What the Hell Happened to Boston.com?

The site’s best and worst moments of the year all happened because of a $4 overcharge at a Chinese restaurant.

Last Thursday morning, Boston.com staff were called into a meeting to discuss what they thought was the worst mistake they would have to deal with that day. The previous evening, the site had posted a story accusing Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman of sending a racist email to a Sichuan Garden employee—only to retract the story a short time later, as it became clear that Edelman didn’t actually send the email, a key fact they hadn’t verified before going live with their version of events.

In the meeting, Corey Gottlieb, executive director of digital strategy and operations at Boston Globe Media Partners, assured the team that, this incident notwithstanding, Boston.com’s values and processes are solid. “There’s a reason this doesn’t happen every other week,” Gottlieb said. “This feels more like an exception.”

What Gottlieb probably didn’t know at the time was that the next act was unfolding right in front of him. The morning meeting was being secretly recorded, and the leaked audio would later land in the hands of a couple of media outlets around town, prompting rumors of disciplinary action of two staffers. And Hilary Sargent, the top editor in the room, would be handed a weeklong suspension after a “joke” she made online landed with a thud.

The strange silence out of both Boston.com and the Boston Globe at the end of last week left a lot of people believing that the fiasco was contained to a couple of lapses in judgment by one person at an otherwise trustworthy media organization. That’s not the case. It was the nearly inevitable failure of a high-wire act operating without anything close to adequate preparation or safeguards.

The site struck Internet gold last Tuesday with a reported story, by Sargent, about Edelman’s threat of a lawsuit against Sichuan Garden over a $4 overcharge. Thanks to strange quirks of contemporary human psychology beyond my ken, the story exploded worldwide. Riding their wave of virality, Boston.com dutifully published a series of follow-up stories, containing some pertinent information (evidence that Edelman had done this before) and some material of dubious relevance (how much Edelman paid for his house). The attitude of the stories, which had originally been rather reserved, became increasingly anti-Edelman—a point of view that was mirrored by most of the sites that picked up the story. At one point, the Boston.com newsroom ordered takeout from Sichuan Garden, and Sargent tweeted a photo of it. (That photo has since been removed from her stream, along with several others.)

The line between quasi-journalistic glee and pageview gluttony was crossed Wednesday evening, when the site posted a story, with Sargent listed as co-author, about a racist email sent under Edelman’s name; that article was taken down a short time later as it became clear that Boston.com could not verify that Edelman had sent it. This is what prompted the Thursday-morning meeting. That same day, Twitter was piling on Sargent for a T-shirt she had designed, mocking Edelman. By Friday, Sargent had been suspended for a week, and WGBH’s “Beat the Press” was leading its evening show with a segment of its analysts breaking down the story, the follow-ups, the T-shirt, and the leaked audio.

Before the meltdown—which is to say, pretty much everything Boston.com did after their big hit—the Edelman story had been a great success in terms of attention if not in Pulitzer-worthy depth of importance. I have no verification of Boston.com’s traffic, but the pageview numbers I’ve heard, if accurate, would make your head spin. It was a demonstration of what the site is trying to become: a portal that not only aggregates the news, but can break its own stories: “grab hold of them, own them, and turn them into must-read, must-share works of daily journalism.”

That’s the prescription included several months ago in a document that circulated among executives at Boston Globe Media Partners—the name adopted by the Globe’s parent company, now that it’s owned by John Henry—and it fits with what I’ve heard from others at the site now. On Saturday, in an article for the Globe reporting on its younger sibling’s screw-up, Globe editor Brian McGrory echoed that talking point by referring to Boston.com as a “worthy competitor” to his paper. Back in March, Globe content was removed from Boston.com, and Boston.com’s staff was physically relocated from the Globe newsroom. McGrory’s memo to staff at that time said that “Boston.com will remain a news site at its core, but with a sharper voice that better captures the sensibilities of Boston.”

In theory, this split between the two entities inoculates the Globe brand from confusion with Boston.com—something of great concern to many in the Globe newsroom, says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “People inside the Globe were not happy” with the association, Benton says. “Since John Henry’s purchase of the company [in October 2013], the strategy is to differentiate the two as much as possible. One is a paid product that represents Boston Globe content; the other is a free product.”

Those concerns have largely been confined to private discussions among veteran reporters. But last week’s scandal seemed to bring the tension to a boil, as evidenced by McGrory’s decision to hold a 45-minute meeting (reported by several outlets, including the Globe itself) with Globe staff to discuss fallout from the Edelman story. (McGrory could not be reached for comment for this story.)

In Saturday’s Globe, McGrory said that despite the multiple errors committed by Boston.com staffers, “the standards and values of the Globe apply across all our sites.” That seems increasingly difficult to defend.

Globe standards and values presumably require some level of Globe-quality decision-making in the editorial process. That is currently lacking at Boston.com, which was purged of its senior leadership shortly after Henry bought the company. Many key employees—from producers to product managers—were either fired or reassigned, and the site has been without a top editor for most of the past nine months.

Back in that March bloodbath, Boston.com let go its editor of three years, Ron Agrella, and moved its business manager fully to the Globe side. Matt Gross, a New York-based editor for Bon Appétit, was hired about six months later, but lasted less than two months on the job. He tells me shortly after his arrival, he realized that “they need someone who could be on 24/7… I have a family. I was having trouble keeping up,” Gross says. “I realized it wasn’t going to work.”

Sargent, a smart and creative writer who was once a Globe editorial assistant, has by default taken on something of an acting editor role—her official title, bestowed when Gross came onboard, is deputy editor—but her newsroom experience is limited. Last week’s lapses suggest she’s not someone to have at the top of a pyramid if you’re aiming for Globe standards.

Perhaps more troubling, it appears that Gottlieb is also playing de facto editor. Hired this spring, after stints at Harvard Business School and baseball’s MLB.com, Gottlieb has plenty of web business experience for his job title, but none as a journalist.

And yet, in that Thursday morning meeting with Boston.com staff, Gottlieb took full responsibility for the decision to run the racist-email story. “I pushed us to do this, and I shouldn’t have,” Gottlieb said in the meeting. “I just got a little overzealous… and a little greedy.”

In fact, it seems from the leaked audio of the meeting and other sources that Sargent had little, if anything, to do with the decision to run the racist-email story. Her suspension was strictly for the T-shirt incident, which is plenty—one wonders whether, for instance, someone on the Globe’s metro desk could have survived a stunt like that.

This all begs the question of why Gottlieb is making editorial decisions, or who else might be. Gross tells me that during his tenure Gottlieb was “a very active general manager in the life of the site.” (During the leaked audio, Gottlieb said that McGrory was involved in the decision to remove the racist-email story from the site, but sources say that it is very rare for McGrory to get involved with Boston.com editorial decisions.)

And now, according to a report this morning on BostInno, the editorial reins, at least in the interim, will be put in the hands of someone with no apparent newsroom editing experience at all: Eleanor Cleverly, Globe Media’s director of content for digital marketplaces. The same report suggests that Sargent is going to move into a senior writer’s role.

To this point, Boston.com has been extraordinarily lucky—fallout has been limited to tsk-tsking by media nerds, and Edelman has shown no sign that he’ll sue. (As WGBH’s Adam Reilly and Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy opined on “Beat The Press,” the site may have put itself at risk for a libel suit by publishing the fake racist email, compounded with the T-shirt episode, which seemed to betray an editor’s bias against the subject.)

Still, the whole episode raises plenty of thorny questions: Was it appropriate for Sargent and Boston.com to take sides against Edelman? Why has Sargent been disciplined, while Gottlieb—who seems to have encouraged his employees to recklessly publish a story without due journalistic process—has evidently gone scott free? Did the site really believe it stepped over a line only when Sargent made the T-shirt mocking the subject of its biggest scoop?

The answers to those questions would tell us a lot about the kind of site that Boston.com intends to be. Unfortunately, it appears that there is only one media outlet allowed to ask those types of questions: the Globe.

I attempted to interview Gottlieb on Friday afternoon about all of this, but he directed all inquiries to the Globe’s new outside public relations firm, which provided only a terse statement attributed to Globe CEO Mike Sheehan: “As a policy, we do not publicly comment on personnel matters.” Other media outlets who made inquiries of the Globe and Boston.com got similarly useless responses.

Sheehan and Gottlieb hid behind “policy,” but both men gave on-the-record interviews that very day, about those very same matters, to Jeremy C. Fox, a correspondent for the Globe. I know a few Globe reporters who would scream bloody murder at any institution that pulled something like this—just try to imagine the Red Sox allowing only a Globe reporter to ask about the Lester negotiations. Fox, to be sure, is nobody’s house organ or press-release writer, but Globe management is kidding itself if it doesn’t think they just made him look that way.

I quickly made note of this discrepancy to the PR firm, and asked again for interviews with Sheehan and Gottlieb; I eventually received an updated statement from Sheehan: “The journalist’s action is not something Boston.com condones and it was handled swiftly and appropriately as an internal personnel matter.”

The stonewalling continued into this week, after rumors swirled that two employees were being disciplined over the leaked audio. “As a policy, we do not publicly comment about personnel matters,” Gottleib said, again, through the PR firm.

Duly noted: When it comes to answering journalists’ difficult questions, the Globe’s policy is Do as we say, not as we do.

That refusal to talk is not likely to boost anybody’s confidence that Boston.com has its house in order.



Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that audio “would later be leaked to a couple of media outlets.” A Globe source disputes the grammar of the phrase ‘be leaked to a couple,’ suggesting that—in spite of the fact that several media outlets quickly obtained the audio—the audio was initially provided to only a single media outlet. We maintain that’s a distinction without a difference—and we cannot independently confirm the allegation that the audio was leaked to only one outlet—but we have updated our syntax out of sympathy to the poor whistleblowing saps caught up in this awful mess.