Brian McGrory, 51, was named editor of The Boston Globe just four months before the Boston Marathon bombings captured the world’s attention. Ten days into that coverage, McGrory spoke with David L. Marcus, NF ’96, the Globe’s former diplomatic correspondent, who worked with McGrory in the Globe’s Washington bureau in the 1990s.
McGrory, a Boston native who joined the Globe staff in 1989, has been a metro columnist as well as deputy managing editor for local news. The Boston Globe, currently up for sale by its owner, The New York Times, in 2011 launched BostonGlobe.com, a subscription-only website. Formerly, Boston.com was the newspaper’s host site. McGrory is in charge of editorial direction for the newspaper as well as both websites.
Brian McGrory in his office at The Boston Globe. Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe.
David L. Marcus: The Globe has been ahead on this story in many ways since the first day, but now it’s increasingly a national and international story. You’re a regional newspaper—will you lose your dominance?
Brian McGrory: It’s the story of a lifetime for everybody here. When two synchronized bombs go off at a major sporting event, it’s immediately a national story. We’ll continue to lead. We are well-positioned here, we are exceptionally well-sourced, we understand the sensibilities of Boston better than anybody else.
Tell me about your decision to eliminate the paywall after the bombings.
We wanted to serve the community as best we could, to get information out. We had the largest manhunt in the history of this city, the history of the region. Our goal was to get as much information out as we could.
On Friday, April 19, when the manhunt and capture were going on, our two sites—boston.com and globe.com—and mobile had over 36.5 million page views. A lot of those people kept coming back again and again.
What about the finances of lowering the paywall?
To be completely honest, in moments like this, we’re not concerned with immediate revenue. It’s part of who we are as The Boston Globe, as boston.com. I don’t mean to sound like I’m up on a high horse here, but we were more concerned with getting information to the community than making money, and in the long run it will solidify the relationship between us and the community, an enduring relationship.
How do you decide to stop giving away news, photos and videos? What happened?
We waited till the story calmed down, the urgency wasn’t there. After the Sunday paper, we resurrected the paywall in the early hours of Monday morning.
Tell me about the erroneous third-day story on your website that a suspect was in custody. Was it a mistake or did law enforcement use the media to flush out the perpetrators?
I don’t think law enforcement used the media. There was a chaotic situation throughout the day on Wednesday [April 17]. We had different people telling us different things. We had a gold standard law enforcement source tell a lead reporter something, and we went with it online for about an hour. Then we immediately explained [that the information was wrong].
Did the intense competition lead you to put out information before checking it?
We reported that after the AP, after CNN had been blaring this for a couple of hours, after Fox News went with it. I didn’t look at it like a competition issue. Historically, someone who had been an impeccable source just had wrong information.
How did you balance the need for speed against the need for accuracy?
The standard here is to always err on the side of accuracy. We are expected as the Globe to always be first, but we are also expected to be accurate. We held back a lot of times because we needed to be right. I was intimately involved in decisions. I like to think I still have a reporter’s sensibility. We also have seasoned reporters and editors.
How did you use social media from non-journalists as a basis for reporting?
Boston.com, increasingly a community website, still has a news spine. We used Twitter feeds from people we deemed to be reliable. We know who they are, we know their history.
And how do you make sure your own reporters use social media responsibly? How do you edit in real time?
[Globe reporter and current Nieman Fellow] David Abel was 10 feet away from the first bomb. He had the wherewithal to grab his notebooks and start tweeting. We have seasoned reporters with high standards, and we trusted them to tweet.
You covered a huge story with a staff that has been significantly reduced in the past few years.
We are a leaner staff, like every major metro newspaper, but it’s still a great staff and these people have been working day and night for a week and a half. If you could hold a notebook and get out there, we asked you to get out there. We were the first news organization to link the shootout and death [of a MIT police officer] to the Marathon bombings. We had sports copy editors in Watertown, an online producer on a Hubway [bike share] bicycle pedaling from Cambridge to Watertown. Reporters showed up unsolicited on the scene. We had 25-35 people out there at 3 a.m.
Where does the coverage go from here?
Look at yesterday’s front page [April 24]: A lead story about the issues of communications between [federal] agencies and why the FBI didn’t know more or share more. We matched anybody on that story. A terrific story on the low-budget operation these brothers had building these bombs. A story on local businesses and residents returning to Boylston Street. A story on a humble, quiet city worker leading a crew cleaning up the debris, the blood and evidence.
What does this coverage show about the viability of metro newspapers?
If anyone is every questioning whether newspapers are viable, it’s a ridiculous question. Our viability—more than that, our necessity—was shown day in and day out during this disaster. You weren’t going to get this kind of information from talking heads on TV, from the Internet, from bloggers and citizen journalists exclusively. This was about a really expansive team of talented, seasoned hard-working reporters hitting the streets, hitting the phones, doing whatever they had to 24 hours a day.
Your predecessor, Marty Baron, took over right before 9/11. The newsroom budget was more robust, and he sent reporters overseas for stories. Yet you haven’t sent anyone to Russia or Dagestan.
We’re working on that. It’s not easy to get a visa to do reporting in Dagestan.
David L. Marcus, a 1996, Nieman Fellow, has been a staff writer at The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, Newsday and U.S. News and World Report. He is the author of two books about education.