Q&A: Behind The Globe's “68 Blocks” Series (now available as an e-book)

The easiest, most obvious, and typically accurate criticism of urban crime reporting is that the big picture gets lost in all the noise. As reporters jump from crime scene to crime scene – seeking out detectives for quotes, interviewing witnesses – it's easy to ignore the systemic malfunctions that have kept poor neighborhoods broken for decades. This is especially true of tabloid coverage, though the Globe – along with every other big city paper-of-record in America – has certainly peddled its share of superficial sensationalism. It's an understandable reality – not every article can be a granular feature-length investigation, nor should they be.

With that said, Globe editors appear to understand the need to dig deeper. Their Spotlight Team is one of the toughest truth squads anywhere. Likewise, the paper's political reporting in recent years – even in turbulent financial times – has rolled heads from the probation department to Beacon Hill. Given those convictions, the Globe, more than most other dailies nationwide, explores and illustrates communities that are most impacted by savage social inequalities. Still, the paper's 68 Blocks series on the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester, published last December, was a massive undertaking that courageously soared above the call of duty.

With five reporters working full-time, plus assists from extended staff affiliates like photographers and programmers, the Globe put a magnifying glass on one of the Hub's most troubled areas, a veritable Bermuda Triangle of senseless violence. They documented stories stemming out of good times and bad times, war and peace; along the way, they wove in tales of faith, fear, food, famine, and all the other things that inner-city life is made of. Parts of the project exemplified embedded journalism at its finest; writers Meghan Irons and Akilah Johnson even lived in Bowdoin-Geneva, in an apartment on Mt. Ida Road, for six months of their reporting.

In addition to the gripping, informative prose, 68 Blocks came stacked with charts, pics, vignettes, videos, and other bells and whistles that helped lift the stories off the page. Those made for an impressive online presentation, as well as for a badass spread in print. And in taking their dynamic approach one step further, the Globe has now released an e-book of the series that showcases all of the components in the most streamlined fashion yet. With that in mind, we spoke with enterprise editor Steve Wilmsen, who worked on all facets of 68 Blocks, about the research and design process, and about why his team continues to pursue these kinds of endeavors.

What compelled the Globe to engage such a massive task as the 68 Blocks series?

There were a couple of things. One was that it seems like almost every year there's some especially horrific murder – if not in a neighborhood right here, then somewhere else where there's endemic violence. Often we'd have intensive coverage, but we'd leave feeling unsatisfied . . .

Another thing was that in the fall of 2011, a [16-year-old] named Jaivon Blake was killed while walking to the drugstore [in the Bowdoin-Geneva area]. It was one of those things that had a ring of familiarity, but was really horrifying at the same time . . . We wanted to look in a real and significant way at this complex picture. With this, we're trying to uncover the roots of things.

What was your personal role in the production of everything?

I was the guy who ran the operation for a year. We really started talking about it starting in the fall [of 2011], then we really started in earnest after the first of the year. We wanted to bring every department that we have to this – to look at this neighborhood, and to look at the clearly complex issue of youth violence through every kind of media we have. We first got everyone in a room [last] January, and did that pretty much every week from that point on.

When and why did the house come into play? What's the story behind that? And how did taking up temporary residence change the dynamic of – or the approach to – the series?

We started kicking around the idea early on – what if we actually moved into the place? There were a couple of things behind this. First, usually when there's a big murder, the cameras roll in, and then they leave. We wanted to show that we were trying our best to experience what was going on, and to actually work alongside people who live in the community . . .

Even just finding an apartment and moving in was a big deal. We were over there hanging blinds, and asking the whole newsroom if they had furniture to give us. We had an astounding response – one day we had a truck pick up furniture from all over the city and bring it over [to Mt. Ida]. It turned out to be an excellent thing to do. For a newspaper, I feel like it was a really serious commitment . . .

It gave us more credibility. Though it took us a long time to gain access and to win trust, ultimately being right there helped a lot. It was also an interesting experience for the reporters – they had a lot of great neighborly experiences. At the same time, within weeks of moving in, there were gunshots fired right outside, and cops asking to look in the backyard for bodies.


Did the reporters have many other responsibilities while this was underway? Or was this it?

There were the two reporters who lived full-time in the apartment, but as we moved into spring and summer, the others who were working on it were pretty much working on it full-time.

What were some of the major hurdles? Access to data? Access to subjects? The city's cooperation?

The data visualization people were key – it turned out that a lot of the things we wanted to do were much more difficult than we imagined. Access [to police data] was really hard to get . . .

We had people in the neighborhood who were welcoming, but who didn't want us to come inside for a long time. It was our reporters who won that trust ultimately.

The city has been trying to cope with violence. There was a lot of data that we wanted from the city – like on shootings – but we didn't get a lot of it until the very end. The main thing we explored was the shooting data, and legally, the kind of detail that we wanted is well protected by the courts.

In the wonderful world of e-publishing, do you see a future with more opportunities to produce content like this?

We went into this with the hope of employing all these new tools we have to push the envelope a little bit. So we deliberately got people in our media lab involved. One thing we did was to collect the “river” of Instagram [images] over the entire summer. Then we had a number of people go to work notifying those people, and interviewing them on tape. What we got out of it is a cool new way of showing what is happening in the community. It's not really us doing the reporting; it's people telling the world about their lives.

What is the Globe's responsibility moving forward after doing a project like this? What kind of connection is there now to that community, and how will the reporters follow up down the line?

We hope it will be the beginning of something. We've started by having a number of forums, and we're keeping in touch with all of the people in the piece. One of the original ideas was that we didn't know this community very well at all, and that we want to use [68 Blocks] as a launch pad as we move on. It wasn't all conscious, but it sure fell into place.

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