The Boston Globe’s remarkable two days

Tsarnaev image

A massive investigation into the Tsarnaev family that casts into doubt the notion that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the dupe of his older brother, Tamerlan. A harrowing two-part story on a supposed case of “medical child abuse” that raises serious questions about one of our most respected hospitals. And a feel-good story posted to Twitter that immediately goes viral.

It was quite a two days for The Boston Globe, starting with the Sunday edition and wrapping up Monday evening, when staff reporter Billy Baker’s tweets about a poor teenager getting accepted into Yale were cited by the likes of BuzzFeed and Piers Morgan.

It was the Tsarnaev package that has received the most attention. Reported by Sally Jacobs, David Filipov and Patricia Wen (Filipov, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Globe, visited Dagestan, where he learned of Tamerlan’s inept efforts to join an Islamist insurgency), the story provides the most thorough overview yet of a dysfunctional family dynamic that ultimately led the Tsarnaev brothers into terrorism.

The story defies summary. For me, the most fascinating takeaway is that Dzhokhar, far from being manipulated by Tamerlan, was himself an angry young man and a big-time pot dealer who was at the very least a co-equal of Tamerlan’s. With Tamerlan reportedly hearing voices and seemingly unable to make coherent plans, Dzhokhar may well have been the key to pulling off the Boston Marathon bombings.

Indeed, it was Dzhokhar, according to the Globe report, who downloaded an article in an Al Qaeda publication titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” No doubt this is the sort of thing we can expect to hear at Dzhokhar’s trial, especially if prosecutors seek the death penalty.

(And a quick word about the Boston Herald, which tries to claim that what the Globe published was a politically correct puff piece about the Tsarnaevs — see this, this and this. Just stop, OK? You’re embarrassing yourselves and exploiting the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers’ act of terrorism. At least Herald columnist Margery Eagan hasn’t taken leave of her senses.)

One final point: Even though the Globe published a special eight-page section for its Tsarnaev story, the package was most fully realized online, where it received the large-type/big-art treatment that has become known as the “Snow Fall” effect, after a pioneering New York Times multimedia story. The message is that, increasingly, newspapers are treating their print editions as a secondary medium — even as they continue to bring in most of the advertising revenue.

Abuse — or a terrible mistake?

If it hadn’t been for the Tsarnaev package, I imagine the big news of the week would be Neil Swidey and Patricia Wen’s report (here and here) about Justina Pelletier, a 14-year-old from Connecticut who was taken to Children’s Hospital with what had been diagnosed as a metabolic disorder.

Doctors at the hospital concluded that Justina was actually the victim of “medical child abuse” at the hands of her parents. They placed the girl in a locked psychiatric unit for months while they tried to figure out what to do next. It is a harrowing and horrifying story, and it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong. But there are some strong suggestions that Children’s made a terrible mistake:

  • Justina’s older sister had been diagnosed with a milder form of metabolic disease, yet was living at home with no apparent issues.
  • Justina’s condition did not improve in the absence of her parents.
  • Dr. Mark Korson, a Tufts physician who had provided the initial diagnosis, was treated with contempt by Children’s and not allowed to participate in Justina’s treatment.

One inescapable conclusion: If the people at Children’s now harbor doubts about their actions, they dare not admit it because of the legal and professional ramifications. The case is as yet unresolved, and I look forward to learning more.

Billy Baker’s tweets of hope

Finally, there is Billy Baker’s remarkable series of tweets, which he began after learning that George Huynh had been accepted into Yale. Baker profiled George and his older brother, Johnny, two years ago. They were both attending Boston Latin School and were determined to rise up despite the suicide of their father and the mental illness of their mother. It began as simply as this:

It turns out that Baker had stayed in touch with the Huynh brothers after his story was published and had become something of a mentor to them. The tweets tell a full, deeply moving story, ending with George’s smiling face.

I’m not sure Twitter is the best tool for narrative journalism, but Baker made it work. And he put a smile on everyone’s face just before Christmas.

Correction: I misspelled Swidey’s name in the original post.

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Measuring the effectiveness of nonprofit news

New Haven Green
New Haven Green

Among the more difficult challenges I faced when I was researching “The Wired City” was trying to figure out the influence — and thus the effectiveness — of the New Haven Independent, the nonprofit online-only news site that is the major focus of the book. So I was intrigued when NPR reported last week that the folks who run Charity Navigator hope to unveil effectiveness ratings for nonprofits in 2016. I suspect it won’t be easy.

Nonprofit news presents special challenges. You can measure a food pantry’s effectiveness by how many families get fed, or an orchestra’s reach in terms of attendance, educational programs and the like. But how do you measure the effectiveness of a news organization?

The way I tried to answer that question was to look at numbers, but to look beyond the numbers as well. Certainly the numbers couldn’t come close to telling the whole story. The Independent’s main competitor is the regional daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, whose website receives considerably more traffic than the Independent’s (two to three times as much, according to Compete.com‘s very rough numbers) — and which, unlike the Independent, has a daily print edition. How can the Independent possibly exercise the same amount of influence?

It can’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective. Since it’s not a mass-circulation outlet, the Independent relies on reaching civically engaged people — city leaders, neighborhood activists and anyone who takes an interest in what’s going on in New Haven on a daily basis.

In a 2009 interview, Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described the Independent’s readers as “active voters, elected and appointed officials, opinion makers, civic activists as measured by people who are on boards, leaders of block watches and other neighborhood organizations.” Mayor John DeStefano told me in 2011 that he considered the Register to be “the dominant media,” but added that the Independent serves “those that follow city government and community-based activities.”

One issue stood out for me as an example of how the Independent could be effective while reaching a niche audience. In the fall of 2010 the Independent — following the lead of the Yale Daily News — began reporting on incidents in which police officers ordered people not to video-record them while they were making arrests and engaging in other activities. The Independent reported on the story for months, and revealed that one man on a public sidewalk had his cellphone confiscated and the video erased; the man was charged with interfering with police.

The Independent’s reporting led to real reform. An investigation was conducted. Mayor DeStefano and the police chief at that time, Frank Limon, ordered that officers stop harassing people trying to video-record their actions as long as they weren’t interfering in police business. Mandatory training in how to respond to video-camera-wielding members of the public was added to offerings at the police academy — training that Independent founder Paul Bass and I observed during a visit to the academy. And state Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, introduced legislation to make it clear that such recording was legal.

The Independent also builds influence through public events — community forums such as political debates and other events that are webcast and covered by other media as well. A particularly prominent example was a school forum in late 2010 starring education-reform critic Diane Ravitch.

I don’t think numbers tell the story, but here are a few:

  • According to the Independent’s internal counts from Google Analytics and Mint, the site receives between 120,000 and 140,000 unique visitors a month.
  • The Independent’s Facebook page has been “liked” 3,443 times as of this morning.
  • The Independent’s Twitter feed, @NewHavenIndy, has 4,486 followers.
  • The site’s weekly news email has about 4,000 subscribers, according to Bass — up about 1,000 over the past year.
  • A separate arts email has about 5,000 subscribers.

And here’s a cautionary tale for publishers who rely on outside services like Facebook, which have their own agendas: Bass told me that a change in policy may be responsible for less traffic coming to the Independent from Facebook. “Now they don’t automatically show your posts to all your followers. They show them to a sample, hoping you’ll pay to reach more of your people,” Bass said in an email last week. “So we’ve seen a drop in Facebook traffic as a result. (Which maybe quite fair. We use them free as paperboys.)”

When I asked Bass how he thought funders and prospective funders could measure the effectiveness of nonprofit news, his response was that he wasn’t sure. So what attempts have his funders made? “They look at what we publish, how people interact with it, how they experience the site’s impact living and working in the area,” Bass said. “No one has asked us for numbers.”

According to the NPR story, reported by Elizabeth Blair, some nonprofits are resisting Charity Navigator’s attempt to measure how well they’re doing. And there’s no question it will be difficult — maybe impossible — to come up with a fair system that everyone will agree on.

But it seems worth trying, especially in journalism. With traditional for-profit news, the relationship between revenue and quality is only tangential. News organizations are judged by how well their advertising moves products and services. You’d like to think that advertisers would rather be associated with quality news than the alternative, but that’s not necessarily the case.

With nonprofit news, the better the journalism, the more influence it will have — and the more attractive it should be to funders.

Photo (cc) by Anne and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Out and about in New Haven

From my wanderings around New Haven on Thursday: the Sterling Law Building at Yale Law School.