‘Spotlight’ exposes state of newspaper journalism

First published March 12, 2016

I watched only a few minutes of the Academy Awards this year because I’m not obsessed with celebrities, and I find most movies a waste of time.

Like many newspaper reporters, though, I was thrilled the next morning to read that “Spotlight” had won Best Picture.

The film is about The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the church’s failure to do anything about it.

It’s a true story that shows reporters and editors at their best — questioning their own shortcomings and holding their work to high standards while coping with the tremendous pressures of the job.

It also spotlights the importance of investigative journalism and the threat it faces in an industry that’s shrinking at an alarming rate.

As actor Brian d’Arcy James, who played reporter Matt Carroll, put it, “You can’t have a free society without a free press.”

There are other sources of news, and some television programs do excellent work. But as Walter Cronkite admitted years ago, most of the work is done by newspapers, and television repeats it. That’s also true of online sites that “aggregate” news from print and broadcast sources.

The weekend of the Oscars, I went out and bought “Spotlight” on DVD. One thing I like about discs are the “bonuses” — short pieces about how the movies are made and the real stories behind the storylines.

With “Spotlight,” there are interviews with director Tom McCarthy and actors on why they did the film and the state of investigative journalism today.

Actor John Slattery, who plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the Globe’s former deputy managing editor and son of the legendary editor of The Washington Post (journalism tends to run in families), noted that The Boston Globe’s news staff today is half of what it was in 2001 when its I-team exposed the church.

He added that the “transformation from news to news as entertainment is disconcerting.”

Newsroom reductions result from several factors, including the loss of print advertising to digital competitors, more media competition for people’s time, and owners’ insistence on profits comparable to what they had when newspapers were filled with classifieds and full-page car dealership and supermarket ads.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, newsroom staffs have been reduced by 40 percent since 2003. That’s two out of every five reporters. And that means many “beats” are getting short shrift.

It’s happening in community newspapers as well. Recently I ran into a young reporter (the son of a reporter) who had just become editor of the weekly I edited for 10 years. I had four full-time staffers and a roster of talented freelancers, and I needed all of them. Now it’s just him and the sports writer.

Is it any wonder most young reporters get burned out by the time they’re 30 and go into public relations or some other career? At the small daily where I cut my teeth, we had a top-notch young staff. One is now a nurse, another a librarian, and another, a Marine reservist, returned to active duty. One who still works in a newsroom does assembly line editing for something like 20 newspapers a night.

Last Wednesday, I visited the Kentucky Capitol for the first time since my stint as an Associated Press reporter and saw some of my old colleagues. On a typical day, six or eight reporters from three papers and the AP handle all of the state government news for the state’s other newspapers and broadcasters.

An older statehouse reporter told me the young man who got his start working for me at a small daily, and whom I watched grow into the fine government reporter for a metro daily had gone over to the other side and was now a government spokesman. I can’t fault him for that. I recently considered doing the same thing myself, but I bowed out because I love what I do. So did he, but he has a family. Most reporters I know couldn’t get by on what they earn if their spouses didn’t work.

According to CareerCast.com, out of 200 occupations in the U.S. in 2015, the worst — based on pay, stress level and job outlook — was that of newspaper reporter. It ranked below corrections officer, soldier and taxi driver.

Many of us who are reporters, however, couldn’t be as satisfied doing anything else. It’s interesting, often exciting, and sometimes it allows you to make a real difference in people’s lives. After a while, it gets into your blood. But it shouldn’t bleed you dry.

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