68 Blocks: The Boston Globe’s Experiment in Embedded Local Journalism

The Boston Globe’s 68 blocks series is a unique experiment in embedded local journalism.

In 2012, the Boston Globe undertook a year-long effort to understand the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Dorchester. For decades, journalists had been reporting shootings and homicides there — rushing to crime scenes and then leaving to file an article on time. The Globe wanted to tell a more complete story of the neighborhood.

MIT’s CoLab, DUSP and the Center for Civic Media convened the 68 blocks reporting and editing team from the Boston Globe to present their multimedia series on the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood in Dorchester.

Members of the team present included:

  • Meghan Irons, Metro Reporter
  • Jenna Russell, Reporter
  • Akilah Johnson, Metro Reporter
  • Chris Marstall, Head of the GlobeLab
  • Alvin Chang, Data specialist

Dayna Cunningham, Director, introduces CoLab – the Community Innovators Lab – at MIT. She describes how the 68 Blocks series resonates with CoLab’s values of knowing a community from the inside. She believes that this is an extremely important conversation for community and democracy.

Annette Kim, Professor at CoLab and DUSP (Department of Urban Studies and Planning). From her perspective, they wanted to bring more attention to what this group people from the Globe did. It represents new modes and ways of interacting in the city, a commitment to neighborhood far beyond uncovering pre-canned stories.

Annette tells the Boston Globe journalists,”The way you communicated the neighborhood is very innovative.  People RSVPed from GSD, DUSP, and every CDC in the city.  We are looking for new ways to learn about the city.”

Alexa Mills, Program Director at CoLab and moderator of the panel, discusses her encounter with the series on a cold morning. She was moved by the beautiful writing and spent a long time with the series. She discusses how people are attached to their place, how they feel deeply connected to where they live and work, they feel compelled to improve their place.  She said when she saw the series in the Globe, it was one of the first times she saw mainstream media reflect that love for a city.

 

Introduction

 

Akilah Johnson and Meghan Irons – the two reporters who lived in Dorchester introduce the project. Akilah begins. She prefers that people view the story online rather than in the paper because of the richer interaction possibilities. They decided to do the story because there were a lot of violent crimes in one single neighborhood, particularly in relation to young people. They wanted to look at why violence persisted and how it was affecting youth. They wanted to do something more in-depth than “parachute-reporting” where the reporters swoop in, write about a death, and then leave. So rather than doing that, they decided to actually live in the neighborhood for months.

 

She explains that this was a chance to get to know the rhythms, the ebbs, and flows of the neighborhood.  The goal was to find out as much as they could about the neighborhood.  They cast the largest net they could think of and even tried to get as much data as they could from the city.  Some of the journalists were tasked with trying to get to know as many people as they could in the community.  They were tasked with spending a lot of time in places where people congregate.  There are a lot of non-profits in the neighborhood and a lot of public-private relationships.  It’s not a large neighborhood – only around 68 blocks.

 

They had to explain to people what they are doing. Nothing like this usually happens. When you tell people you want to spend 3-4 months with them, it doesn’t really register for why and what that means and what it’s for. They had to explain that they wanted to spend whole days with people, not just interview them for an hour. They requested special access to more private and difficult conversations about people’s lives to answer the questions of why violence persists. Why is this a space where this is prevalent?

Meghan Irons explains that the one the things the journalists really wanted to do was to understand the rhythms in the community.  What was it like in the morning?  What was it like in the night time?  What was it like when bodies were removed?  They wanted an authentic authority about life in the neighborhood that somebody does not explain to us.  Can somebody describe their fear or their joy?  As reporters, Meghan explained they were trying to write it all down.  What living there did was bring the reporters up close to people in a way that they could see, feel, and hear in a way that wasn’t possible in any other way.

Meghan describes her fear when she heard gun shots one night.  No one can explain that fear, that jumping up when hear the shot fired.  

Akilah describes how she and Meghan lived together and had a long discussion about why they were there. Two prongs to the answer they came up with: 1) their own experience – the experience of fear, gunshots, smelling ethnic foods, and 2) the experience of reporting – they spent the summer reporting on the residents. She indicates vignettes presented as posters on the wall of the lecture space that present some of the experience of living in the neighborhood.

A Video

Alexa thanks Akilah and Meghan for the introduction.  The panel shows a 10-minute video from the project about the Davis Family. In Bowdoin-Geneva there have been 4 times as many murders over the past 25 years than anywhere else in Boston.

The video interviews Nate Davis who recently lost his 14-year-old son, Nicholas to gang violence.  Nicholas was killed after he borrowed his brother’s scooter and road around the block.  He never made it home.  Teens identified as Chrisostomo Lopes and Joshua Fernandes were waiting for him at a pizza shop, asked him to get off the scooter and shot him.

Nicholas was a great reader and a great thinker.  His teacher told him to be safe when he left school for the weekend and he responded by asking her, “How can I be safe?  Do you know where I live?”

The community has held a number of events to try to counteract violence. The team of reporters that worked on this project found that many programs start and go on for awhile but then peter out.

The video shows the reading of the verdict for Nicholas’ killers: Guilty of murder in the first degree.  Nicholas’s father says, “We have to live with this the rest of our lives.”  The motive for Nicholas’s murder remains unclear.

A Multimedia Poem

 

Alexa explains that the journalists will take turns presenting various features of the project.  The journlists show an audio-visual poem. There are photographs seen by scrolling down the page with text on the right hand side. The photographs are of people, memorials, posed portraits, empty lots, churches, basketball courts and front steps. Audio from field recordings in the neighborhood plays as the user scrolls.

Alexa asks Jenna Russell, “How did this interactive poem happen?”

She says that the idea for this feature came from a very gifted photographer at the Globe, Scott Lapierre.  It was important to find a way to capture the texture, colors, and diversity of the place in the summer.  The journalists went through weeks and months of pictures to put this together.  In one sense, Jenna felt like the images didn’t need words, but then it was a very satisfying exercise to figure out what words to place with the picture.  What was fun about this particular project is that there were not very many rules.  She explains that this poem takes her back to her time there and it’s kind of like a lasting attachment.

 

The audio comes from Scott Lapierre – the photographer – who was also collecting field recordings. It is comprised of music, street sounds, cars passing. Akilah notes how it perfectly captures what it’s like to be on the street in Bowdoin-Geneva.

 

An Instagram Archive with Audio Stories

The next feature that Alexa demonstrates is an instagram feature of photos that locals took on their own and from which the Boston Globe has collected an audio recording from the author.

Each instagram photo has a recording behind it from the photographer explaining the image.  The photos are of happy, simple, and serious moments.  People are washing their hair, graduating, visiting graveyards, attending parades, hanging out with family, and witnessing accidents.

Alexa asks the journalists how they decided to create this Instagram feature.

Chris Marstall details how they wanted to embed themselves in the digital world of Bowdoin-Geneva.  They used an Instagram API to track every Instagram photo that came out of Bowdoin-Geneva.  One of the editors then went through hundreds of photos and chose one hundred to feature.  They contacted the photographers and asked permission and for them to explain their pictures and heard from about nine different people.  The project sparked something else – it was expanded to a lot of other neighborhoods.

Meghan explains that at the end of day the journalists want the residents to have the residents’ voice as well.  The journalists also gave flip-cams to youth and saw stories that they would not have been able to see otherwise. Part of the issue is that you want to be able to see things from others’ eyes. The Instagram photos and the youth videos show the extraordinary ordinariness of the neighborhood.  The power of this medium allows viewers to immerse themselves in the neighborhood and have that same experience.

Akilah details how often journalists overlook the ordinary – a smashed up car, a family business. Using participatory media, you can capture that texture and get a sense of the community from a granular level. Chris notes that this medium is very unguarded and yet feels private.  It ends up as a really personal and intimate connection.

 

Jenna says that they felt this was important because they wanted to be careful about how they are presenting the neighborhood. So many of the stories are about violence – How could they create narratives that were not just about violence?  It’s important to show people how much they actually have in common with this neighborhood rather than distancing themselves.  A gentleman from the South End said to Jenna, “This is the first time I ever felt like I lived in this neighborhood in the City.”

 

The Data

 

Alexa brings up data and shows a page of data visualizations and statistics.  The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) gave a lot of data to the Globe about Bowdoin-Geneva but it wasn’t always easy to extract it from larger data sets. Alvin Chang, interactive specialist at the Globe, discusses how much data they ended up with and how people dropped it on his desk with the words “Have at it”. He was looking for a story in the data but wasn’t sure which one to tell. He kept asking about a particular line, the borders on the map. They conducted a survey in the neighborhood with the Center for Survey Research at UMass who asked a lot of normalizing questions like “how does your neighborhood compare to others?” The metrics showed that the neighborhood was three times more dangerous but everyone who lived there liked their neighborhood just as much. The data team tried to figure this out and came to an answer about familiarity – the neighborhood is theirs. “We rate the familiar more highly than the unfamiliar.” The data points to the idea that violence is routine and normal for residents.

 

While Alvin is speaking, another one of the Globe journalists is showing different graphs and data visualizations of the data they collected.  

 

Meghan adds to Alvin’s point that when they were thinking about how to tell the story of Nicholas’ murder, all they had was the street.  The journalists were trying to figure out after looking at various streets and zooming in on gang violence, it was so tough to figure out.  They looked at various maps from the mayor’s office and tried to reconcile people’s perceptions of the neighborhood with the roads and physical geography on the map. It encompasses several zip codes and census tracts. For this reason it was extremely complicated to collect data like graduation rates, test scores, noise complaints and so on.

 

Akilah explains that Boston is a such a neighborhood-focused city.  Even though Akilah has only been in Boston for 2.5 years, she has quickly learned that people really identify with their neighborhoods.  While some people call the area Bowdoin-Geneva, other don’t and this made it difficult to pull data from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the police station.  Some people in the neighborhood resented the neighborhood Bowdoin-Geneva because it came from police reports.

 

Alvin realized that all the different city departments had different boundaries for collecting data, which made it difficult to put information together for Bowdoin-Geneva. He notes how certain interactive features have five authors because it involved a data reporter, a journalist, a librarian, a technologist and a journalist. Chris upholds this and also details how there were weekly meetings for over a year to do this work – for example, the data reporter Matt Carroll made many trips to police offices and other agencies to physically collect the data, in some cases from reluctant organizations.

 

 

A Video by a Ten-year-old

Alexa introduces a video that Kaori Tate made with one of the Globe-distributed flip-camsThe video is about a children’s garden. The kids show their tomatoes and lettuce. They show the sidewalk where there will be a neighborhood block party and ask residents what their favorite parts of the block party. Alvin discusses the youth’s video production.  The journalists physically gave the young people flip cams not expecting much and everyone at the Globe was in awe of the footage that came back.

 

Questions

Andy from DUSP: Building on the idea of community involvement and embedding – would you have hired someone from the neighborhood to do the reporting?

Meghan: Not that I know of. We wanted to be there and write about the people that we met.

Ellen Kleig (community relations for the Globe): I am the Director of Community Relations at the Globe. We are continuing to partner with neighborhood residents on various initiatives.

Jenna: We definitely forged some relationships on this project that are ongoing.  We now get all sorts of story ideas from the neighborhood.

 

Ben (DUSP): I think it’s interesting looking at place as the basis for the story. Do you see that continuing in the future – like more location-based reporting? It is unusual but really compelling.

 

Jenna: We joke that it’ll be a series and the next one will be Beacon Hill. It gave us an opporuntity to think about stories in a very different way. We are still thinking about that.

 

Akilah: This has given us a way of thinking about stories in a different way. It has helped us identify things we might normally miss in our everyday reporting.

 

Meghan: You see stories about places – like the marathon bombings. I don’t know that we will invest in another place again like this.

 

Jason, Communiations Professor at Lesley: I partially grew up on Bloomsfied Street.  I want to hear the answer to the question that got you doing this.  Why is it so violent there?  I didn’t see a lot of structural analysis of the content.

Meghan: It’s a great question. I don’t think we really answered that and it’s because no one knows why. We have no idea why Nicholas was pulled off the scooter and shot. We know the people who killed him were his neighbors. But we don’t know if they were upset with him or something else. It’s one of the problems for us, the police, the city. There seems to be violence without rationale. People have ideas about how to fix it – finding jobs for idle teens, better education, addressing systemic family problems. But to get the answer we’d have to be there for ten years.

Alvin: We tried. We pulled in so many data sets to see historically, to figure out what’s going on. We saw how demographics have changed radically over the past 60 years. We got hints of where to look. In an ideal world we would have answered the question.

Meghan: When you have a neighborhood like that you have one gang on one street, one gang on another, families in the middle, you see the damage but one of the questions we asked was “What are the police doing? is the city doing enough?” When something happened the police were there in 2 minutes. The city can only do so much – they can fix the street lights and can have community meetings but people don’t always come. You can’t get the guns off the streets. I am still bothered by this fundamental question.

Akilah: I spent a lot of time with Teresa Johnson’s sons who are in rival gangs, one of whom is in jail. I would ask one of them all the time, why do you this?  Why?  And even he could not articulate to himself why he does this.  If the people can’t construct their own understanding of this, then how can we?

 

Dayna, Executive Director of the Community Innovator’s Lab: I’m a structure person and always talking about structures. But I’m glad you didn’t answer that question. We are put in the position of Nicholas’ father – we just don’t know and can’t understand. The urge of professionals to answer the question ‘so we can sleep at night’ – but I think that’s an opportunity for readers of the Globe to feel unsettled and upset. It connects us at a human level not a structural level.

 

Mariko from Department of Urban Studies and Planning: I am curious to know if you are still in contact with some of the families you interviewed and how the project has been received on their side?

Meghan: Nate Davis’ family is doing ok. His son has a job. For the Davis family – they feel like they were given the dignity they were seeking. Trina had initially pulled back because she was dealing with a lot but I think they felt like their grief was validated. People come up to them and give them condolences. I was afraid that putting their story in the Globe would be too public but they were very appreciative.

Akilah: Not everybody was happy with this. There are people who are viscerally upset by the project. The people we interacted directly we have mainly positive reactions. Some agencies in the neighborhood have been less positive. We wanted to represent the people who live there as completely and fully as possible. We also see very different reactions from people looking at online vs print media.

Noah for DUSP: Those of us involved in community planning are oftentimes put in positions where we have to go into places we don’t know and establish trust with new people.  How did you make the pitch to people immediately to develop relationships with people to get to know about intimate topics like violence in the community?

Akilah: The first thing was to live there and live our everyday lives. People in the community already had established trust so finding a couple of friends, like the principal of a nearby school, who could help chat with us. When we moved in, our neighbors were nothing but gracious to us and we eventually told them we were from the Globe, and people didn’t seem to care.  The fact that we worked for the Globe never really came up.  

 

Meghan: We called what we did the art of hanging out.  You’re just there on the sidewalk, sitting on the porch, all day long.  At some point, a person might invite you in.  Sometimes people never invite you in and sometimes it takes a week.  People got so used to seeing me on Norton Street and they knew I was a reporter because I was always on this one porch with my notebook.  Sometimes residents would see reporters as part of the authority.  They would ask, “Are you working with the cops?”

Jenna: Once you pass that threshold you have another problem – “Have they forgotten that I’m a reporter?” which poses new challenges.

Meghan: And even when you think you’re in, there is a fine line between getting people’s trust and them not wanting to tell you anything else. We also called it the summer of negotiations.

Akilah: The notebook is very intimidating. Theresa’s daughter would always announce that there was a reporter in the room. People were more comfortable with journalists texting on their phones than pen and pad. It was an automatic barrier.

Samri Cooper from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Corporation: Can you talk about more what you hope from the series?  What are you hoping is the result of this beyond giving the neighborhood a voice?

Meghan: I came into it because I was wanted to answer the question about violence and I was sure I could answer it.  I believe this neighborhood needs more help beyond what the city and police provide.  The neighborhood needs a new approach, knowledge, and innovation.  I really don’t know what the city and the police can do that this point.

Cassandria (former resident of Upham’s Corner and also alum from DUSP): Did this project attract any resources to the neighborhood?  For example, so many people were outraged and felt connected to the bombings, but not many people feel the outrage of what happens in Bowdoin-Geneva.

Akillah: People have been contacting churches and asking what they can do to help.  We also had a community meeting and someone said to me think about all the power that was in that room.  People are actively talking and some of that talk has been put into action.  What can we do and how can we maintain something really positive?  It was a very personal thing going into a minority community and showing the nature of it.  People in privileged situations think they know what it is like to live in such communities, but folks from our readership may not necessarily know that.  

Meghan: One of the community meetings, people were angry because they said we showed too much of the violence.  And the non-profits got upset because some of their funders saw the series and asked, “What are you doing?”

Catherine from the Center for Civic Media: A journalist’s job is to report on what is extraordinary, but in this project you are reporting on the ordinary.  Has this project affected how you will report on communities that are violent in the future?  Will it affect the more daily reporting of communities like this?

Meghan: My job at the Globe is to write about disenfranchised communities.  This is an extension of what I do – but never something of this magnitude.  I was really proud of the Globe that we were able to do this kind of reporting.  It was a trying year and I have never been so close to this kind of grief.  I have been at the Globe for 10 years and when someone gets shot, we go and get photos of the people crying and say, “He was a great guy.  He wanted to go to college.”  We have never gone so in-depth and renews my faith in journalism.

Jenna: It is very hard to absorb something institutionally, but because this project was so big and involved so many people, I think it has changed for us in a fundamental way how we report about crimes and why these things are happen.  

Alexa thanks Becky Hurwitz at the Media Lab for making this all possible.

Live blogging contributed by Catherine D’Ignazio and Aditi Mehta