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Newspapers in a Time of Need

Boston's papers shined after Monday's bombing. Then again, so did social media.

Getty/Darren McCollester

Immediately after a pair of explosions wracked the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, those who turned to the city’s two major newsrooms for facts would have found that both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald’s websites were down. Cell phones, which are supposed to provide calm and contact in exactly such an emergency, were failing bystanders, too, with overloaded towers making calls and text nearly impossible to transmit.

But my Facebook news feed, and probably yours as well, was quickly overcome with status updates from Boston friends telling their friends that they were unharmed. Perhaps even more took to Twitter to do the same. A moment had transpired—one of terrifying, if fugitive importance—where seemingly every American wondered if they knew someone who happened to be standing on that horrific stretch of Boylston Street. Because of social media’s ubiquity, many Americans quickly found out that they, mercifully, did not.

We’ve seen social media at work, for good and ill, in other, recent disasters, but not quite like this. After the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, we watched the heart-rending details trickle out on Twitter, but few of us had reason to fear we had a personal connection to the massacre (confined, as it was, to Sandy Hook Elementary). Some New Yorkers, as the tide surged and then receded during Hurricane Sandy, did use social media to confirm their safety—even if being “safe” usually meant, “I have enough beer for tonight.” But Twitter and Facebook, largely thanks to Instagram, were predominantly the domain of amateur photographers producing ruin porn.

Monday’s bombing in Boston was very different. The fear, needling and disorienting, that someone we know may have been harmed in a terrorist attack—as it appears to be, domestic or otherwise—hasn’t visited most of us for more than a decade. And under the burden of that fear, Facebook and Twitter became less facilitators of news than the tools themselves for producing a certain kind of news: “I’m OK.” It is the kind of personal news that social media has always prioritized, but that only takes on monumental importance when a daughter or father or former classmate lives in Boston, the extent of the disaster is unknown, and the websites of the town’s two major newspapers are down. 

So social media is being held up as the insentient hero of the day, and not without cause. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, frantic loved ones could visit the Google Person Finder page, which offered help with an almost poetically simple interface: two buttons that read “I’m looking for someone” and “I have information about someone.” The crumbs of fact we learned from social sharing sites as the afternoon wore on will undoubtedly shape the way each of us recalls this tragedy. Quartz’s Christopher Mims argues that this Vine clip of a local TV news broadcast, apparently uploaded by a user with just 355 Twitter followers, may become “the image by which we will all remember.”

We glimpsed Monday why the old-guard news organizations have ceded so much ground to new media. The speed with which news tidbits appear on social media mirrors, even encourages, the frantic pace of newsgathering in the hours after a disaster—when false leads and bad “facts” abound. Twitter may be a “truth machine” of sorts, with its crowd-sourced fact-checking, but any medium that place a premium on single, context-free morsels of news, like those eerie six seconds of video that Mims highlights, is of finite value.

The news outlets that yesterday failed our appetites for instant news offered something today that social media never can—not with consistent quality, anyway. The Boston Globe, its website resurrected, has already produced some of the most comprehensive accounts of what is known, and not known, about Monday's events. Layoffs and buyouts have gutted the newsroom in recent years, and still reporters and editors there offered: an interactive map of the explosions, annotated with the day’s most striking photos; a doctor-correspondent’s first-person account of the makeshift trauma unit for blast victims; a portrait of the 8-year-old boy killed in the blast; stories about affected businesses and schools, transportation safety, the fire at the JFK library that prompted fears of coordinated attacks; and finally, the one-stop-shop story. If that last one sounds easy—or perhaps, to some new-media prophets, a redundant relic—note that 14 reporters contributed to the report.

The Boston Herald, no stranger to layoffs itself, has done similar work, such as probing how easily one person may have caused such destruction and tracking down the roommate of the Saudi student whose apartment was searched by police. And surely the Boston Phoenix would have produced its own compelling coverage, injecting necessary skepticism and irreverence into the conversation—but the alt-weekly printed its final issue last month. S.I. Rosenbaum, a former Phoenix editor, instead captured scenes from the marathon for The New Republic, while her former colleague Chris Faraone tweeted updates about evacuations and road closures near the explosion sites. (TNR reached out to him, too.)

The upshot of all this is that while social media was producing necessary ephemera, reporters were hustling to produce articles with insight and hard-won answers, and working out of short-staffed newsrooms—or, in the case of former Phoenix staffers, no newsroom at all—in no small part because instant news has depressed the value of thoughtful, carefully vetted news. This is not to cast doubt on all news circulated on Twitter. Writing for io9, Annalee Newitz said, “Our social media networks may be maturing into trusted sources,” and I think that’s right (note the cautious “may be”). But accuracy is not the endgame of crisis reporting—the goal is to give a tragedy like this deeper explanation and examination. A good vantage point from which to admire the value of deeply reported and edited stories is the sprawling photo gallery posted by BuzzFeed, whose content is designed explicitly for social sharing (and whose content is often aggregated from social media). With its 56 photos, the increasingly graphic gallery, by a BuzzFeed staffer whose handle is “ryanhatesthis,” prioritizes quantity over quality: Add pictures with abandon—even fairly useless ones—and watch the clicks roll in.

This is not an either-or situation. Monday showed that social news and sharing excels at one thing, traditional reporting at another, and that the line separating them can blur. Yesterday’s most unforgettable video footage was filmed not by a random bystander but Globe reporter David Abel, whose news instinct propelled him toward the blast; then, old and new alike spread the footage around the world. But there's the rub. If Monday had been an ordinary Patriot's Day in Boston, and Abel's video merely showed runners finishing the Marathon, you would not have been able to view it without paying. Yesterday, though, the Globe suspended its paywall, making its product free at the instant it became most valuable. Certainly its coverage today is a strong advertisement for its product. But it may not be enough to inspire casual readers to subscribe. These readers may just assume that the next time a crisis strikes Boston, the Globe will let them through the door again.

No doubt the paper's executives are asking those questions today. The irony, of course, is that the Globe felt compelled to erect a paywall to make its brand of traditional, regional journalism profitable in our “free-sharing culture"—and yet, the expectations of that very culture likely pressured the paper to suspend its paywall. Today, the paper's articles are part of the social media stream, being shared widely on Facebook and Twitter and aggregated by new-media outlets, and its reporters, no doubt bleary-eyed, are getting the appreciation they deserve. One would be forgiven for thinking, at this moment, that everything is right in the media world—that legacy newspapers and social outlets have a perfectly complementary relationship. But tomorrow, it's back to one starving the other.

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden