The Boston.com chameleon

“I think Boston.com is going to have a little more edge to it,” Boston Globe CEO Mike Sheehan told CommonWealth magazine last summer in laying out his vision for the bifurcated web presence. “It’ll be quicker, breezier.”

File that prediction in the “Be careful what you wish for” folder. The “quicker, breezier” website appears to be gaining so much edge that it’s inflicting some severe wounds that call into question whether the online alt identity of the Globe should be rebooted or even deleted.

The latest dust storm revolves around a snarky blog post parading as a news item making fun of the death threat against House Speaker John Boehner. The story (add quotation fingers) made light of allegations that an Ohio bartender had said he could poison Boehner’s drinks under a headline (since removed) that asks “Would anyone have noticed if Bartender Succeeded in Poisoning John Boehner?” The piece then makes references to rumors of the Speaker’s drinking habits.

“Had he been poisoned as planned, perhaps his pickled liver could have filtered out the toxins,” wrote now-former associate editor Victor Paul Alvarez.

It took a while – prompted mainly by reaction from Boehner’s office and the local and national press – but Sheehan finally weighed in.

“It’s very difficult to hit the epicenter of tasteless, mean-spirited, and humorless in one fell swoop,” he told the Globe.

Alvarez, who posted the picture of the underside of a bus on his Twitter account, took the fall and the responsibility but the fairer question is why just him? It may be because there isn’t anyone else at the helm to blame. Boston.com lost its short-lived top editor and has yet to find a replacement, leaving executives in charge whose backgrounds are in business, technology, and/or advertising. Note the absence of journalism. And that appears to be the nub of the problem.

It’s the second high-profile journalistic faux pas at the website in less than a month and the two episodes were treated vastly differently. In December, the site had a story that went viral about a Harvard business professor who was excoriated for sending demeaning emails to a family-owned Chinese restaurant.

But in an effort to get ahead and remain edgy, the reporter/associate editor (they seem to have a lot of those) Hilary Sargent ran a story that was quickly taken down about a purported racist-tinged email from the professor that was, in fact, never verified before going up. Sargent also did a little marketing by creating a snarky t-shirt of the episode and put it up for sale on Twitter. Sargent was suspended, though not fired.

Again, the lack of a top editor was blamed along with the fact that protocol wasn’t followed of having another set of eyes review stories before posting. But that’s not just protocol; that’s basic fundamental journalism. It’s called editing; hitting the send button while giggling is called social media.

When Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com became separate entities, all Globe content was put behind the latter’s paywall and the dot com crew was left to find its own way, charged with competing – but not too much – with the Globe news stories. The result is predictable. It’s a site that is part blog, part aggregator, part calendar, part entertainment, some good sports coverage, a little bit of breaking news, and a whole lot of identity issues.

There is no shortage of ideas about what to do with Boston.com. Dan Kennedy offers a comprehensive vision to just give up the news ghost and make it into a full-time culture and entertainment destination, somewhat along the lines of Crux and BetaBoston that have defined missions.

The lesson, though, may be in Sheehan’s unintentional observation to CommonWealth about what makes and defines journalism on both the delivery and receiving ends.

“Boston.com is great five times a day, 10 times a day, 20 times a day,” Sheehan said last summer. “But it should lead you to the Globe where you go for nutrition. That’s where you go for your meals, but you’ve got to pay for it. You’ve got to pay for journalism.”

–JACK SULLIVAN

BEACON HILL

Senate President Stan Rosenberg puts forward new rules to make the chamber’s debates more open and transparent, State House News reports.

More than 100 out-of-state wineries have taken out permits under a new state law to ship their product directly to Bay State consumers, the Lowell Sun reports.

Greater Boston takes a look at Gov. Charlie Baker‘s plans to turn around the troubled Department of Children and Families.

Attorney General Martha Coakley accepts a fellowship at Harvard.

Colman M. Herman, writing in the Boston Herald, calls for an overhaul of the state’s Public Records Law.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston’s new homeless shelter, put together at breakneck speed, is open for business.

CASINOS

Steve Wynn, giving a speech in Boston, decides not to unveil a rendering of the new design for his Everett hotel-casino and instead takes some gentle gibes at Mayor Marty Walsh.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Starting Friday, the Obama administration has eased travel restrictions to Cuba, clearing the way for many more Americans to visit the communist island and even bring back up to $100 of Cuban cigars.

Lawmakers in Texas and South Carolina, where federal courts struck down bans on gay marriage, are pushing legislation that would cut off pay for public officials who issue marriage licenses to gay couples or perform or recognize same-sex weddings.

Keller@Large says with the far left and right both dismissing a potential third presidential run by Mitt Romney, he just may warrant another look. But Matt Viser suggests the wariness of another Romney run isn’t restricted to those at the ideological ends but includes GOP power brokers.

OLYMPICS

In an example of reading the same thing differently based on where you stand, Shirley Leung suggests a robo-poll for an unidentified client showing 55 percent of state residents support an Olympics is only the beginning of what will become snowballing support for the effort, while Scot Lehigh says “that level of support can’t truly be called vast” and suggests an advisory question on the matter be put on the fall municipal election ballot in Boston.

Joanna Weiss writes that yesterday’s protests shutting down I-93 could be a taste of what’s to come from one wing of the anti-Olympics efforts.

RELIGION

The Presbyterian Church‘s national organization has pulled ads for a fundraising campaign that were criticized as being racist and demeaning.

ELECTIONS

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker moves toward a presidential run, Time reports.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The developer of the former Weymouth naval air base, who received legislative authority for more control over the project, has sold a piece of the property for a housing complex and used the money to pay off a delinquent tax bill.

A 63,000-square-foot Star Market will be part of a mixed-used development project taking shape next to Boston’s North Station, the Herald reports.

HEALTH CARE

Steward Health Care and Southcoast Health System are involved in a dispute over Steward’s plan to put a cardiac catheterization lab at St. Anne’s Hospital in Fall River, which Southcoast says is unnecessary because nearby Charlton Hospital offers the same services already. CommonWealth reports that Steward seems to be making its own rules regarding hospitals despite state regulations controlling decisions. The Globe, like CommonWealth, also takes note of Steward’s defiant posture, saying it failed to make payment on an initial round of fines that was due in December.

TRANSPORTATION

Fallout continues over Thursday’s protest that blocked rush-hour traffic coming into Boston as the family of an accident victim said they were livid the ambulance carrying the 83-year-old Easton man had to be diverted to a Brockton hospital unable to handle his serious injuries. Meanwhile, state Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut files legislation that would make it a felony to harm someone by purposefully blocking access to a public roadway, the Lowell Sun reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A new study published in the journal Science says much of the world’s ocean life faces mass extinction because of catastrophic man-made impacts.

The Attorney General’s office has fined a Chelsea-based retail electricity supplier $4 million to satisfy charges the company engaged in fraudulent business practices by duping elderly, low-income, and immigrant customers to switch electricity providers.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Gov. Charlie Baker has officially appointed acting Bristol District Attorney Thomas Quinn to the post after questions arose when the new governor made a blanket rescission of all former governor Deval Patrick‘s appointments made in his final days.

Baker has scrapped new pardon guidelines put in place by Patrick.

Jury selection in the Boston Marathon bombing trial is slow-going, as would-be panelists are questioned by the judge on their views on the death penalty and other issues.

Prominent Marblehead attorney John McBride pleads guilty to charges of tax and bank fraud, the Salem News reports.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

MEDIA

New Media Investment Group begins to consolidate its local printing operations at the Providence Journal. The Cape Cod Times is moving its printing operations there.