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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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