Tag Archives: Boston Herald

Caught in a Web of bad headlines

By Adam Smith

After working too long at tiny newspapers around Boston, I finally got
 my break — a job as a copy editor in the Boston Herald’s business 
section. It was 2008, just as smartphones were about to change how we 
present and get the news, and years after the creations of YouTube,
Twitter and Facebook.

Yet, at the Herald, Atex computer terminals still dominated the newsroom.

For those who don’t ow aboutow what Atex machines are, I’ll explain. They were cruel, crude and unforgiving computers, with one-color screens, usually green on black. They had no spell-check capabilities, no ability to browse the Web — save for wire feeds — and they crashed nearly every night before deadline. They were also efficient for producing print newspapers, which was probably why decades after they were installed in the Herald’s desks, they were still in use.

I would have to use these machines not only for copy editing, but for writing headlines. If there was a good reason to have a panic attack the first day on the job, this was it.

The Herald has been long known for its headlines. We believed that a certain other newspaper’s were mostly long and boring, and ours were short and sparky. For the paper to sell, and at the same time for people 
to read it with ease, the headlines had to be witty and well written. It 
was to be a big part of the job, and I still don’t know how I made it
 through the paper’s probation period, but I did. As it turned out, 
writing on Atex would prove good training, in the same kind way that
 learning how to ride a bicycle with no helmet or training wheels down 
Comm. Ave. at rush hour would: If you mess up, you’re screwed.

No one ever told me how to pen headlines at the Herald, but they guided me and led by example. The expectations were always high. These headlines had to, first, be true to the story, giving the reader an accurate set of clues as to what he would be reading about. Second, they had to be clear and concise. Third, they had to be fun to read, or, better, clever.

But, equally as critical, they had to fit the space of the tabloid. This often meant they were limited to five or six words, sometimes only four.

The last part is where the beauty of Atex came in. You were given a set of requirements for what your headline would be — number of letters, size and typeface — and you had no choice but to meet them. Atex wouldn’t let you tinker around by writing too long or too short. And even if it did, the head copy editor would make sure the headline went right back to you for a rewrite, or worse, he just rewrote the damn 
thing for you. It was a tough but efficient way to learn how to write good headlines. I came to appreciate that headline writing should be a painful, practical art, just as the rest of journalism is. And constraints are part of what make it an art. It’s just like a haiku — it wouldn’t be a haiku if the poem could be 30 lines long.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 8.55.05 AMYears later, I got a Web writing gig elsewhere and received a memo on so-called “social” headline writing tips. They were all things I would 
have avoided at the Herald, and probably things that would have gotten
 me made fun of there, too. The list encouraged writing lists, using
odd-numbered lists, and including words such as “smart,” “surprising,”
 “huge,” “doing” and “saying.” It advised against being too clever.

The advice was no doubt based on some type of Web-headline writing formula, as I see these types of titles all over the Internet. These headlines are usually lists (like “19 Male Characters Who Are Obviously 
Hufflepuffs” from BuzzFeed), questions (like “Is Rand Paul Sexist or
 just a Jerk?” from Slate) or writing that’s too long and tries to 
sound conversational (like “Rick Porcello Didn’t Have to Be an Ace to Do
 His Job in the Red Sox Home Opener” from Boston.com). Then there’s the 
CNN favorite: “Here’s What We Know About…” or “Here’s What We Don’t Know About…” headlines. How many question headlines will lure us into
 a story? How many lists can we take before realize our lives have too 
many lists and they start to seem like work?

While headlines based on the best of the newspaper model tease at our curiosity and or compel us to read, especially if their stories are also compelling, these increasingly popular made-for-Web headlines were interesting when they first appeared, but now are mostly just tiring 
and, often worse, biased and misleading.

As the Rand Paul headline shows, how can journalists expect to keep credibility when headlines (and stories) like these are written? Question headlines can even be misleadingly dangerous, which is I why I was told at the Herald to avoid writing them. By asking something you cannot assert, you plant an idea, possibly a biased or incorrect one, into readers’ minds.

I remember when living in Japan last year, I was struck by such reckless headlines from respectable online publications. “Will Japan and China Go to War?” was written by Time, and “Will Japan Abandon Pacifism?” was 
written by The Atlantic. Why not write something more exact such as 
“China and Japan Edge Closer to War” or “Japan to Shed Pacifist Past”?
 Probably because neither is true. But yet those are the impressions I
 got when reading the two headlines. Those kinds of headlines are like if your co-worker asks you, “Do you think Jim is a pervert?” Of course! Jim must be a perv! Because now that you asked I can’t shake that image from my head!

Question headlines were rare at the Herald, and usually when we used them, they weren’t really questions. I still remember one I wrote for a story by the awesomely prolific Laurel Sweet. It read: “Dying for a Snack?” The subhead, I think, explained the rest: “Bill Would Allow Munchies at Funerals.”

While we run to embrace all that we’re told we should do in the brave new world of electronic journalism — often with the promise it will bring back readers and their money — we shouldn’t forget what got us here in the first place: Journalism as it has been practiced — and refined — for the past many decades.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, we should not bring back the Atex machines.

Adam Smith worked as a staff copy editor at the Boston Herald from 2008 to 2013 and occasionally freelances for the newspaper as well as other publications, online and in print. He can be reached at smith_dam {at} neomailbox {dot} ch.

The Globe ratchets up its native advertising efforts

The Boston Globe is joining other news organizations, including The New York Times, in pursuing native advertising — content that consists of editorial-like material but is bought and paid for. And the executive who’ll be in charge of it is Andrew Gully, a former longtime Boston Herald staffer who rose to managing editor for news in the late 1990s. He left the Herald and went into public relations about a dozen years ago.

Romenesko has the memo from Boston Globe Media Partners chief executive Mike Sheehan, who writes that his goal was to hire “someone trained as a journalist who at some point sold his or her soul and made the glorious leap over to The Dark Side — marketing communications.”

Gully, whose title will be director of sponsored content, is a smart guy who during his Herald days was an aggressive newsman. Sheehan says such content “will play a very important part of our growth” and will appear across “all our properties.”

Some native advertising already appears at Globe Media sites — such as the one below, currently on Boston.com. In addition to the tagline reading “SPONSORED BY REAL Estate Talk Boston,” you can click on the little question mark in the upper right and get a fuller disclosure.

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Native advertising has become a growth industry because digital advertising has proved disappointing for news organizations. Standard online ads — especially those served up by off-site servers such as Google — are so ubiquitous that their value keeps dropping.

At the same time, native ads are controversial because, when they’re not presented or labeled properly, they can be confused with editorial content. But though they’re often talked about as the mutant spawn of the Internet, there’s nothing new about them. People my age can remember special sections in Time magazine on the glories of various third-world hellholes; you’d do a double-take, then see the disclaimer that the section was paid for by said hellhole.

For many years, so-called advertorials by Mobil were published on the op-ed page of The New York Times — more than 800 of them between 1985 and 2000, according to this analysis.

Ironically, on the same day that Sheehan announced Gully’s appointment, the American Society of Magazine Editors released a set of guidelines for native advertising. Benjamin Mullin reports at Poynter Online that the guidelines call for such content to be “clearly labeled as advertising by the use of terms such as ‘Sponsor Content’ or ‘Paid Post’ and visually distinguished from editorial content and that collections of sponsored links should be clearly labeled as advertising and visually separated from editorial content.”

That seems like solid advice. And it’s a standard we can all use as a measuring stick once native advertising starts to become more visible on the Globe’s various websites.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Arrest records and mug shots are not secret under state law

pyleBy Jeffrey J. Pyle

Thanks to The Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack, we learned last week that the supervisor of records, charged with enforcing the Massachusetts public records law, has permitted police departments withhold arrest reports and mug shots from the public in their “discretion.” Unsurprisingly, police departments have exercised that “discretion” to shield the identities of police officers arrested for drunken driving while publicizing the arrests of other Massachusetts residents for the same crime.

Yesterday, Secretary of State William Galvin took to Jim Braude’s “Greater Boston” show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) to defend the rulings. He pointed out that he had previously ruled that arrest reports to be public, but said he had to back down because another agency, the Department of Criminal Justice Information Systems (DCJIS), told him the records are secret under the “criminal offender record information” (CORI) statute. Former attorney general Martha Coakley shared that view, Galvin said, and the new attorney general, Maura Healey, has tentatively agreed.

But are they correct? Does the law allow the police officers to decide which arrest reports do and do not get released? The answer, thankfully, is no.

First some quick background. The public records law creates a presumption that all government records are public. Only if a specific, listed exemption applies can the government withhold documents, and those exemptions are supposed to be construed narrowly. Galvin relies on the exemption for records “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute,” here, the CORI law. The CORI law does impose certain limits on the disclosure of “criminal offender record information,” but it limits that term to information “recorded as the result of the initiation of criminal proceedings and any consequent proceedings related thereto.”

The word “initiation” is important. As late as 2010, Galvin’s office held the commonsense view that a “criminal proceeding” is initiated with the filing of a criminal complaint. Arrest reports and mug shots are generated before criminal complaints are filed, so they’re presumptively public. But in 2011, the DCJIS (which administers the state’s CORI database) told Galvin it believed “initiation of criminal proceedings” means “the point when a criminal investigation is sufficiently complete that the investigating officers take actions toward bringing a specific suspect to court.” That necessarily precedes arrest and booking, so all arrest reports and mug shots are covered by CORI. This “interpretation” is now contained in a DCJIS regulation. Another regulation says that police can release CORI information surrounding an investigation if they think it’s appropriate to do so.

In the common parlance, however, “criminal proceedings” occur in court, and they begin with the filing of a criminal charge. We don’t typically think of an arrest without charges as involving a “proceeding.” Galvin seems to agree — his office’s rulings have said only that DCJIS believes “initiation” occurs earlier — but he has thrown up his hands and deferred to this odd “interpretation” of the CORI statute.

The thing is, Galvin isn’t bound by what DCJIS says. The public records law says that the supervisor of records is entitled to determine “whether the record requested is public.” The DCJIS’s regulation adopting this view is irrelevant, too, because as noted above, the public records law only exempts documents “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute.” The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1999 that the “statutory” exemption doesn’t extend to mere regulatory enactments “promulgated under statutory authority,” even “in close cooperation with the Legislature.” Despite this ruling, just Wednesday, Galvin’s office again refused to order state police officer mug shots to Wallack on the ground that “[b]y regulation,” — not statute — they are exempt CORI documents.

Wallack’s reporting has led us to a momentous Sunshine Week in Massachusetts. We’ve seen unusual, coordinated editorials in major Massachusetts newspapers condemning the rulings, a letter published in the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media newspapers (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River) signed by members of the Northeastern Journalism School faculty, and extensive coverage on the normally neglected subject of government transparency.

To his credit, Galvin is calling for reforms to the public records law, and Attorney General Healey has vowed to work with his office to strengthen transparency. Reforms are sorely needed, especially to require shifting of attorneys’ fees if a requester successfully sues. But in the meantime, Galvin can and should reconsider his misguided rulings on arrest records.

Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner at the Boston law firm of Prince Lobel Tye and a trial lawyer specializing in First Amendment and media law.

Northeastern j-school faculty calls for public-records reform

The state’s weak public-records law has long needed to be reformed. A lack of meaningful penalties for government agencies that refuse to turn over public records, outrageous fees and other problems make Massachusetts a laggard when it comes to transparency. Several years ago the State Integrity Investigation awarded Massachusetts a richly deserved “F” on public access to information.

Last week brought mind-boggling news from Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, who reported that Secretary of State William Galvin’s office has issued rulings allowing certain formerly public records to be suppressed, including arrest reports of police officers charged with drunken driving. (Galvin later turned around and called for an initiative petition to put some teeth in the public-records law. Make of that what you will.)

Now the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media Massachusetts have editorialized in favor of significant reform. The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a group comprising the New England First Amendment Coalition, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and others, is calling for immediate action.

Seventeen of my colleagues and I at Northeastern’s School of Journalism lent our voices to the cause this week with a letter that has been published in the Globe, the Herald and (so far) two GateHouse papers: The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River. Because the Globe and the Herald were unable to run everyone’s names, I am posting them here. They include full-time as well as adjunct faculty:

  • Dan Kennedy, interim director
  • Chris Amico
  • Mike Beaudet
  • Nicholas Daniloff (emeritus)
  • Charles Fountain
  • Carlene Hempel
  • Joy Horowitz
  • Jeff Howe
  • William Kirtz
  • Dina Kraft
  • Jean McMillan Lang
  • Laurel Leff
  • Gladys McKie
  • Lincoln McKie
  • Bill Mitchell
  • Tinker Ready
  • James Ross
  • Alan Schroeder

This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government. In Massachusetts it’s time to let the sun shine in.

Happy news breaks out at Media Nation

Tighter editing standards at Boston.com, improved online comments at the Boston Herald and well-deserved recognition for some first-rate political reporters. There’s so much good news on the local media front on this day-after-the-blizzard morning that it’s hard to know where to begin.

• Boston.com strives for civility. After a miserable stretch in which it falsely accused a Harvard Business School professor (and, gulp, lawyer) of sending a racist email to one of the owners of a Chinese restaurant and then mocked House Speaker John Boehner’s alleged drinking problem following an assassination threat, the folks at Boston.com sound determined to get it right.

In an interview with Benjamin Mullin at Poynter.org, Boston.com general manager Corey Gottlieb says he’s beefed up copy-editing and tightened standards in response to the two incidents. He tells Mullin:

We’ve made a pretty strong point about the fact that it’s OK to slow down. That we’d much rather not be first but get something right and be really thoughtful about it than rush to publish and bypass the discretion that should be required of any good content producer like ours.

The worst thing the Boston Globe-affiliated site could do is chase clicks. December turned out to be a boffo month for Boston.com, driven by its reporting on the Harvard professor’s harassment of the Chinese restaurant over a $4 overcharge — a righteous hit before it went off the rails. (T-shirts were involved, too.) According to Compete.com, Boston.com received nearly 3.7 million unique visits in December, way up from November’s 2.8 million. Compete’s numbers aren’t perfect by any means, but it’s safe to say Boston.com’s numbers were up a lot.

Yet quality matters. And according to Compete, BostonGlobe.com actually attracted more traffic than its free cousin in December, receiving more than 3.8 million unique visits — even though you have to pay a digital subscription fee to receive full access to the site (granted, free social sharing at BostonGlobe.com is pretty generous these days).

No doubt Gottlieb and company are going to stick with their plan to build a buzzy site with lots of viral content (here’s my alternative idea). But I’m glad to see that they understand what’s gone wrong and that they’re determined to do something about it.

One of Boston.com’s biggest problems is that it’s been flying without an editor (except for a few weeks last fall) since its relaunch last spring. That should be rectified as soon as possible.

• The Herald embraces Facebook. Online newspaper comments in general can make you despair for humanity. Over the years the Herald’s have been particularly loathsome. So kudos to publisher Pat Purcell and editor Joe Sciacca for switching to a Facebook-based commenting system.

Facebook isn’t perfect. Certainly there are issues with a news organization turning over its community platform to a giant corporation with its own agenda and priorities. But people are generally more civil and constructive when they’re on Facebook, in large measure because Facebook requires real names — and most people comply.

Check out the comments beneath Howie Carr’s ridiculous column on climate change today. Not bad at all. Only one of the first eight is pseudonymous. And if they’re not all exactly civil, they are less toxic than I’m accustomed to seeing at BostonHerald.com.

Can a real-names policy at BostonGlobe.com be far behind?

Massachusetts’ best political reporters. Chris Cillizza, who runs a political blog for The Washington Post called The Fix, has named nine Massachusetts political reporters as among the best in the country. (Disclosure: The list was based in part on a reader poll, and I voted for friend of Media Nation Jon Keller, who’s among the winners — but every one of these is worthy.)

It’s especially nice to see a couple of reporters outside the Greater Boston orbit win recognition — Jim Hand of Attleboro’s Sun Chronicle and Shira Schoenberg of The Republican in Springfield. Congratulations to all.

A big year for Remy-related blog posts at Media Nation

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Photo (cc) by Paul. Some rights reserved.

On Tuesday I posted WordPress’ robo-generated report on my year in blogging. But you knew I wasn’t going to stop there, didn’t you? For the past several years I’ve been writing an end-of-the-year round-up of my top 10 posts. It’s always interesting to me to see what resonates most with my readers.

These lists always come with caveats, and this year’s has a big one. Starting last spring, I began offering what I thought were my better blog posts to my friends at WGBHNews.org, who published them first and promoted them on social media. Though I later reposted them on Media Nation, they had already lost a lot of their juice by that point. So it’s hard to know what my top 10 list really means. Maybe I should call this list “The Best of the Rest.”

And away we go.

1. Is Jerry Remy’s broadcasting career finally over? (March 23). The answer, as it turned out, was “no.” But following a devastating story in The Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz on Remy’s homicidal son, Jared, and the lengths to which Jerry Remy and his wife, Phoebe, had enabled his violent behavior, it sure looked that way, if only for a brief moment. Within days, though, Jerry Remy was back in the broadcast booth, yukking it up uncomfortably with Don Orsillo during Red Sox games. There was all kinds of internal intrigue to this. Both the Globe and the Red Sox are owned by John Henry, who is also a part-owner of Remy’s employer, New England Sports Network. (Page views: 7,714.)

2. Boston.com retracts claim about racist email from professor (Dec. 11). In early December, Boston.com had a phenomenon on its hands: contentious, legalistic emails from Harvard Business School professor (and lawyer) Ben Edelman complaining to a Chinese restaurant about having been overcharged by $4. But then the Boston Globe Media-owned site overreached. Hilary Sargent, who had written the original story, cowrote a follow-up reporting that Edelman had sent one of the owners, Ran Duan, a racist email. It couldn’t be verified, and the story was pulled back. It got worse: It turned out that Sargent had also designed a T-shirt making fun of Edelman that she was selling online. Sargent, the site’s deputy editor (the top editing job was vacant), was suspended for a week. David Bernstein has a good overview of the whole affair at Boston magazine. (Page views: 2,827.)

3. Boston.com’s anonymous sports blogger to be unmasked (March 24). (Page views: 2,648.)

4. Meet the Obnoxious Boston Fan (March 25). I am startled that these two posts received the attention that they did. After the Globe’s exposé about the Remy family, an anonymous Boston.com blogger who writes as the Obnoxious Boston Fan posted a harsh commentary about Remy. It struck me as inappropriate that a Globe-affiliated site would allow anonymous attacks on anyone. Globe digital adviser David Skok told me that Mr. OBF would soon drop the anonymity — and in my follow-up post, I was able to identify him ahead of the official unveiling as Bill Speros. (Page views: 2,178.)

5. Big moves as Globe prepares to expand its business section (Nov. 13). (Page views: 1,870.)

6. Eagan leaves Herald, will write for Globe’s Catholic site (July 30). (Page views: 1,685.)

7. Globe executive announces digital moves (July 29). Probably the biggest ongoing local media story is Boston Globe owner John Henry’s various investments in growth — a new weekly political section (Capital), a Catholic website (Crux) and an expanded business section. These three posts documented a few of those developments. (Page views: 1,609.)

8. Jared Remy joins his dad in attacking Margery Eagan (April 25). The fourth Remy-related item in the top 10. Eagan, then with the Boston Herald, had the temerity to criticize Jerry Remy in her column. Jerry Remy went after her on the air — and Jared Remy joined in from his prison cell. (Page views: 1,495.)

9. Globe to offer buyouts to some staff members (Aug. 1). Not all the news from Globe headquarters in 2014 was about investment and expansion. Even as the news organization grew, it announced cuts in other areas. (Page views: 1,338.)

10. Boston Herald loses libel suit over false prison sex story (March 19). The plaintiff, Joanna Marinova, was awarded $563,000 over a story that falsely claimed she had engaged in “sexual acts” with an inmate during a 2009 trip to Bridgewater State Prison. Marinova and state Rep. Gloria Fox had visited the prison in order to investigate claims of inmate abuse. (Page views: 1,187.)