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Beard leaves, paywall goes up: R.I.P. Boston.com, 1995-2010?

It would be shocking if these two announcements were not intimately related: yesterday, Phoenix contributor Dan Kennedy broke the news that DAVE BEARD is leaving as the editor and "tweeter in chief" of Boston.com. Today the Globe announced that it will be severing BOSTON.COM into two pieces: BostonGlobe.com will put much of the Boston Globe's journalism behind a paywall, while Boston.com will remain a free site featuring breaking news, blogs, and webby content to be named later. 

It's easy to take Boston.com for granted, but take it from someone who's spent a lot of time analyzing what works and what doesn't in online news: Boston.com is the single-best city-dot-com site in the country (but probably will not be after the paywall -- more thoughts on that in a second). There are better newspaper sites -- such as the NYTimes.com. And there are smarter social-news-and-aggregator sites, like this one whose name Beard will not speak, not to mention the one he's leaving Boston.com to work for.

But Boston.com was something else, a hybrid of sorts. It got in early enough to grab the city-dot-com real estate, and then never lost sight of the online/community mission that sprung up around the journalism the Globe was creating. It's easy to slough off the cat-picture galleries and the mom blogs if you think of Boston.com as merely the Globe's home. But Boston.com has been more than that for quite some time. It's not been without serious missteps -- such as the community-news fight between the Globe's YourTown sites and Gatehouse's WickedLocal. But as I've watched the minutiae of Boston.com's evolution -- its big redesigns and small adjustments -- it's shocking to see how quickly the site adapts to new developments, while keeping the overall feel intact. They've had to manage potentially crippling infrastructure challenges -- at one point, for instance, they deleted every single historic comment from the site, in order to put a new user-commenting system in place. Users didn't leave en masse. The Globe was late to Twitter but, once they got in, they integrated it with great thoroughness, and with an intrinsic understanding of what the medium was useful for. 

I'll never admit any of this in public, of course. But we watched Boston.com closely -- because we knew how smart Beard was, and because they had a knack for finding really great plug-ins before anyone else had heard of them. This mostly revolved around geeky shit -- like which company they were using to score and tag their content with relevant metadata. But my admiration for the site extended to the big journalismy stuff, too. You can't mention Boston.com without mentioning The Big Picture, an idea so simple (let's make the pictures REALLY BIG) that it tends to overshadow how consistently fantastic, meaningful, and disruptive the execution  of that idea has been.

I say all of this to lament what appears to be the end of Boston.com. 

There will be endless parsing of the Globe's decision to put a bunch of its journalism behind a paywall, and as everyone knows by now, intelligent people can disagree about whether these things are gonna make money or kill their publishers. Putting aside that argument, the most basic thing to understand is this: what made Boston.com such a great site was that it was both city-dot-com and a really great newspaper site -- and that it is now headed for a vastly more conventional model by splitting those missions up. This is really great news for the Globe's competitors, including the Phoenix. So why the fuck am I so bummed out about it?

Don't quote me on the numbers, but I think Boston.com is something like the sixth-biggest city-dot-com site in the nation, even though we're something like the 14th biggest market. The site constantly over-performs for the size of the audience. What we may find out, in this age of aggregator sites that offer a higher content-to-human ratio, is that the Globe maintained Boston.com through sheer expensive-as-shit manpower, not through techie efficiency, and that as such its greatness was simply not scalable and supportable in the current ad market. Please God tell us journalists that was not the case. Please tell us someone over there just made a shitty decision and that, if things had gone a little differently, there would still be room in the world for the city's biggest enterprise reporting operation to share a URL with its largest community site.  Because if not, we're all going to be working for ProPublicas in a couple years.

I know all the arguments, and I can't stand the smug look on Clay Shirkey's face either, but I fear Clay Shirkey is right. He's right when he points out that the Phoenix broke the Catholic Church's pedophile-priest scandal, but that it took the Globe's institutional muscle and its millions in legal fees to turn it into an international story and a global reform movement. He's right when he says it also took something else: it took Boston.com not being behind a paywall -- so that the story could get emailed and linked all over the country. No, I don't think the Globe is stupid -- and yes, I think when the Globe thinks they have a blockbuster on their hands they'll have Shirkey's words in the back of their heads, and they'll put the story somewhere that people can get to it.

But I also think that only works when a story meets the Globe's agenda. What happens when the Globe doesn't realize it's got an international blockbuster on its hands? The idea that the newspaper will in some way be running the decisions about what goes behind the paywall and what gets thrown out with the blogs and the forums on Boston.com -- well, that's not encouraging. The only person currently at the Globe who could've managed that process was . . . Dave Beard. I haven't spoken to Beard, but it's hard not to see his decision to take a job at the National Journal as a vote of no-confidence. But it kind of doesn't matter even if it's just a coincidence. The fact is that the Globe is headed into a potentially disastrous strategy, and is doing so without the man who has been their general for the past four years. And in internet years, four is pretty much forever. 

On Monday night, Beard filled in last-minute to represent the Globe at a meeting of the local chapter of Hacks and Hackers -- where he played referee between warring members of the Gatehouse and Patch clans, even admirably smoothing over the Globe's own fight with Gatehouse, and offered his typically patient yet impassioned pitch about Boston.com's mission. In retrospect, I guess maybe he did sound a little elegiac -- he was describing how, when he'd started, the editorial process was entirely print focused. And that now the process of getting news online first -- and written in web-friendly paragraphs -- had become part of the newsroom's DNA. 

What becomes of that DNA now that the Globe has decided to put its journalism behind a paywall? Do you withhold details from the free site to encourage people to come in through the pay-door? If the best journalism in Boston is available only to those who can afford to pay for it, who will step into the gap to produce high-quality investigative work for the rest of us? And who in creation is the Globe going to get to run this shit-show?

So long, Boston.com. You had a nice run. 

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