In response to missteps, Boston.com tweaks its editing approach
By any editor's standards, Jan. 14 was a difficult day for the staff of Boston.com. The night before, the outlet published an article which wondered whether anyone would notice had House Speaker John Boehner been poisoned by a bartender.
The piece provoked serious fallout. Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel called it "insensitive and inappropriate," and the blunder was reported widely in the national and regional press. Mike Sheehan, CEO of Boston.com's parent company, sent Boehner's office an apology. The writer was out of his job by Thursday.
So what happened? Before the furor subsided, the staff gathered to discuss Boston.com's editorial policy.
"We had a meeting the day following the Boehner event where our editors reviewed with all of our writers what our process is from the time of conception of the story all the way through to its actually hitting the site," said Corey Gottlieb, the outlet's general manager.
That editorial process — how copy flows from writers to editors to the Web — has been the subject of much discussion at Boston.com in the days since the Boehner story went live, Gottlieb said. The newsroom's in-house guidelines require stories be given a first read by associate editors before they're submitted for a final edit, usually by interim deputy editor Eleanor Cleverly. But because the Boehner article was posted while editors were hustling to get several stories online, it didn't get a final read.
It came one month after another flub, in which Boston.com published an editor's note explaining it couldn't verify an earlier story saying a Harvard professor sent racist emails to a Chinese restaurant. One of the authors of the story was later suspended for making a T-shirt mocking the same professor's crusade against the restaurant for a $4 overcharge.
In light of the two mistakes, Boston.com's leadership has made some changes, Gottlieb said. First, editors have put more emphasis on taking more time to read through, proof and vet stories before they go live. And if it means publishing fewer stories at a slower pace, that's fine.
"We've made a pretty strong point about the fact that it's OK to slow down, Gottlieb said. "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."
Gottlieb says the newsroom has also permanently reassigned staffers who used to be responsible for writing and layout to work on copyediting. This, he says, will add another layer of editorial discretion and prevent similar mistakes from happening again.
And lastly, Gottlieb wants a clearer distinction between the types of content published at Boston.com. The Boehner story, which appears under "news" at Boston.com, now carries an editor's note labeling it as opinion. A forthcoming update to the site will make plain to readers whether they're reading an opinion piece or a straightforward news article, Gottlieb said.
Much of the content at Boston.com is characterized by an informal tone, which distinguishes its stories from those at its more staid sister publication, The Boston Globe. During the fallout from the Boehner story, which was suffused with an edgy tone, Gottlieb told The Globe that the line between tongue-and-cheek and unfair writing is a fine one. But Boston.com plans to maintain its brand of journalism going forward, albeit under a closer watch, Sheehan said.
"There's a lot of gray areas," Sheehan said. "I don't mind being in the gray areas. But when you find yourself in the black area, then that's when you've got to really step in and force things to change."
Sheehan describes the recent missteps at Boston.com as side effects of a massive transition the outlet has undergone in recent months. In March, Nieman Lab reported Boston.com and The Boston Globe would no longer share content and be physically separated from one another. Boston.com went through a redesign and is planning several new product launches in the coming months. The outlet has also added staff in the areas of graphic design, Web development and user experience as part of an effort to become more than the "Web arm of a newspaper company," Gottlieb said.
Another possible contributing factor to the recent turbulence at Boston.com is the lack of a permanent top editor at the helm. Former Boston.com editor Matt Gross, who was hired in September, resigned in November, citing family concerns. The search for Gross' replacement is "well underway" and remains a priority, Gottlieb said.
In the meantime, staff at Boston.com will dust themselves off and do their best to learn from the experience, Gottlieb said.
"The takeaway is, this is a group that is raw and pretty young and new and learning," Gottlieb said. "And we continue to learn not just from our mistakes, but the successes that we have, and grow as a group."