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Master of Hub hits

Meet Adam Gaffin, Boston’s reigning Web czar
March 5, 2008 1:21:56 PM

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HIP HUB HOORAY Adam Gaffin’s Universal Hub blog gives him a forum to critique the press’s spotty coverage of Boston politics, inner-city crime, and problems at the MBTA.

Greater Boston has witnessed a shocking amount of drama in the new year. A woman screamed obscenities at a Starbucks employee who’d chided her for changing her baby’s diaper on a store table. An Israeli visitor to Mattapan got a chilly welcome from that neighborhood’s mostly black residents (or thought he did, anyway). A 17-year-old blind kid from East Boston was busted by the FBI after reporting a bunch of fake crimes. Also, WTKK-FM talk-show host Jay Severin said that poor people smell.

If you get your information from newspapers, radio, or TV, you probably missed these stories. But if you’re a regular reader of the wry, boundless blog Universal Hub — which aggregates and invites comment on Boston-centric Web content, blog-based and otherwise, from the profound to the absurd — they’re old news. This, in turn, is because Adam Gaffin, Universal Hub’s founder and administrator, spends a substantial chunk of his waking hours looking for any and all new postings with a Boston hook. He wades through hundreds of RSS feeds. He feeds specific search terms into Google News to seek out new sources. And he does this every day — after he wakes up, during his lunch break, while he rides his exercise bike at night, even when he’s on vacation.

This might suggest that Gaffin aspires to do for Boston what Jim Romenesko does for journalism. But because Universal Hub (henceforth, U-Hub) is a multifaceted beast, the analogy doesn’t quite work. For one thing, U-Hub generates more reader responses than Romenesko’s Poynter Institute blog (poynter.org/medianews). It also doubles as an experiment in citizen journalism since it allows readers to create their own posts. But because they rarely do, U-Hub has become, in part, a platform for Gaffin to play media critic and acerbic local-news commentator — which he does with aplomb.

He is, for example, a detractor of certain employees and editorial practices of the Boston Globe, a role he embraced even when he wrote a short-lived blogs column for that paper’s City Weekly section. Gaffin’s preferred target used to be metro columnist Brian McGrory; after McGrory became metro editor, Gaffin turned his attention to metro columnist Adrian Walker, who he claims tackles good stories late, and without new insights.

At any particular moment, U-Hub might seem straight-laced compared with a perpetually snarky site like Gawker. But after a while, Gaffin’s pet peeves — including the homogenizing effects of gentrification, elitism in general, and the press’s spotty coverage of Boston politics, inner-city crime, and problems at the MBTA — start to jump off the screen. On the latter subtopic, Gaffin says: “With the number of [blog] stories that I pick up every day about people taking the T, it could be its own blog. And it’s always puzzled me why the Globe hasn’t figured that out. They have some very smart Web people there; they have some good bloggers. But they have this thing” — i.e., the MBTA system — “that’s just sitting out there; it’s ripe. And for some reason, they ignore it.”

On occasion, Gaffin’s mordant wit manifests itself in full-on screeds. Here’s Gaffin in November 2007, after the Globe ran two consecutive lifestyle-porn stories on A1:

Yesterday, the Globe gave us an insightful front-page look at those modern-day pioneers forsaking their six-figure financial-services salaries and Back Bay condos to become Vermont cheesemakers. Today, the Globe once again awakens us from our complacency with a front-page expose on the travails of another breed of pioneers: people buying million-dollar condos at the Natick Mall.

Usually, though, it’s showcased in his bitingly apt headlines. One example, from a post linking to a Jamaica Plain Gazette article on Felix Arroyo’s plan to start a nonprofit: “Disorganized former city councilor wants to organize people.” That’s an Arroyo biography in eight words.

Unexpected success
U-Hub pulls in around 3000 readers each weekday. But that modest tally doesn’t fully capture its significance. For example, Lisa Williams — who founded both the Watertown-focused online community H20town and Placeblogger, which seeks to build similar communities around the country — cites Gaffin as a major influence.

“I started reading Universal Hub long before I knew the word ‘hyperlocal,’ before I was even thinking about doing a local blog, and I really liked what he was doing,” says Williams. Gaffin’s willingness to let users create their own posts at a time when two-way content was rare impressed her; so did U-Hub’s comprehensiveness.

Charley Blandy, a founder and editor of the widely read political blog Blue Mass. Group, is similarly effusive. “Reading the slice-of-life stories from around the Boston blogosphere is interesting, but Adam weaves in the big stories — politics, violence, police reports, etc. — putting the quotidian stuff in context with the bigger stories,” he says via e-mail. “When people realize their stories are not unique . . . stuff starts to happen.”


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