Smack-down on Herald Square

My first thought is that the Herald's stunning page 1 photo today of an unidentified heroin user in the process of killing himself in the Public Garden probably shrunk the tragic story of the cabbie apparently killed over a $7 fare from a full front-page splash to a half-page tease. Death in the Garden
(The Globe also played the cabbie death on page 1, which devalues the story for the Herald, which is trying hard, understandably, to be the anti-Globe.)

My second thought is that's too bad. To me, the tale of the Haitian cabbie studying to be a clergyman killed over a pittance is one of those grinding, aching, and infuriating stories about life in the big city that begs for the full tabloid treatment. The tale and picture of the dead junkie, which the Herald captured because its photographer, amazingly, just happened to be at the Public Garden at the time, is something else: A freaky and freakish occurrance that has no real value other than shock and no real context other than death. (I'm not saying the story and photo didn't belong in the paper, just not on page 1.)

Now I know Herald defenders will claim the story is about the scourge of drug use, even in one of our city's most precious green spaces. And the paper included a short sidebar with a quickie stat about growing drug abuse deaths beween 2002 and 2003. Fine, if heroin is really a serious problem that we should be worried and care about -- then let's see more.

My real complaint is that the heroin story doesn't work on page 1 because there's no emotional connection between the readers and the tale -- a key element of the most effective tabloid journalism. It's an unidentified man dying at his own hand in front of our eyes in a fashion that leaves us in the role of dispassionate and disapproving voyeurs.

I understand what the new streamlined Herald with its "enterprise story" mantra is doing. It makes sense and it's starting to work. After a rocky patch of inconsistency -- and sometimes incoherence -- the Herald's new model and page 1 strategy is taking shape. And anyone who loves journalism in this town is rooting for it to work.

I just think that today -- regardless of what the Globe did -- the O.D. belonged inside the paper and the cabbie deserved every ounce of the Herald's passionate page-one populism.
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