digital-only subscriptions and the hiring of several digital-first journalists, McGrory wrote earlier today in a message to the staff, “too many of us — editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists — think of just print too often.”

McGrory’s renewed emphasis on the Web is good news for customers (like me) who pay for Sunday delivery of the print edition and read it online the other six days. And though McGrory doesn’t mention it, I hope the change in mentality he’s looking for is accompanied by some improvements in the Globe’s digital platforms.

The full text of McGrory’s message follows:

Hey all,

Just a heads up that, starting today, we’re moving the morning and afternoon meetings up by 30 minutes, to 10 and 3 respectively — a small change that is part of a larger effort to make us quicker and more nimble on the web.

The goal is, as mentioned before, to get everyone to think as much about our site as we do the paper. We are already in a very good place. It was this newsroom, in large part, that made boston.com the traffic monster that it is, built on the quality of Boston Globe journalism for the better part of two decades. We did it all over again a few years ago with the launch of bostonglobe.com, which already has more digital-only subscriptions than any metropolitan news organization in the country. Those subscriptions are growing at a clip of 200 to 500 a week, and page views were up in March by more than 40 percent over last year.

But we can do better – and we need to do better.

To that end, we’ve already brought in several digital-first writers, to such great effect that we’re looking to bring in several more. Evan Horowitz, Alex Speier, Steve Annear, and James Pindell have allowed us to live far more in the moment online, rapidly pushing webbier (sorry) stories that allow the site to look less like a digital reflection of that morning’s and the next morning’s print paper. Of course, virtually the whole room has been picking up the pace for years, led by the bullet-fast reflexes of Mike Bello, Martin Finucane and John Ellement in Metro.

Still, too many of us — editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists — think of just print too often. In this view, the web is something that’s extra, an additional place to post print stories. This has to change, not overnight, and not even self-consciously, but gradually and naturally over the next few months. So if all goes right, the morning news meetings will allow for more time to be devoted to what we’re planning to publish on the site through the day. The afternoon news meeting will focus not just on the print front page, but the digital homepage through the evening.

We’ll look to reposition some high-profile editing talent to give stories a front-page-quality edit not just from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., but all through the day, allowing us to post our enterprise work from morning to evening. This may involve putting a senior editor on a devoted editing day shift, and another on an evening shift, so that the front page desk is essentially a 16- or 18-hour a day operation. David Dahl will be toggling back and forth in that role this week, supporting Chris. We’ll look to put more firepower in the pre-dawn hours to get us off to a quicker start. We’ll reallocate copy-editing resources so that the site is as carefully edited as the paper. We’ll commit far earlier in the day to running enterprise stories, whether we’re sure they’ll make the next morning’s front page or not, in the name of keeping the site fresh and lively.

All of this is predicated on each and every one of us breaking free of the rhythms that have been prevalent in this newsroom and our industry for the longer part of forever. The idea is to be part of the constant conversation that is taking place on the web – and in fact, to drive it.

Again, we’re already doing a great deal of this. Reporters are filing breaking stories immediately and effectively. We’re putting enterprise work on the site in the evening. We’re rolling out magazine stories and Sunday features through the week. And we’ve even splashed some Sunday projects on Thursdays and Fridays, with great success. More, please.

Allow me a moment here to say what this doesn’t mean. First and foremost, it doesn’t mean that we should work longer days. In fact, let’s demand the opposite. If we’re starting earlier, we’re finishing earlier. True success means that we’re getting rid of the tidal wave of copy from 5 to 8 p.m. My own belief is that far too many of us spend too much time in this building, to the detriment of ourselves, our families, and our work. Great journalism emanates from real life. Real life is that thing you see when you’re not under the glow of fluorescent lights on Morrissey Boulevard. One idea worth exploring is to stagger some shifts in the name of a steady flow of copy, with some editors and reporters working early and others coming in later. We’ll look at options in the coming weeks.

It doesn’t mean that we’re going to ignore the print paper. Lord knows, people dig deep for their subscription, and we will give them everything they pay for, including something fresh most every day. It doesn’t mean we’ll put out a mediocre paper on Mondays because we’ve spent all our enterprise through the prior week. In fact, editors will be encouraged to tuck stories away for this purpose.

In sum and in short, what we’re looking for is an even fuller, more vibrant, ever-knowing site for the hundreds of thousands of people who turn to our work every day. We’ll be more present in the social space. We’ll be even more robust with newsletters. We’ll let data inform our decisions, though never dictate them. And yes, we’ll continue to put out a world-class newspaper every morning.

I’ll keep you updated as more structural changes get made. More important, I’m eager to hear your ideas.

Brian

At Rolling Stone, doubt preceded publication

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 12.26.06 PMSabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist at the heart of the Rolling Stone rape-story scandal, harbored doubts about “Jackie,” her principal source, all along — or, at the very least, had come to doubt her by the time the story was published.

That’s the only way I can make sense of a remarkable section that appears fairly early in the Columbia Journalism Review’s 12,000-word report on Rolling Stone’s article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia for which there turned out to be no credible evidence. The report was written by Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism; Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate researcher. According to the report:

A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”

Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”

Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.

“An alarm bell went off in my head,” Erdely said. How could Jackie not know the exact name of someone she said had carried out such a terrible crime against her — a man she professed to fear deeply?

Over the next few days, worried about the integrity of her story, the reporter investigated the name Jackie had provided, but she was unable to confirm that he worked at the pool, was a member of the fraternity Jackie had identified or had other connections to Jackie or her description of her assault. She discussed her concerns with her editors. Her work faced new pressures. The writer Richard Bradley had published early if speculative doubts about the plausibility of Jackie’s account. Writers at Slate had challenged Erdely’s reporting during a podcast interview. She also learned that T. Rees Shapiro, a Washington Post reporter, was preparing a story based on interviews at the University of Virginia that would raise serious doubts about Rolling Stone’s reporting.

Late on Dec. 4, Jackie texted Erdely, and the writer called back. It was by now after midnight. “We proceeded to have a conversation that led me to have serious doubts,” Erdely said.

You can see the problem. The story had already been published and had created a sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely told the report’s authors. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” And Erdely felt queasy enough about what she had written that she was still bugging Jackie for the name of the guy who led the gang rape she claimed to have been subjected to at a UVA fraternity house.

From the time that Erdely’s story unraveled, I’ve been wondering what lessons journalists could take away from Rolling Stone’s institutional failures. Those failures were so profound and so basic that it’s hard to know how we can even look at this as a teachable moment. The lesson is “don’t do any of this.” As the CJR report makes clear:

  • Erdely had just one source, Jackie, for her account of the gang rape.
  • She made no more than a passing attempt at interviewing the alleged rapists — and, as we have seen, she never did find out the name of the supposed ringleader.
  • She also did not interview three friends of Jackie’s who supposedly spoke with Jackie shortly after the rape. As the author’s reports note, that stands out as the key failure, since they would have debunked many of the details, which in turn would likely have led to the unraveling of the entire story.

Jay Rosen of New York University has posted a must-read analysis of the CJR report. He writes, “The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” Making the facts fit the story, in other words.

In reading the full CJR report, I think there are two other major problems: an understandable instinct to believe the victim (while less understandably ignoring the small internal voice saying, “No, wait, there’s something wrong here”). And a culture inside Rolling Stone that for whatever reason did not allow the story to be derailed even though everyone involved knew there were problems.

Sexual assault on campus is an enormous problem. I know there are those who question the oft-cited statistic that 20 percent of female students are victims. But whatever the true number is, it’s too high. Rolling Stone’s failures have set back efforts to do something about it. So I’ll close by noting that the CJR quotes my former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi on the right way to do this kind of reporting. Lombardi’s work in this area for the Center for Public Integrity truly represents the gold standard. From the report:

Problems arise when the terms of the compact between survivor and journalist are not spelled out. Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.

If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.

In “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.”

Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her colleagues at Rolling Stone trusted (sort of) but did not verify.

This commentary also appears at WGBHNews.org.