In an early scene of Spotlight, members of the Boston Globe’s investigative team fret over the arrival of new executive editor Marty Baron and potential layoffs, especially for their resource-intensive staff.
When their “player-coach” editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, presses the incoming editor on his plans for the paper, Baron suggests the newspaper needs to take a hard look at the resources it devotes to its work.
But instead of cuts, Baron, the former executive editor of The Miami Herald, inspired more than a year’s worth of reporting that uncovered systemic sexual abuse carried out by priests in the Boston Archdiocese. The Spotlight investigative team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the Pulitzer’s highest accolade.
Today, the journalists hope the movie might inspire the same kind of reversal in newsrooms, which face a similar, if magnified, struggle for dollars and resources.
“It shows the power of what a local story can do,” said Ben Bradlee Jr., the projects editor on the investigation.
Spotlight follows the team’s early reporting, from Baron’s first-day suggestion to dig more deeply into a single case of a pedophile Catholic priest to the team’s first article about the cover-up by the Archdiocese hierarchy.
The article was the first of nearly 1,000 over the next year and a half written by eight journalists, including Robinson. In awarding the Pulitzer to the Boston Globe, the Pulitzer Prize board cited the staff’s “courageous, comprehensive coverage … an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.”
In the initial stage of reporting, Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the Spotlight reporters, described spending 3 1/2 weeks building a database of potentially abusive priests through church yearbooks — balancing the records in her lap and reading the listings out one by one until she had to take a break.
“Then somebody else would read, and then somebody else would read,” she said. “We had no idea if we were creating a database of any value.”
After the first article, more than 300 victims contacted Spotlight by phone and email, Robinson said. Reporters followed up with each one, and many told stories they had never shared even with siblings or spouses, he added.
Matt Carroll, the team’s data reporter, described receiving a call from a man who immediately began describing his own horrific childhood abuse at the hands of a priest — one of hundreds of calls for Carroll, but likely the first time this man had described his own ordeal.
“I was burning out of this stuff altogether,” said Carroll, who now works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It made me angry to see so many smart, talented men stopped in time by something that had happened decades earlier,” Pfeiffer said. “Think about the impact it had on these kids.”
None of that work escaped the methodical eye of Spotlight’s cast and crew. Most of the film’s actors met with their respective subjects multiple times before and during filming — Pfeiffer described “walks and dinners and conversations” with actress Rachel McAdams, realizing only in retrospect the actress was observing everything, from her gait when walking to her mannerisms.
“They were effectively doing an investigation of the investigation,” Bradlee said.
Hinted at too in the movie’s closing credits was the overwhelming response to the team’s reporting, which inspired similar reporting in cities and countries across the globe.
“It was the first major story of the Internet era,” Robinson said. The team, in addition to fighting for public records in court, uploaded those documents online when they were released — a new development for readers just beginning to use the World Wide Web.
Making those documents accessible meant “readers could go right to the source material,” said Michael Rezendes, lead writer of the initial article. “That also added to the power of the story.”
The kind of investigative firepower that fueled the Spotlight team’s reporting has diminished in the decade since across newsrooms. Though the Globe’s Spotlight team has grown to six reporters, “teams like that are increasingly rare,” Pfeiffer said. Layoffs in newsrooms have winnowed resource-intensive reporting on investigative and foreign desks, she said.
That drain is a disservice to readers, who consistently rank investigative reporting high on their list of priorities, Robinson said.
“It’s penny wise and pound foolish,” he added. “I hope editors — maybe not the public, not young journalism students — think hard about those kinds of decisions.”
And despite the surge of nonprofit organizations devoted to investigative reporting — including ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting — local papers have the best vantage point to report deeply in their cities, Spotlight reporters said.
“The reality is the people who know their communities best are local reporters,” Pfeiffer said. “It can’t just be these kinds of Washington, D.C., or New York City-based organizations.”
Readers of local papers also hail from “a broader cross-section of voices: liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrats,” Rezendes said. “You want to make change. You want to change people’s minds.”
The film, they hope, will be a catalyst for the struggling news industry, not unlike All the President’s Men, the 1976 film on the Watergate scandal that toppled President Richard Nixon and apotheosized Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
“They both were originally local stories,” said Bradlee, the son of Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post executive editor when the Post was reporting on Watergate and its aftermath. Bradlee died in 2014.
“I hope what it really does is make everyone who watches the movie realize if you don’t support the media, it won’t have the resources to do this kind of work,” Pfeiffer said. “Why not buy a subscription to your local newspaper? That will let us survive and thrive.”