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Restraint in the newsroom – for better or, maybe, worse

Michael JonasMichael JonasIf you were a casual follower of the special election primary for the state Senate’s First Suffolk District seat and learned results of the April 30 balloting the old-fashioned way, nothing seemed amiss. The daily papers the next morning reported that state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry had edged Rep. Nick Collins by a little less than 400 votes to capture the Democratic nomination.

But for anyone following the race more closely, which today means being glued to an Internet connection, the close contest between the two House colleagues proved to be quite the roller- coaster ride. That’s because early in the night, with only a small fraction of the district’s 77 precincts reporting, the Associated Press inexplicably called the race for Collins. Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, quickly followed suit by also declaring Collins the victor.

Meanwhile, in the Reporter newsroom, news editor Gintautas Dumcius was poring over the returns and working the phones trying to figure out what was happening. He said there had been a sense during the day among many operatives he talked to that Collins had the edge, and he had started to put the wheels in motion for the Reporter to deliver news of a Collins win. The AP call was now confirming the gut-driven speculation that had been circulating during the day.

As is common newsroom practice when an election is expected to be close, Dumcius had prepared drafts of two stories: one narrative outlining a Dorcena Forry win and one telling the tale of a Collins victory. He pasted the Collins victory story into the staging page on the Reporter website. “All I had to do at that point was write the top paragraph and hit ‘publish,’ ” he said in an interview. But Dumcius held off until he could confirm the result. He texted Mike Deehan, the paper’s correspondent at the Collins campaign party at the Blarney Stone in Fields Corner, asking whether he could confirm a Collins win.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t do it. Collins’s folks are saying it’s too close to call,’” said Dumcius.

He then reached out to the Dorcena Forry campaign, which told him the same thing. So Dumcius did what may be the hardest thing of all to do in the Twitter era of instant reporting: He did nothing.

Before long, he received a text from the Dorcena Forry camp saying they were declaring victory. He got on the phone with her campaign manager to confirm this. Meanwhile, Dumcius said Deehan reported in from the Collins party, where the AP call had put supporters in a celebratory mood.

“They started to sense something was wrong,” Dumcius said Deehan told him.

With the Dorcena Forry campaign declaring a win, Dumcius flipped the stories, preparing her victory story to go live on the Reporter website. He says he looked it over a few more times and then, a little before 10:30 pm, hit “post.” Shortly after, the AP retracted its call. Boston.com then pulled its Collins victory declaration from the website.

“It’s the craziest election night I’ve ever had,” says Dumcius. It’s still unclear what prompted the AP to project a state Senate primary based on incomplete returns, or why Boston.com followed that lead. The local Dorchester paper certainly didn’t want to get beat on calling an election in which the neighborhoods it covers were the chief battleground. In the end, the Reporter wasn’t. The best call of the night proved to be Dumcius’s decision to hold off until he had firm numbers himself or at least an unequivocal victory declaration from one of the two camps.

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There was much talk during the campaign about all the ways that the contest was yet another sign of the emergence of “new Boston,” a somewhat loose catch-all term that has come to represent the city’s shifting demographics. It has primarily referred to the big increases in minority population in the city, but at times it is also invoked to describe the influx of younger professionals to Boston or even to signal the increased willingness of voters of all backgrounds to support minority candidates for office.

The Senate primary drew particular attention because of the prospect of Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American, capturing a seat that has been held for decades by Irish-American sons of South Boston. A further “new Boston” storyline emerged in the race, however, when Collins, vying to continue the hold on the seat of Irish-American Southie pols, began promoting aggressively his efforts to win support in predominantly black precincts of Dorchester and Mattapan. If there was any hole in the Reporter’s coverage of the primary, I think this is where it showed up.

At one point, Collins held an endorsement press conference at the corner of Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue with a group of black residents billing themselves the “Communities United Committee.” The group included William Celester, a former Boston police superintendent, and the head of the state organization of minority law enforcement officers. But a press advisory promoting the event also listed Kathy Gabriel, a one-time state rep candidate who told the Reporter she hadn’t endorsed anyone in the race. Later in the campaign, the Collins camp issued a press release citing the support of black clergy, erroneously including Rev. Jeffrey Brown. Brown initially told the paper he was staying out of the race, but following the endorsement controversy he actually decided to back Dorcena Forry and recorded a “robocall” on her behalf.

While the Reporter didn’t shy away from reporting on what looked like classic bits of endorsement funny business, it never explored the broader storyline the endorsements were intended to project – that Collins was gaining real momentum among minority voters. In the end, that turned out not to be the case. Dorcena Forry beat Collins by margins of 7-to-1 or better in many minority-dominated precincts.

Whether those minority leaders who endorsed Collins actually had much political clout and could deliver votes to him seemed like a legitimate question from the start. Dumcius and Tom Mulvoy, the paper’s associate editor who is overseeing all of the state Senate race coverage, both said the short special election campaign cycle and limited reporting resources were reasons why the paper didn’t get to a deeper look at groups like Communities United. But Mulvoy also said that because there will always be extra scrutiny of the paper’s coverage of Dorcena Forry, who is married to Reporter publisher and editor Bill Forry, it was probably safer to stick to reporting the substantive endorsement misstatements rather than to “try to plumb the depths of emotion about the race in those particular neighborhoods.”

A story raising questions about whether the black leaders endorsing Collins had any real electoral juice to deliver might have looked like it was “playing defense on Linda’s side,” said Mulvoy. “That was part of the discussion, though it was not the deciding factor.”

Given the inherent awkwardness of the paper’s reporting on a contest involving Dorcena Forry, the narrower reporting that stuck to the endorsement kerfuffles may have been the right call. But I think it underlines the way in which certain types of stories that involve Dorcena Forry may end up being left for others to pursue.

Michael Jonas is executive editor of CommonWealth magazine, published by the nonpartisan Boston public policy think tank MassINC. He may be reached by email at dotnewsobudsman@gmail.com or by phone at 617-224-1624.