“Filling the News Gap” Panel Discussion

I participated in a panel discussion last month about the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, sponsored by Cambridge Community Television. Below is a video of the discussion, via CCTV:


Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Covering Chaos from Cambridge Community Television on Vimeo.


Panel to discuss citizen media and the marathon

I’ll be discussing covering the Marathon Bombings and the Watertown manhunt amid a chaotic breaking news atmosphere this Saturday as part of a panel moderated by Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy.

Media Nation

This Saturday, May 4, I’ll be moderating a panel at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library on how nontraditional journalism and citizen media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings. Titled “Covering Chaos,” the panel will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and will include:

  • Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for the media-reform organization Free Press and an expert on verification and trust with regard to citizen media.
  • Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student at Northeastern University whose coverage at the finish line and again in Watertown was featured on the website Medium. Dobbs wrote about what he learned in a recent guest post for Media Nation.
  • Catherine Cloutier, a producer for Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, which was a crucial source of information in the aftermath of the bombings. Cloutier was among those posting to the site’s live blog.

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Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

I wrote a piece for Media Nation, which is Northeastern Professor Dan Kennedy’s blog, about my experience covering the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt in Watertown later in the week. You can check that out above.

Media Nation

Note: Northeastern journalism student Taylor Dobbs covered the Boston Marathon bombings and the final standoff in Watertown from the scene of both incidents, publishing stories and photos in Medium. Here he offers some advice to young journalists: Show up; be a witness; tell us what you know; don’t guess at what you don’t know.

Taylor DobbsBy Taylor Dobbs

In a fast-moving, violent situation, fear and confusion naturally prevail. Facts and hard truths are at a premium, and the most difficult thing to do is separate these disparate pieces and figure out what is happening.

As a journalist, I knew this was my job on the ground when I arrived at the edge of the police perimeter on Monday, April 15, minutes after a pair of bombs echoed through the crowded streets of Boston and then again when I headed to MIT after shooting was reported on the campus.

Show up

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Boston bombing and Watertown manhunt

A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.
A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.

I live four blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, so I heard the bombs go off on Monday, April 15, 2013. A few minutes later, I was outside taking photos. I wrote for Medium about the experience of walking through Boston as it went from a city in celebration to something out of a movie; SWAT teams, Army National Guard troops on Boston Common and non-stop sirens. For Thursday, I wrote my column in The Huntington News about the bombings and the city in mourning Boston had become.

I was interviewed by BBC World News and Vermont’s Fox 44 about the day’s events, and one of my professors, Dan Kennedy, featured my post in a roundup of writing about the attack. My coverage on Twitter in the hours immediately after the explosions got the attention of Mark Fischetti, who wrote a post about the value of social media during breaking news events. Meg Heckman, a graduate student at Northeastern who I’ve had the pleasure of working with this semester, wrote about the “Golden Hour” of news and the potential Medium has to become a haven for the photo/essay style of my post there.

Then, on Thursday night, news broke of a shooting at MIT, just across the river from my apartment. I grabbed my phone and ran over the bridge, where I met up with Seth Mnookin and Brian D’Amico, an MIT professor of science writing and a breaking news photographer, respectively. I knew both from Twitter, but hadn’t met either. We were standing behind the police tape chatting when a group of police cars sped away from the scene. The three of us hopped into Seth’s car and followed. We ended up being the first reporters on the scene in Watertown, arriving minutes after a gun fight between the Tsarnaev brothers – ultimately named as suspects in Monday’s bombing – and police. I wrote my account of the night for Medium. Seth Mnookin wrote about the scene in Watertown for The New Yorker. Brian D’Amico published his photos on Flickr.

In my home state of Vermont, the Burlington Free Press’ Matt Ryan wrote a story about the adventure. The paper also published some of my iPhone photos from the night. My former editor, Anne Galloway of VTDigger.org, also wrote a story on the experience. I had the privilege of speaking with David Kroll’s newswriting class down at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. as well.

Reported Column: Sandwiches and Soldiers

I’ve been a columnist for The Huntington News this year, and recently got the chance to write a column about the family that runs a popular sandwich shop on Northeastern’s campus.


Sandwiches and soldiers, a family business

If you have been into Chicken Lou’s in the past couple of years, you might have noticed a photo of two Marines next to the cash register. Maybe you asked one day, like I did, who’s in it.

If you asked Denise Styffe, the white-haired woman whose boisterous personality behind the counter keeps Lou’s running during lunch rush, she probably didn’t take her eyes off the photo when she answered you. The Marines are her son Danny and her nephew Eric.

The pair grew up together in Arlington, the grandchildren of Lou Ferretti, better known as Chicken Lou. As Lou, Denise, her sister Dianne and her brother David served up lunch to Northeastern students for the past two decades, Danny and Eric were dreaming of putting on their uniforms and shipping off to war. Their units had a week-long overlap in North Carolina shortly before they were set to be sent to Afghanistan. They got to spend some time together, and that’s when the photo was taken. It’s the last time they’d ever see each other.

Weeks later, as Denise anxiously awaited Danny’s call from some base a world away, she got totally different news. Eric was dead. He’d died in his sleep shortly before he was set to join Danny and the thousands of other U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The call from Danny came a little while later. He was about to get on a helicopter and fly into harm’s way – a combat outpost where he’d stay for four to six weeks with no way to call home.

Her son’s temporary departure and her nephew’s permanent one made 2011 a difficult year for Styffe. As she helped Dianne, Eric’s mom, through the tragedy, she had the constant worry that a car full of Marines would pull up to the house, a sure sign that the worst had happened. But Eric’s death – at home in his bed, by some strange confluence of biological events – in an odd way, gave Denise a peace with the forces at work.

“No matter how much I worry, no matter how much I do, God makes His final decision,” Styffe says, sitting outside Chicken Lou’s on a sunny Monday afternoon.

“It’s hard,” she tells me more than once. She sends Danny a text every night before she goes to bed, knowing he won’t read them for months. But she wants him to know, upon his return, that she was thinking of him every night.

When I ask about Danny’s first tour, his mother raises her eyebrows and covers her eyes. He won a medal on that tour. Taking sniper fire from two places, she says, Danny ran into the open with a rocket launcher and took out one of them, returned to cover to load a new rocket and did it again. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor for his actions.

“When I found out I was …” Denise holds her arms out in a strangling motion.

“I kept telling him:  ‘When the bullets fly, play possum,’” she says. But she knows he won’t. With eight soldiers in his command now, Lance Corporal Daniel Styffe is trained to react first and think later. He’ll run into fire for them, and they’ll do the same for him. Denise knows that’s what keeps him and his men alive, but it doesn’t help her rest easy at night.

“Hey!” her brother David, a Northeastern alumnus, is yelling at me from behind the counter. “Don’t let her tell you she’s younger than me.” We all laugh (I didn’t ask her age), and I see the weight of the worry leave Denise.

The constant banter with her brother and her youngest son Tyler, who also works at Lou’s, make me feel less like I’m at a sandwich joint in the middle of campus and more like I somehow walked into the Styffe kitchen and struck up a conversation. In many ways I did; Chicken Lou himself came into work every day until he died in 2002. He sat in the worn green chair that you can still find between the drink coolers. It’s easy to see why Denise is able to come in to Lou’s and stay upbeat, with the support of her brother David and son Tyler under the same small roof along with many members of the Northeastern community who stop in and ask for updates.

Three weeks ago, Danny called in the middle of the night. She knew as soon as she saw the strange, four-digit number on the caller ID: He was getting on another helicopter, flying to another remote outpost. Going to war again.

At Chicken Lou’s that day, I asked Denise about her son, as I had a couple times before.

“I got the call last night, actually. He just went out,” she said cheerfully while she rang up my TKO, as though she was telling me about a hockey game he played in, not a war. No evidence of the weight of worry, or the hundreds of prayers or texts she would send over the next weeks and months, hoping that in time both will be answered.

Digging into an upstart candidate’s campaign

I spent much of my summer working at VTDigger following the campaign of TJ Donovan, a county prosecutor who took on a 15-year incumbent in the Democratic primary for Attorney General. As the election drew near, I wrote an in-depth piece on Donovan and his campaign.

A primary question: Can Donovan unseat Sorrell?

What does it take to unseat a 15-year incumbent who is well-liked inside the Democratic Party and who has executed his job well enough not to have faced a serious challenger his entire tenure?

That’s the question TJ Donovan and his campaign team have been trying to answer since the Chittenden County state’s attorney launched his primary campaign for Vermont attorney general in early May.

The young state’s attorney faced an uphill battle from the start: A poll taken in the spring showed Sorrell beating out Donovan two-to-one.

In a May interview about Donovan’s campaign launch, retired Middlebury political science professor Eric Davis wasn’t sure about the viability of the 38-year-old’s candidacy.

“I think TJ is off to a good start, but what he wants to do is historically unprecedented — no Democratic statewide officeholder has ever lost a primary,” Davis said.

Donovan’s response to the historic odds has been an aggressive campaign strategy that includes attempts at daily headline grabbing. His campaign has energetically tried to break into the news cycle by doling out individual endorsements from high profile unions and politicians from both sides of the aisle, and press releases on policy statements addressing what he sees as the issues of the day — prescription drug abuse, gay marriage rights, elder abuse and higher than necessary incarceration rates for low-level crimes.

His persistence and early efforts paid off. Donovan got at least eight endorsements from individuals and entities that have firsthand experience with the state’s crime problems — Republican mayors Thom Lauzon of Barre and Chris Louras of Rutland, the Vermont Troopers Association and the Vermont Sheriff’s Association – before Sorrell launched his campaign on May 30.

Read the rest at VTDigger.org.

A year after Irene, a family’s livelihood still in ruins

On assignment for VTDigger.org, I went to Stockbridge, Vt. last week to see the White River Valley Campground, which was almost completely destroyed when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont late August, 2011. Here’s that story.

Rebecca Smith can’t stand the sound of rushing water.

On Tuesday it will be a year since floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept away much of the campground she ran with her husband, Drew, just off Route 107 in Gaysville, a village in the town of Stockbridge.

Rebecca nearly drowned as she escaped the high water that engulfed their 22-acre property within a matter of minutes.

This week as she stood in the barren floodplain of the White River among rocks – most of them far too large to have come from the campground fire pits the floodwaters washed away – she describes how she heard the boulders knocking against each other as the river, now quietly running through a shallow bed of sand and stone, raged on that Sunday night a year ago.

Read the rest on VTDigger.org.

An investigation of Taser use by the Vermont State Police

Ariana Davidonis, whose mother Theresa considered Macadam Mason a "life partner," holds up a painting by Mason, who died after a Vermont State Police officer tased him June 20. Photo by Taylor Dobbs
Ariana Davidonis, whose mother Theresa considered Macadam Mason a “life partner,” holds up a painting by Mason, who died after a Vermont State Police officer tased him June 20. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

After the June 20 death of a 39-year-old Vermont artist after he was tased by a Vermont State Police officer, I wrote a series and conducted an investigation of all incidents of Taser use by the Vermont State Police since the general uniform division was equipped with the weapons in 2011.

Here are those stories (the culmination of my 5-week investigation is the final story on this post):

After a three-hour standoff, Shaffer ordered Mason to lay face down on the ground in an attempt to take him into protective custody. Noticing Mason was unarmed, Shaffer lowered his patrol rifle and drew his Taser X-26, L’Esperance said. Mason, who L’Esperance described as being 6 feet tall and 195 pounds, began yelling and moving towards Shaffer, who began to fear for his safety and activated the Taser. Its electrical probes landed in Mason’s chest.

Read more.

Artwork spills out of the small home on a dirt road a couple miles outside Thetford Center, where Theresa and Ariana Davidonis live. A wooden archway stands in front of the vinyl-sided home at the beginning of a stone path around the house to a patio, furnished with a small wooden table. Inside, a painting sits unfinished.

The archway, the table, the stone path, the patio the painting — all were created by Macadam Mason.

Another archway stands at the back edge of the patio, feet from where Mason was standing when Vermont State Police Trooper David Shaffer triggered his Taser Wednesday evening, striking Mason in the chest. Loved ones watched from a large picture window on the side of the house as Shaffer, and subsequently, EMTs, tried to revive Mason. Despite their attempts, Mason was declared dead upon arrival at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Read more.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Shumlin defended state police, calling questions from the press about the incident inappropriate.

“Listen, team: We’ve got an investigation going on and we’re not going to go into the details until they come out,” Shumlin said. “This is what I want to say: You go out there as a law enforcement officer, have someone threaten to kill you, threaten to kill other people, and then second-guess every move they make when they make them. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Asked if the Tasering of someone with a history of seizures or other health issues was questionable, Shumlin stopped a reporter mid-question.

“So what are the state police supposed to do, get a medical records check before they use a Taser?” he asked.

Read more.

The training, a product of 2004 legislation that appropriated $50,000 to enhance officers’ ability to respond to mental health crises, became mandatory in 2006, starting with the 82nd Basic Police Academy Class, officials say. Shaffer was in the 81st.

Read more.

The petition, hosted online by SignOn.org, a subsidiary of MoveOn.org, was created by Morgan Brown, a citizen mental health advocate in Montpelier, after what Brown said was an unsatisfactory response from Shumlin.

“The governor basically made it clear what his position was,” Brown said. “He made his statements … and all we could do was respond, and what would have been better is … to really talk to some of the stakeholders and the different people who try to see this addressed and have a very meaningful dialogue.”

Read more.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, Davidonis accused Shaffer of negligence, trespassing and misuse of his Taser.

Thomas Costello, a Brattleboro lawyer representing Davidonis, said the lawsuit is still in its early stages.

“We haven’t served [the state] yet,” he said. But Costello says the State Police policy on Taser use fails to properly account for subjects in mental health crisis.

Read more.

Macadam Mason was alone on June 20, and that wasn’t unusual. The 39-year-old Thetford artist often worked at home painting and sculpting while his girlfriend, Theresa Davidonis, met with clients at her nearby hair salon.

Davidonis was glad to get out of the house that Wednesday while Mason recovered from an epileptic seizure he’d had the previous day. She steered clear as she knew he could be moody and withdrawn after a seizure.

In 2011, Mason had more than 10 epileptic incidents that led to spells of temperamental behavior. A recovering alcoholic, he had been sober for three years. Despite his physical and mental challenges, Davidonis’ family described him as a “teddy bear.” He especially adored Theresa’s grandson Carter.

Under other circumstances, June 20 — Carter’s third birthday — would have been a happy occasion. Instead, on a day when the family should have been celebrating, Mason wound up dead after he was tased by state police.

It was the first death in Vermont after a police Taser deployment.

A VTDigger.org analysis of police incident reports shows that since all troopers were issued Tasers in April 2011 (a special unit has had the devices since 2006), stun guns have been fired 33 times. Of the 53 officers who have drawn a Taser, 14 troopers have done so multiple times.

It is unclear, based on police records, how often troopers have fired stun guns on people with mental health problems and/or medical conditions.

Read more.

Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog, highlighted some of their takeaways from the story here.

Update, Sept. 30, 2012: The results of Mason’s autopsy, released by Vermont State Police this week, say Mason died because of “sudden cardiac death due to a conducted electrical weapon discharge.” Read the story on VTDigger.

A look at Campaign for Vermont

Over at VTDigger, I looked into Campaign for Vermont, a group that emerged last fall putting ads on the radio. In response, one of the founders wrote an op-ed criticizing the piece and Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog picked it up. Here are those three posts in part; click through to read them in full.

Why is Bruce Lisman spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ‘start a conversation’?

Campaign for Vermont became a player on the political scene in Vermont late last year — thanks to the largesse of a single wealthy individual and an aggressive local media advertising blitz.

But eight months since a group of prominent conservatives founded the 501(c)(4) organization, its purpose remains unclear.

What is Campaign for Vermont, and more to the point, what is the group trying to accomplish?

The founder of Campaign for Vermont, Bruce Lisman, says the organization doesn’t adhere to a political point of view, but the group has pushed for fiscally conservative ideas outside the traditional Republican Party construct.

Campaign for Vermont, through hyperlocal radio advertising, has indirectly criticized “Montpelier,” a.k.a. Democrats who hold the governor’s office and the Statehouse, for “out-of-control” state spending. It has also chastised the executive and legislative branches for not being transparent enough about the way taxpayer dollars are used by state government.

In a recent email missive to supporters, Lisman wrote that “Campaign for Vermont believes that higher property taxes, increased electric rates and a risky health care scheme will strangle a vibrant economy.”

Lisman, a native of Burlington’s North End, and a former executive with Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan, says he is trying to draw attention to the state’s financial future through a “campaign for a prosperous economy.”

Listen closely to GOP candidates such as Randy Brock, who is running for governor, and Wendy Wilton, who is making a bid for state treasurer, and familiar Campaign for Vermont themes emerge.

After months of Campaign for Vermont’s focus on “prosperity,” Brock’s media consultant Robert Wickers said in a statement that “[a]s Vermonters learn more about Randy, and hear his positive message of economic growth and prosperity, this race will tighten.” Brock and Campaign for Vermont have also criticized the growth of the budget this year (an overall rate of 6.3 percent).

In the group’s first radio advertisement, Lisman said, “It’s time to use modern technology to make Vermont state government totally transparent and accountable to every citizen.”

Wilton, at her campaign launch for treasurer, echoed that sentiment: “Information is key, but it’s the ease of that information that’s really important too. Because it’s got to be readily available, you’ve got to be able to see it and understand it, and it can’t be in some really arcane spot within the state’s website where you’d never find it even if you put it in a search function. It’s got to be somewhere where people can see it easily.”

Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, suggests that Campaign for Vermont might be a “launching pad” for a political candidate — most likely Lisman himself. Though he is the face of the organization — his portrait is on email messages and the website — Lisman has said repeatedly that he has no interest in running for office.

Kevin Ellis, a communications strategist with KSE Partners and a supporter of Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, says Campaign for Vermont is the Vermont GOP’s ad hoc messaging machine, laying the electoral groundwork for Republican Party candidates this election cycle.

He also speculates that Lisman wants to be a kingmaker. Ellis says Campaign for Vermont’s ubiquitous advertising could be a potential prelude to financing candidates in 2014 — in the event that Vermont’s campaign finance limits are knocked down in the courts.

“Sure, he may give money to candidates,” Ellis said. “But I think he is a millionaire from Wall Street who came to Vermont and wanted to be a player. Spending this money is the best and fastest way to do that. Spending this money makes him a political player, scares the heck out of Democrats and makes him the toast of the Burlington cocktail party circuit among Republicans. But that is a long, long way from playing on the varsity team against pros like Peter Shumlin, Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy. To steal a phrase from David Plouffe, those guys play chess. Lisman is still playing checkers.”

Read the rest at VTDigger.org

Op-ed: Words and Facts Collide by Tom Pelham

Taylor Dobbs, reporting for VTDigger, might use his recent article covering Campaign for Vermont as a teachable moment about poor journalistic technique. Dobbs, a recent graduate of Montpelier High School and candidate for a BA in Journalism from Northeastern University next January, chose the easy but less informing route. He gathered up the observations and quotes from a handful of insider politicos, namely Jake Perkinson from the Vermont Democratic Party, Jack Lindley from the Vermont Republican Party, political commentator Eric Davis and Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis and presto, he had a political story to tell.

Dobbs’ slant on Campaign for Vermont is that we are not only about politics, but about Republican politics and more, about conservative Republican politics and his politically oriented but fact-challenged sources, not surprisingly, affirmed this perspective.

Dobbs does a disservice to the mission of VTDigger “to create a platform of consistent delivery of fact-driven reports on matters of public interest and to serve as a catalyst for more open debates on key issues that impact Vermonters’ daily lives” and to those seeking informed, balanced reporting rather than slant. In the same way that VPIRG and VNRC are policy-driven organizations focused largely on environmental issues, Campaign for Vermont is a policy-driven organization focused on the future prosperity of Vermont.

Questioning whether or not Campaign for Vermont, at its core, is about politics or public policy is fair game. Like Gov. Shumlin, Bruce Lisman is a wealthy individual who could mount a substantially self-funded effort for elective office. For those who primarily view the world through the prism of politics, like those interviewed for Dobbs’ article, the clear answer is that Bruce, despite his statements to the contrary, has political aspirations.

Read the rest at VTDigger.org

And finally, the Green Mountain Daily post, Tom Pelham has a sad:

Awww, some bruised fee-fees over at Campaign for Vermont, the “nonpartisan” policy shop that’s obviously and blatantly conservative to anyone with a brain who spends five minutes reading their website or listening to their radio ads.

It seems that those dastardly folks at Vermont Digger committed an act of journalism. It took a long hard look at CFV and its founder/funder Bruce Lisman, and published a story pointing out the obvious: that CFV is conservative, that its policy positions are closely aligned with the Republicans’, that all its attacks are against the Democrats, that Lisman is spending a whole lot of money and nobody knows what his real ambitions are.

And that gave Tom Pelham a sad.

Read the rest at Green Mountain Daily

A semester as news editor of The Huntington News

I spent the spring semester as the news editor of Northeastern University’s student newspaper, The Huntington News, where I coordinated coverage of all on-campus (or near campus) news, including student government, administration and other student issues.

It was a totally new experience, and learning to manage a staff and coordinate photography and reporting for multiple stories at once was definitely a challenge, but I am very glad I had the chance to do it. Some of the stories I’m especially proud of from the semester, in no particular order and not necessarily written by me:

Coverage of the Barstool Sports Blackout Tour, which sparked controversy from women’s rights activists at Northeastern:

Coverage of a proposed Chick-fil-A location in Northeastern’s Curry Student Center, which caused outrage in the LGBT community:

Northeastern’s cafeteria workers spoke out against their managers, who they say mistreated them:

I’ll be spending another summer with VTDigger.org starting tomorrow. I’ll be covering the campaign season here in Vermont, as well as other political happenings.