Chronicling Boston’s every move

Dunkin' Donuts/Jenna Duncan

Just like Dunkin' Donuts, Universal Hub has become a Boston staple for residents that want to know the latest community news. Through the website, readers can add their own photos or content, or contribute to the alternative pages. The most popular element of the site besides the main blog role is Wicked Good Guide to Boston English, with regional slang words and definitions.

Saturday and Sunday morning breakfasts are the only regular times Adam Gaffin is not on alert for breaking news, or searching online for Boston related content.

On those mornings, he keeps his laptop closed and smart phone in his pocket so he can enjoy a meal with his wife and daughter in their Roslindale home.

This courtesy isn’t extended to other times of the day, or running errands. Gaffin has posted a story from inside Sears as his family shopping.

Since 2009 managing Universal Hub, a popular Boston news blog, has been Gaffin’s full time job. Each morning he wakes up and checks his email, Twitter, various news regional news sources, the city website, Massachusetts Most Wanted. He filters everything he reads down to three to five things he’ll post online before it hits noon.

“I do work on the weekends. It drives my wife and daughter nuts,” the 53-year-old father said. “It’s more than full time. The news never stops.”

Gaffin is the driving force behind the content creation and tweeting, though he has some regular contributors. Throughout the day, he will stay as busy as he is in the morning whether he is at table or riding his stationary bike, and is constantly updating.

For the most part, he is the main writer, but other area journalism hobbyists contribute as well, like John Keith, 47, whose day job is selling real estate at his own company.

“The amount of content is amazing. It’s more than you could expect a group of people to write. It’s probably 10 times a day,” said Keith, who writes once every few months for Universal Hub. “There’s other sites that should be doing this now, like Patch by AOL, but they don’t.”

The website began as a fascination with the Internet when Gaffin learned of its power during the Tiananmen Square protests in China, where university students were coordinating through internal computers at their schools. As the Internet grew, he started a collection of newsgathering websites, which developed into a blog role of Boston writers.

He began adding more breaking and local news to the conversation himself because of a fascination in local stories. He recalls coming home from work and Washington Street was shut down for three quarters of a mile because two kids were shot, but he didn’t see the large news organizations cover it.

“The next day, it wasn’t in The Globe or Herald, so I wanted to start doing that kind of thing. You hear a lot of sirens and you first think, what is that?” Gaffin said. “I like telling people what just happened because you’re curious.”

When he began serious expansion of the site in 2005, the concept was that there was a lot happening in the community that Bostonians didn’t know about. These smaller stories were overlooked or buried by mainstream media, so a resident who heard fire trucks might not have their curiosity satisfied.

In 2009 when he was laid off from Network World. UH, he decided to try it as a full time job by boosting content and create more original posts.

The site has a developed audience, and includes original reporting from scanners or Licensing Board meetings, anecdotes and photos readers send in, and a variety of articles from publications like college newspapers to the Globe and hundreds of community blogs.

“He reports news you can’t get anywhere else, and he also aggregates news from just about every other website in the city,” Keith said. “He’s doing a lot of work that other people wouldn’t do on their own. It’s easier to see what’s going on through one source.”

The growth of the site has been in part because mainstream media doesn’t catch everything happening in the city, and now some of the large sources in Boston now turn to Gaffin for breaking news content.

At The Boston Globe, a push for breaking news content on the Metro Desk blog has co-ops and reporters writing small community updates much like Universal Hub, and look to Gaffin’s website for story ideas.

“Usually Adam’s website has something to back up what he’s saying,” said Amanda Cedrone, a part time Globe city desk co-op, who also fills two night reporting shifts a week. “Nothing on the scanner or Twitter is ever for sure, you have to look into it and it can be the complete opposite of what’s actually happening. But things that Adam will post he generally has more evidence for.”

As Twitter broke on the scene, there was more to post about and gave Gaffin a new medium as a Boston news curator, where he as nearly 12,000 followers and has sent out almost 53,000 tweets.

“The interesting thing about Twitter is it’s just this great news source,” he said. “I post a lot more, partly because of Twitter. When something breaks, before I was relying on blogs and people that don’t tend to do [report] in real time.”

Gaffin said he is still learning the kinks of Twitter, though. While he constantly retweets what people notice around the city (and instinctively tag him in), he will also tweet what he hears over the emergency services scanners. At times there can be a spread of misinformation, and he said the same journalistic principles apply online – verify before reporting.

The culture of Twitter has also made way for citizen journalists, allowing Gaffin to sit at home or in a Panera Bread and report what is happening in real time without being on the scene.

“Everyone walks around with a camera now; everyone is essentially a reporter,” he said. “News is a two-way conversation. There’s still a role for editors and journalists because it’s like a wire feed; you’re getting a vast amount of stuff and you still have to filter it.”

With the background of a journalist, Gaffin said he has faced issues trying to monetize the website, and earns his income from not only the website, but helping companies and individuals use the content management system Universal Hub runs on, Drupal. Ideally, he will be able to hire an advertising representative in the future, but that poses the problem of having to pay another person, which he can’t afford to do quite yet.

“The advertising is a completely different skill,” he said. “You have to deal with rejection a lot more. With advertising, you make a lot of calls and knock on a lot of doors.”

Because Gaffin is the only person behind Universal Hub, the site has developed a different feel, focusing on crime and the idiosyncrasies of Boston. He admitted he is a sucker for any animal story, and people will go out of their way to Tweet or email him about it, and his name has become synonymous with Universal Hub.

“He has such a wide readership that people will go to him first,” Keith said. “He has become the de facto source for community led, or community based, media.”


Mystic Coffee Roaster

Sharon Hepburn, of Mystic Coffee Roaster/Jenna Duncan

Over in Medford Square, Sharon Hepburn opened Mystic Coffee Roaster LLC., a coffee shop in the front and a coffee roaster in the back. Roasting a few times a week, Hepburn provides some of the freshest coffee in the area.

Using a drum roaster located to the right of the main kitchen area, Hepburn roasts several varieties of coffee beans to different preferences: light, medium and dark. She roasts about eight to 10 pounds of green beans at a time, and closely monitors each roast, which takes 14 to 16 minutes.

In an Excel spreadsheet, Hepburn has records of every roast she’s made in the past two years, tracking the roasters temperature and time every time, and commenting once the roast is done about how to turned out. This way, she can experiment with roasts and replicate the great ones, and not repeat previous mistakes.

Hepburn said she began using a small commercial roaster in home, and after taking a company buyout decided to make it her full time gig. Now, she roasts not only for her shop but also Heirloom Coffee, and sells her roasts online.

Click the photo to see a gallery of the machine and the roasting process.

Coffee Apps: Android style

I know that because I don’t have an iPhone, I’m missing out. I hear it all the time. But I love my Droid, and refuse to switch, even if the apps aren’t as good.

I stumbled upon a blog post on Android Authority recently that is made for me – the best Coffee apps for Droids. I fell head over heels.

The apps fall into two categories – how to make coffee, and where to find it. I am no barista and still don’t know how to make espresso, so we can scratch the how tos from my list.

I downloaded what seemed to be the best of the apps listed, and my favorite is My Coffee Card. It has the mapping technology that most of the other location-based apps do, but it also has a management system for your gift cards and allows you to pay for your coffee through the app. Though I haven’t gone this far, I have digitally input my random Starbucks giftcards that are left over from Christmas, which is a great reminder to use them. The mapping also allows for more selection – you can choose if you want WiFi, a joint that accepts payment through the application, and if the coffee shop has drive thru (okay, not applicable to me, but I can see how this would be immensely helpful to drivers on the go). Did I mention it’s free?

A few of these mapping apps are only available in certain cities, like New York and London, and I would love to see one come to Boston. The best of these seems to be “[City] Best Coffee app” – it digs deep into what each store offers far beyond just hours and Internet. It highlights the types of beans they sell and what machinery they use, so you know exactly what you’ll be getting in your cup before you step foot in the store.

Fellow coffee lovers and Android users should definitely download My Coffee Card, and check out the original post for more.

Final Project: Universal Hub

So it turns out finding other (better) coffee bloggers in the area isn’t easy. I couldn’t actually find a decent one, to be honest.

Instead, I am going to do the project on one of my favorite Boston blogs – Universal Hub. Run by Adam Gaffin, this website has posts from things overheard on the scanner to bizarre photos on the T, but is a great source of information for Boston news junkies. In addition to his website, he has a fantastic Twitter feed with over 11,000 followers where he retweets random wonderings of Bostonians (ex. I heard sirens here – what’s going on?), tweets what he seems to hear on the scanner, and of course links to posts on the site.

At this point, I’m unsure of how this will develop in terms of the structure between the video, photo stream, and story, but I think he has a large enough web presence to make each element interesting and unique. Maybe he’s a secret coffee junkie as well … you never know.

Kristen Lombardi addresses class

Last week, one of our professors former colleagues from The Boston Phoenix came and chatted with the class about the future of nonprofit journalism, and her experience as a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.

Kristen Lombardi is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and I’m excited to hear her speak again this weekend at the 2012 Christopher J. Georges Conference on College Journalism. At the Center for Public Integrity, Lombardi has worked on in-depth, long term stories most career journalists will never get to experience. Spending at least a year on projects, Lombardi shed light on sexual assault on college campuses and dangerous mining styles in Appalachia.

The biggest takeaways from her talk for me were two aspects: how nonprofit journalism works and its uncertain future, and the presentation of long form, investigative journalism.

Personally, nonprofit models like Lombardi’s employer and ProPublica have always appealed to me as a future career asperiation – the idea of working for an organization that works for no one and wants to serve the public interest and fix large, institutional problems is something I can only dream of while in J-School. However, I didn’t understand quite how it worked. Lombardi talked about how she will have to go to fundraisers and talk about her projects, and in addition to a reporter act as a fundraiser. But this is how she has the freedom to work on one story for 18 months, and let it naturally develop instead of feeling the pressure of arbitrarily imposed deadlines. For me, I think the trade off would definitely be worth it, and despite some doubts about the current business model, I think with enough effort this will be more than just a phase of journalism.

Also, I had never given much thought as to how to convey the information uncovered to a larger audience. The idea of partnerships with larger organizations and regional outfits seems to be really effective – enabling smaller news organization to take the information she uncovered and then localize it makes sense to have the biggest impact. The concept of sharing the information for the greater good makes a lot of sense, and is beneficial to everyone involved. Additionally, breaking up the story into different segments to make it more easily digestible is something I hadn’t given much thought, but when reading her work it made a lot of sense.


Mapping Project: Trinity Church

Trinity Church, a set on Flickr.
A standout of historic Copley Square, Trinity Church of Boston is one of the most significant buildings in the city. Built between 1872-77, it was the first major work by American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and was the first internationally acclaimed building in America.

In terms of its significance, the building remains in the American Instutite of Architects 10 most important buildings in America, and is the first time arts and architecture were viewed as a unified whole, explained Kathryn Acerbo-Bachmann, Director of Art & Architecture Programs at the church.

“I like to think of it as stepping into a painting,” she said. “It’s an important destination for anybody interested in architecture … You really need to come visit the church to have the full experience.”

The exterior of the building is a classic gothic cathedral of sorts, and when you step inside your idea of the church is flipped upside down. With classic large, painted glass with religious figures as well as 21,500 square feet of murals by American artists, there is a lot to take in. While the church pews have been updated, the chancel and alter are close to what I imagine it was when originally constructed, and there is a strong attention to detail in the molding, murals and even floor.

Even the base of the church remains intact – fixed on top of 4,500 wooden piles, similar to telephone poles.

The style used by Richardson was emulated worldwide, and just 10 years after the churches construction the architect died at age 43.

206 Clarendon St, Boston, MA 02116,  (617) 536.0944, At Copley T Stop. Guided tours vary by day, self tours at all hours. $7 for visitors, $5 with student ID.

Handicap accesible, open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 9:00 am–5:00 pm; Wednesday, 9:00 am—6:00 pm; Saturday 9:00 am–5:00 pm; Sunday 1:00 pm–6:00 pm.

Mapping as journalism

With the emergence of online media, engaging the new audience is absolutely essential. There tends to be an onset of ADD when someone sits down at a computer, clicking back and forth between social media, work, surfing the web and listening to music.

Because of this, I think mapping is a fun way to engage readers in an unconventional manner and inform them in a new way that’s more appealing to the web mentality. Each reader can have a different experience with interactive media based on their interests, which I think is invaluable.

The concept behind See Click Fix, a website where residents can report specific problems in their neighborhoods, is journalistic in the truest sense. It gives people an easy way to report civic problems instead of going through the usual channels of government, and in turn tells public officials what their constituents care about. Then, it enables journalists to see what are hot button issues in their range of coverage they may not have been aware of.

Also I think some interactive maps are the best way to portray certain information, that may be weird as a story. For example, this Wall Street Journal map shows the top 50 circulation papers in the country, what their largest problems are and what has happened to them over the past 3 years. This is perfect for the web because it is targeted, and something that would be a straight numbers story. Also by having the chart below with the same information displayed in a more traditional way, the WSJ enabled more traditional readers to get the information they want.

My only problem with mapping is when it isn’t well done or purposeful. I think it can look like you are trying too hard if the map doesn’t give an experience a reader couldn’t receive in a more traditional fashion. This National Geographic map of America’s best adventures is boring at best. All you can do is click the dots, and once you do a picture, vague headline, and link to the story is all that is provided – which redirects you to a brand new webpage. By doing this, I don’t think the reader gains anything more than if you made a list by region or state.

With more innovative and original ideas, I think mapping has a lot of potential in online media, but the industry needs to be purposeful when using this medium.