A Globe story about you rates follow-up? Ask paper for a digital 'fresh start' on it

Last week, the Boston Globe announced with a front-page mention an editorial initiative it has dubbed “Fresh Start: Revisiting the past for a better future.” It is a program, the paper said, meant to address the lasting impact that “stories about past embarrassments, mistakes, or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.”

Confronting such stories and then doing something about them will involve a Fresh Start Committee, made up of 10 employees from across the Globe’s editorial departments and on boston.com, taking applications from readers asking the newspaper to update stories in the newspaper’s digital archive that have been published about them, and maybe render their names anonymously for searches on sites like Google.

Said the paper’s editor-in-chief, Brian McGrory, in the announcement: “It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects. Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.”

As a retired managing editor of the Globe, I salute the spirit that is driving this “experiment,” as one ranking editor called it. My sense is that a laying out of all the coverage in the Globe’s local news pages over the last 60 years or so allowed many readers to assume that life in the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Mattapan, where large numbers of people of color live, has been for the most part unremittingly about crime and violence. Of course, that has hardly been the case; traditional news stories from and about those neighborhoods abound in the Globe library.

Still, the daily headlines and article placements – done almost by rote as part of newspaper tradition that says “this happened, we reported on it, so put it into the paper” – have suggested the bleaker story overall.

The Globe’s approach to covering local news underwent significant changes during those six decades. By the late 1970s, when circulation outside Boston was growing at a steady pace, small-bore breaking news of fires and assaults outside a bar and road-rage incidents faded as fodder for substantial metro report display; the stories on the local news budgets scheduled for attention involved political issues and electioneering, racial matters – busing, housing, redlining, displacement – trends and cultural arts and medicine and science and business and sports that appealed to a larger audience, much of it comprising subscribers living outside the city proper where circulation was undergoing a decline.

The small-impact stories were still happening, and being reported on, and many of them deservedly were allotted space in the paper as part of the daily budget. Then there were the pop-up news items that occurred just before and after midnight.

For most of my last 25 years with the Globe (1976-2000), I was the last senior editor to leave the newsroom in the evening, often toward midnight, the time when the only official sources available to reporters on large-bore breaking stories – homicides, fatal fires, a multiple crash that blocked the Expressway, a riot near the Garden –are municipal police and fire officials. Those who will take a call from the newsroom or talk to a Globe reporter at the scene are usually working with barebones information about aggressors, victims, other participants, and related circumstances.

The potential for misinformation, with, perhaps, some of it delivered from a biased viewpoint, from these exchanges making it into the paper is ever present, and while the Globe will correct the facts when errors are presented to them, there mostly is no accounting in the paper afterwards for the personal effects published misinformation has had on individuals involved in the event.

I suspect those sorts of stories will be well represented in the filings the Globe will get with this new program. While many Globe articles about crime and punishment do get follow-up reporting and story play, too many others, often singular episodes that leave determinations of innocence or guilt for later on, receive no second mention in the paper. Rectifying situations where journalistic and humane justice has not been done will be a plus for the Globe and its readers.

I suspect, too, that patience will be a virtue as commission members go about their tasks, which seem likely to involve some re-reporting of old, even very old, stories and, in some cases, a re-thinking, of sorts, of the thinking of the reporters and editors who wrote the stories and headlines and captions and selected the photographs and then placed them and the stories on this page and not that one.

As with all such experiments, there certainly will be other such ruminations going forward, as in: What about the print archive? Is the assumption that stories long ago set and published in print only will not be changed, but maybe additionally carry an adjacent notice from the “Fresh Start” panel?

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The Boston Globe has been publishing continually since March 4, 1872, producing some 55,000 editions. It was strictly a newspaper until Oct. 30, 1995, when the website boston.com signed onto the media sphere and offered both subscribers and just folks a digital copy of the daily editions at no cost. News for free was a gift that stopped giving in 2011, when bostonglobe.com, a subscriber-only pay website, entered the market.

Circulation has risen and fallen with the times, reaching peak numbers of about 510,000 on weekdays and 830,000 on Sundays over the last 15 years of the 20th century. In the ensuing years to date, internet-fueled Goliaths like Google, Twitter, and Amazon have essentially stripped print media outlets of all stripes of their lifeblood, advertising, both display (the big ads), and classified (the small ones).

In the last 20 or so years, Globe print circulation numbers have dropped by more than 85 percent on weekdays and by some 80 percent on Sundays, according to published reports. On the other hand, paid digital-only Globe subscribers numbers passed 200,000 early last year, according to the paper, a figure the company had long pointed to as a marker along the road to a reinvigoration of the organization’s role as the dominant news media force in greater Boston and beyond. Stay tuned.