Rozzie based web site tracks Hub’s hum

November 8, 2010
By

David Taber

Though November has barely begun, Salvation Army bell ringers are already out collecting donations near City Hall, a beer truck’s roof was sheared off by a tree on Memorial Drive in Cambridge and a fight on a school bus ended in a stabbing fatality in Roxbury.

People from all over Boston reported seeing a shooting star, “Came from the east headed toward the Arboretum,” one tweeter said.

That is a small sampling of stories collected on Nov. 2 by Roslindale resident Adam Gaffin on his Greater Boston news and curiosities web site Universal Hub (universalhub.com)—possibly the most popular Boston-focused blog in the city.

Because it was Election Day, the site also featured a link at the top of the page allowing users to read and post to a live Election Day feed.

Universal Hub is, for the most part a collection of story summaries and links to contributions from bloggers and tweeters, as well as mainstream news sources, sometimes including web content from the Gazette. The stories are often attended by enthusiastic conversations in “comments” sections, which Gaffin lightly moderates, he told the Gazette in a recent interview.

“We do have people…doing the on-line equivalent of yelling at each other, but I am trying to keep it a place where you can have a real intellectual discussion,” Gaffin said. Comments by anonymous users are subject to approval by Gaffin, he said, but users who sign up for accounts on the site are free to post what they want.

Gaffin, lives in Roslindale’s Grew Hill neighborhood with his wife and daughter. He has worked as a journalist and a web designer, and founded Universal Hub’s precursor, a site called Boston Common, “six or seven years ago,” with the idea of creating a central clearing-house for Boston-area blogs.

Universal Hub, in its current form, launched in 2005. It spun off from the blog network idea in response to user enthusiasm about news content on the site. “People wanted to talk about breaking news,” Gaffin said.

At that point, in the mid-2000s, “The dailies had abandoned the city,” Gaffin said, reminiscing about an incident in Roslindale “three or four years ago” where two youths were shot at the Washington-Beech housing development, that, despite a significant police response, generated no media coverage.

He attributed his own success—Universal Hub today gets about 500,000 hits and about 80,000 unique page-views a month—to that hole in mainstream media coverage and to technological advancements that allow more avenues for people to publish directly to the web.

While other news publishers have since gotten in the habit of culling story leads from the web, Gaffin said his site remains relevant because it is devoted to collecting information from the diverse array of sources.

The most popular stories are on-the-scene updates about MBTA service and reports about conflicts between bicycle and vehicular traffic, he said—both the purview of folks out in the world who happen to have internet access.

“People are concerned about what is going on around them,” he said. “News is becoming more of a conversation.”

Gaffin said he still sees an important role for journalists, a profession he defined as distinct from “reporters.”

“A reporter goes out and reports on what he or she sees,” he said, “but not necessarily the context, which is why you need journalists.”

And, while he has not worked as a newspaper journalist since the early 1990s, when he worked for the Middlesex News—now the Metrowest Daily News—Gaffin said he is starting to produce original content again, himself.

He reported extensively on meetings about controversial plans to close city libraries last summer, and has recently taken up regularly reporting on city licensing board hearings.

He has had the time to do that because he has been working on Universal Hub pretty much full-time for the past year-and-a-half since being laid-off from the his job at the trade publication Computer World. Universal Hub, which is supported by advertising, is turning a small profit, he said, and he is generating income through consulting jobs and other web sites he runs.

That means that, despite his efforts to cover Greater Boston as a whole, his home turf receives special attention on the site, he admitted. “Roslindale, West Roxbury and Hyde Park are the three parts of the Hub where I spend most of my time,” he said. So it is more likely that the web site will carry a Gaffin-generated picture of a new Lebanese market on VFW Parkway at the derelict site of a former liquor store, for example.

“[My neighborhood] gets more coverage than East Boston or Charlestown,” he said, “But at the same time, I want to make sure its not ‘Rozzie On-Line.’”

Gaffin said he sees Universal Hub’s future as including more original reporting. He said he is intrigued by models where professional journalists develop stories based on direct suggestions and tips from community members via an on-line interface.

But, Gaffin noted, he made dubious calls about the future of the Internet before. During his time at the Middlesex News he developed one of the first internet interfaces for a daily newspaper in the country, using an internet protocol named “Gopher”—a precursor to the now-universal World Wide Web internet protocol.

In 1995 he wrote and published a book called “Everybody’s Guide To The Internet.”

“It had two chapters on Gopher and three paragraphs on this thing called ‘the World Wide Web,’” he said.

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