A Lesson from Spotlight That Newspaper Folk Don't Get: Competition Makes Them Better

The real competition dailies face is from 12-year-olds who can do what newspapers do with a pink tablet computer.
The real competition dailies face is from 12-year-olds who can do what newspapers do with a pink tablet computer.
David R. Blume via Wikipedia

You have to wonder: Are daily newspaper people ever struck by the fact that a movie about what they do is so much more popular than they are?

Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s movie about The Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series on child molestation among Catholic clergy, was two things. It was a really great movie, and it was a delicious opportunity for self-back-patting by old ink-stained wretches. Like myself.

I watched. I patted. But since the Oscar ceremony, it has taken me a month or more to figure out why the discussion of the movie within my craft inevitably leaves me so sad and lonely. Oh, now I remember. It’s not the movie. It’s the craft.

For every bathetic reminiscence about the way it was when dailies ruled, about what they did and how great they were, I hear at least three expressions of complete bafflement about why dailies don’t do it anymore.

On the PBS Newshour recently, former New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan said, “But I think that the will to do this kind of work is weakening somewhat, and it has to be beefed up. Spotlight is such an inspiring movie, that I’m hopeful that it will cause owners and editors and publishers to realize just how important this work is and to fund it and to get behind it.”

Oh, right. That’s what happened. The daily newspaper industry experienced a weakening of will. They need to be beefed up. Maybe an inspiring newspaper movie will do the trick, or, failing that, water-boarding.

It makes me feel mean to be so mean about a craft I love, but also you’ve got to cut me a break here. There are three real reasons this kind of work rarely gets done now, and the first two are so obvious you shouldn’t have to be a newspaper person to see them. Money and audience. Newspapers sell audience. When they don’t have audience, they don’t have money.

But there’s a third factor, one that is antecedent to the others and probably less visible from outside the business. It does peek through the screenplay of Spotlight in three coy appearances that maybe only the Inkerati would notice or get.

In one exchange in the screenplay, a key source tells a reporter for the Globe he doesn’t want to share his own or his fellow victims’ narratives of abuse again with the Globe because he did all of that already with The Boston Phoenix.

In fact, the Phoenix,  Boston’s highly regarded alternative weekly, was the newspaper that broke and first covered the Boston pedophile clergy story a full year before the Globe picked it up. Kristen Lombardi, who authored those pieces for the Phoenix, has been an amazingly good sport about the shabby behavior of the Globe in picking up her scoop and persistently refusing, even to this day, to credit her with it. 

But all of that is only a window on the raw-edged internecine relationship between dailies and the newsweeklies in their markets, a bit of just-us-chickens print media gossip from which I will spare you — maybe on some other day when you really are bored.

The second peek in the screenplay, repeated a couple times if memory serves, is the way in which Globe reporters pressured their foot-dragging bosses by telling them The Boston Herald, the city’s tabloid, was sniffing the same blood trail. Threatening your editor by telling him or her that the “guys across the street” are about to scoop you is a time-honored and important tradition in newspapering and gets to the point I’m trying to get to.

My third peek is the most important. At the opening of the movie, Marty Baron, the newspaper’s new top editor, fresh from Miami, tells the leader of the Spotlight investigative team that staff cut-backs should be expected, given the paper’s hemorrhagic business profile, and Baron tells the guy he needs to get to work on a hot series.

Read Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie: The inventor of the first letter press was obsessed with competition.
Read Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie: The inventor of the first letter press was obsessed with competition.
vlasta2 via Wikipedia

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During their better days, the reason newspapers did their best and most expensive work had precious little to do with will, weakened or otherwise, and even less to do with having seen any good movies lately. The most important factor back then was competition.

It was always market competition – the guys across the street, the tabloid, even the dratted weekly — that spurred newspapers to do their best work and not only the most ponderous and expensive work. A lot of times chasing each other was the only way reporters found their way to the damned fire. Competition was the magnetic force that pulled the journalistic compass to true north.

Now I look back and wonder if competitive anxiety may not have been the closest thing to integrity I ever really saw in the business. A publisher could tell his irate golfing buddies, “Look, I hate telling the readers the truth about the funds missing from the ladies opera guild as much as you do, but, if I don’t, those unscrupulous bastards across the street will tell them just to get ahead of me.”

When the last surviving dailies began to go monopoly in their markets, they escaped the goad of competition, or so they thought. And, ungoaded, they consistently and unfailingly lapsed into the kind of gray, tippy-toed party-line pomposity that just bores the socks off readers. They didn’t lose their will. They enthusiastically threw their will to publish tough controversial stories down the elevator shaft and good riddance!

And by controversial, I don’t mean stories exposing racism in public housing in some city three states away from your own market. I mean stories that hugely anger your own neighbors, your advertisers and the people who play golf with your publisher. A story is only controversial when you can hear the tires shrieking to a stop at the curb in front of the paper.

When the competition went out of the daily newspaper business, the dailies lost their teeth and claws. They became boring. The audience ditched them. The money went away.

But in that speech about cutbacks at the beginning of the movie, Marty Baron was giving his subordinate a second chance. He was conveying a crucial piece of news — that competition never really goes away. You may, but it doesn’t.

Baron was telling his guy that the realities may have been grim, but there was a way the paper could repair its fortunes. It could save itself by doing a better job, by stirring the hornet’s nest and getting one hell of a lot of attention for itself.

If anything, the competition for audience is more savage now than ever. For one thing, all of that stuff we thought we were so cool for doing – the combing of lists, searching of clip-files, cross-indexing and collating – all of that is stuff a 12-year-old can do on a pink tablet now – and does.

The dailies will get their audience back and their money and their ability to do expensive stories back when they find their way back into the competition, the real competition, not the competition with each other, the one with the world.

Does that happen before they finally just dissolve and leave the field open to some new journalistic life-form? Who knows? What do you think the trend looks like so far?

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