2014 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Shadow Campus: A Globe Spotlight investigation


Finalist(s) / The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe

Knight Award for Public Service


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About the Project

In the early hours of April 28, 2013, Binland Lee headed up to her attic bedroom in the off-campus house she shared with 13 others. She never made it out again. The Boston University senior was trapped upstairs when a fire broke out, and she died there.

Binland’s death was a tragedy. It was also inevitable. She was living in an illegal boarding house rife with safety violations. And, as a Globe investigation discovered, her case was not unique.

In “Shadow Campus,” an explosive three-part investigation of off-campus housing, the Globe found that decrepit, illegal student housing is the norm. The city and universities look the other way while scofflaw landlords reap millions despite violating permitting and safety requirements, putting thousands of students at risk.

We employed an array of digital tactics to tell the story of Binland Lee’s death, and Boston’s housing crisis.

  • We produced a longform storytelling template to give readers an immersive reading experience. We layered images, videos, and animated gifs throughout the series. The visuals of the shoddy apartments and other atrocities hammered home the point in ways that words never could.
  • We wanted to bring readers as close as we could to the moment of that fatal fire. We painstakingly reproduced the events leading up to Binland Lee’s death through graphics, photos, videos, and audio of 911 calls made during the blaze. We strategically laid these elements throughout the story, allowing readers to not only read about the events, but to see them, hear them, and feel them as the tragedy unfolded.
  • We produced a documentary video, relying heavily on first-hand interviews with students and in-the-field recordings of campus housing.
  • We let the documents speak for themselves. With each edition of the story, we published documents showing landlords skirting the law, violations going unfixed, and shadowy allegiances between scofflaw landlords and universities.
  • We hit upon the heart of the problem through data. Our exhaustive analysis showed that acceptance rates at many universities had far outpaced student housing, in Boston and nationwide. The discrepancy forces more and more students into shoddy off-campus housing each year.  To illustrate the problem, we gave readers an interactive tool that allowed them to search any university in the country to see the “dorm gap” — the number of students for which on-campus housing is not available. Our findings showed that the “dorm gap” percentage had risen by thousands of percentage points over the past decade. While the characters in our story were from Boston, our data showed the issue was occurring nationwide.
  • We understood one of our key audiences — college students — would access this project via social media. To reach them on the platforms of their choice, we created gifs, videos and other elements specifically for Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and other social platforms.
  • As with everything we do on, we built the entire project in a mobile-first, responsive design layout, to serve readers on whatever device they choose.

Shadow Campus had an immediate impact. The head of the city’s inspectional services — which hadn’t issued one student overcrowding citation in recent memory — was quickly ousted from his post. Mayor Martin Walsh instituted daily fines on scofflaw landlords, and rushed to begin inspection of the 1,500 rental properties with serious violations in the city. The City Council launched hearings into the practices of landlords and their relationships with local colleges. The mayor also pressured universities to disclose where students were living off-campus, a step many institutions had long resisted.

Thousands of college students in Boston and around the country still live in perilous conditions. But thanks to our report, change is happening, and this critical public safety issue is finally getting the attention it needs.