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Two hits, one big miss
The Heraldís new crime column crackles, the Globeís Sidekick stumbles, and the Timesí new public editor does some spanking
BY MARK JURKOWITZ

"The Beat," a new weekly column by police reporter Michele McPhee, is emblematic of the Boston Heraldís editorial direction after recent budget cuts thinned the newsroom. Sidekick, a new Boston Globe daily section reflects that paperís intensifying efforts to reach out to new readers in an era of eroding circulation and aging demographics. And Byron Calame, the new public editor at the New York Times, is a product of the culture of both introspection and outreach ushered in at that paper in the wake of the disastrous Jayson Blair scandal. Now that all three have been around long enough to create clear identities and impressions, itís time for a report card.

ON THE BEAT

Michele McPhee, the 35-year-old police-bureau chief ó and only person covering that beat ó for the Boston Herald, may be a model for the new stripped-down news department at a paper still reeling from dramatic changes. Having arrived at One Herald Square last December after eight years at the Daily News in New York, McPhee is young, energetic, and projects a sense of street smarts. The Herald has cultivated its share of aggressive female crime reporters ó most famously the tough-talking Michelle Caruso, who left in 1994 and is currently a West Coast reporter for the Daily News ó and McPhee looks like the latest to fit the bill. But now, with "enterprise reporting" (translation: stories the Globe doesnít have) as the paperís new mantra, there is more pressure than ever on its streamlined corps of reporters to come up with the goods.

In early August, the paper rewarded McPhee, who is viewed as a budding star, with a new Monday column, "The Beat." It often combines storytelling and sentimentality with a dose of public-policy advocacy.

A McPhee column about a 26-year-old man lying in Shattuck Hospital after being paralyzed in a 2003 shooting turns out to be a plea for spreading federal and local community-grant money around more equitably. Another column about the children of Boston firefighters and police killed in the line of duty who opted to follow in their fathersí footsteps delivers a pat on the back for a Massachusetts statute that allows the offspring of deceased public servants to go to the top of civil-service testing. This Mondayís column was sharply critical of the fact that a shortage of detox beds has forced women with addiction problems and no criminal records into long waits for treatment at MCI-Framingham.

It goes without saying that to be successful, a tabloid columnist has to play on the heartstrings and write in short, powerful bursts. On that score, credit McPhee for finding a moving angle on a very well-worn topic in her column from New York memorializing the fourth anniversary of 9/11. She had been there that day at Ground Zero, covering the carnage for the Daily News. And her column chose to focus on the last moments of the first official victim of the attack, Catholic chaplain Mychal Judge.

Her most lurid column, and one that made front-page news, was a description of the video depicting Joseph Druce ó the man charged with killing pedophile priest John Geoghan in jail ó re-enacting the alleged crime. "Itís a chilling pantomime of murderous violence performed by a man clearly flushed with self delight," she wrote in a dramatic opening sentence. In a column describing how the mother of a murdered Boston teenager and the mother of his murderer came together to start a support group for the parents of victims and criminals, she wrote that "A single .45 caliber bullet fired in 1993 exploded into a tragedy almost too ironic to contemplate." Nice touch.

The biggest challenges for "The Beat" are keeping it fresh, making it moving but not maudlin, and finding stories with unlikely and unpredictable good guys and bad guys. (The success of NBCís Law & Order can be in part attributed to creator Dick Wolfís willingness to portray people both on the right side and wrong side of the law as morally ambiguous.) So far, itís a welcome addition.

SPINNING OFF SIDEKICK

The Boston Globeís mid-July rollout of Sidekick ó which publisher Richard Gilman described as "fresh," "young," and "fun" ó has to be viewed in the context of a series of initiatives taken by the paper and its parent New York Times Co. to attract younger readers who donít have the newspaper habit. That includes the recent unveiling of Boston Uncovered, a magazine for Bostonís college population, and most significantly, the companyís purchase six months ago of a 49 percent stake in the Metro Boston newspaper, a free daily tabloid that is a quickie read for commuters and people who donít buy daily papers regularly.

Sidekick, a 16-page insert in the daily Globe with the ultra-utilitarian slogan "Your Guide to a Better Day," is also designed to appeal to infrequent readers. But its mission is considerably more muddled than both Boston Uncovered and the Metro. And itís far more confusing to thumb through than the paperís well-established weekly Calendar section, which it apparently seeks to emulate in many ways.

Sidekick breaks down this way: A front cover touting three things worth doing or seeing. Two inside pages pointing you in the same basic direction, four pages of TV listings and picks, two pages called "Youíre Up" that promote interactivity with the readers, and six pages of comic strips, games, puzzles, and astrological forecasts.

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Issue Date: September 23 - 28, 2005
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