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Digging for attention

After the Big Dig tunnel tragedy, the Herald and the Globe put on a full-court press. Who came out on top?
By ADAM REILLY  |  July 19, 2006

PILGRIM'S PRIDE: The Herald pounded on the story from the beginning, publishing close to two dozen articles in the first two days.
A great big plant. That was the main image on the front cover of the Boston Globe on Tuesday, July 11. With the electronic media buzzing about the death of 38-year-old Milena Del Valle inside one of the Big Dig tunnels, the Globe was stuck with a page-one story about a blue agave reaching toward the skies on Beacon Hill.

Contrast that with the Boston Herald, which got an electrifying headline, TUNNEL HORROR, an equally electrifying subhead, “Falling Concrete Slab Kills Woman,” and a photo of the accident scene onto 140,000 of some 240,000 papers printed that day.

The Globe managed to get front-page coverage of the accident onto about 120,000 of its 418,000 papers. But that damn agave never budged.

As the New York dailies were running front covers of the Middle East edging toward war, Boston was enveloped in one of its biggest local stories in recent memory — the tunnel collapse inside the beleaguered $14.6 billion highway project at the heart of Boston’s transportation system.

The Herald — Boston’s self-styled Little Tabloid That Could — got there first, bragging about breaking the news on its Web site hours after the accident, and devoting 15 pages to Del Valle’s death and its aftermath on Wednesday. But while the Globe started slow, it quickly brought its considerable resources to bear on the story. Here’s how the dailies’ Big Dig battle played out.

Tuesday, July 11
Not only does the Herald manage to get an image of the accident scene onto more than half its print run, but it has a better write-up as well. Neither paper publishes the victims’ names Tuesday, but Herald reporters Michele McPhee and O’Ryan Johnson correctly report that the woman traveling in the car’s passenger seat died, while the man driving survived. In contrast, only 30,000 Globe readers actually learn that the accident involved a fatality. (The other 90,000 Globes that report the incident don’t mention the outcome.) There are good technical reasons for these disparities: most important, it’s far trickier to change the front page on a broadsheet with a 418,000-print run than on a tabloid with a much smaller circulation. Still, the Herald makes the Globe look sluggish coming out of the gate.

Wednesday, July 12
Another front-page coup for the Herald: a photo, snapped by a passing motorist using a camera phone, of the vehicle (now identified as belonging to the Del Valles) crushed by concrete in the I-90 connector. Viewed in tandem with a snapshot of Milena Del Valle, which sits just to the right, it’s a devastating image that wrenches the gut. The picture also makes it clear how her husband, Angel, survived: the concrete that would have crushed him is propped up by a wall to the car’s left.

Now, though, the Herald gets cocky. This is understandable — it’s won the front-page battle two days running — but also regrettable. The Herald brain trust apparently think they can own the story long term, so on page two, they indulge in a little boasting (“ broke the story of the Big Dig ceiling collapse at 2:18 am yesterday…. The Herald was the only Boston newspaper to completely remake its front page to reflect this tragedy…. For the latest news — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — rely on to tell you just what you want to know when you need to know it”). Elsewhere, the concept of saturation coverage gets taken to the extreme: Wednesday’s Herald features more than two dozen Big Dig–related articles, columns, illustrations, and sidebars, most flagged with a Pilgrim hat, the symbol of the Mass Pike — a nice aesthetic touch that links and brands the coverage nicely. The Globe has half that many stories.

A GIANT PLANT: The Globe can credibly argue that, after a slow start, it's been more effective than its crosstown rivals
Maybe Ken Chandler & Co. wanted to make their rivals at the Globe look shiftless; maybe they dreamed of a flood-the-zone Pulitzer, à la the New York Times post-9/11 or the Eagle-Tribune after several children drowned in Lawrence. But here’s the problem: there’s just not enough news to go around. The rule of thumb seems to be: never do one story if you can do two. For example, why not combine the story tagged “The backlash” (which details Attorney General Tom Reilly’s financial ties to Big Dig contractors) with “The governor” (which does the same for Governor Mitt Romney)? And how about merging “The commute” with “Lost time,” which chronicled commuter woes?

True, more stories mean more little Pilgrim hats. And some of the material is riveting — notably this account, from an unnamed Big Dig worker, of safety inspections in unidentified tunnels: “There were guys on a scissor lift banging the fasteners out with a hammer. If it didn’t pop out, they were on to the next one. I asked one of the guys, ‘Is that it?’ He goes, ‘Yup, that’s it.’ ” (This same story contains an intriguing but vague revelation: in 2004, a $500,000 change involving the installation of “adhesive anchors for the ceiling struts” was approved near the accident site.)

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Related: Whatever happened to Memogate?, When Rupert came to Boston, Leftward ho!, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Marty Baron,  More more >
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