Let it bleed

When a pretty Boston woman is murdered in New York, the Boston dailies go to war
By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  March 22, 2006

The horrific New York murder of 24-year-old Imette St. Guillen — who grew up in Mission Hill and graduated from Boston Latin before studying criminal justice at MThe front page of the March 8 Heraldanhattan’s John Jay College — pitted the city’s two major dailies against each other in ways that reflect the strengths and weaknesses, as well as the editorial philosophies, of the two rivals.

The St. Guillen tragedy — which is still unfolding and unfinished — certainly touched many of the papers’ readers on a visceral level. It also provided media watchers with insight into how the Globe and Herald operate at a time when old-school, head-to-head competition between the two dailies on a hot story is becoming a rarer event.

Cracking the case
The opening shot came from the Boston Herald on Monday, February 27, with a smallish page-six story — actually sourced to its sympatico cousin tabloid, the New York Post — with the somewhat understated headline: "Horror as popular hub woman slain in NYC." By the next day, the Boston tabloid was off and roaring, blowing out the front page to declare "Sheer evil: Cops hunt monster who killed hub beauty" while reporters Michele McPhee and Laurel Sweet described a murder “so vicious it stunned even the Big Apple’s hardened homicide detectives.”

Over on Morrissey Boulevard, the Globe was slower off the mark, getting into the story on the 28th with a piece in the lower right-hand corner of the Metro front — headlined "Mission Hill native found slain in NYC" — that consisted largely of interviews with neighbors and teachers of the victim.

On one hand, the brutal sexual assault and murder of a young, attractive, popular Boston woman on the mean streets of New York had all the ingredients of a classic tabloid saga that would be of more intrinsic interest to the Herald than to the Globe. But the financially strapped tab cut staff significantly last year — leaving it with only 13 news side reporters — and has made strategic decisions about which stories to chase, sometimes opting to ignore subjects certain to get the Globe’s — and the rest of the media’s — attention. And while the Globe might not be inclined to pursue a salacious, horrific crime with the passion of the Herald, editor Marty Baron has focused on hard-news reporting in his tenure and publicly declared his desire “not to be beaten by our competitors on any story of note.”

“We took it very seriously. Everyone involved worked very hard on the story,” says Globe deputy city editor Mike Bello. “I think we have nothing to be ashamed of . . . I thought we met the challenge.”

Says Herald senior executive city editor Eric Convey: “This is the kind of story the Herald cares about . . . I think we kicked ass.”

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And the New York papers?
The New York Daily News headline about the perpetrator of the St. Guillen murder read like it was straight out of a fright flick. "Beast may strike again: 'Mummy maniac' likely murdered at random, cops say," screamed the paper on February 28. Once Darryl Littlejohn emerged as a prime suspect, the rival New York Post (which authored perhaps the most famous headline in tabloid history with "Headless body in topless bar") was apparently impressed with the cool and confident demeanor he displayed, describing the “career criminal” in a page-one headline as "Cold as ice." Whether they provoke abject horror or guilty fascination among their readers, the New York tabloids have a well-earned reputation for turning grisly crimes into hot newsstand sellers. That includes getting the evocative jargon straight. To the Daily News, the killer was a “twisted sex fiend” and “sicko” while the Post opted for the “burly bar bouncer” with the “cool as a cucumber demeanor.”

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