Spotlight movie

Spotlight is a good movie but it may end up being a great record of what we lost when the news business died (except for a few national products, such as the Wall Street Journal). Paying a team of journalists to nail down a story about child abuse by Catholic priests isn’t something that can be done without ad revenue.

The portrayal of Boston is realistic. Our city looks somewhat worn, not blessed with ideal weather, and crowded. Accessing public records in the courthouse was a lot easier in the fictional world of the movie, at least compared to the Middlesex County registry that we visited to create our analysis of the May 2011 divorce lawsuits filed there. A reporter is able to ascertain quickly, for example, that there are no cases filed by a particular lawyer against the Archdiocese. In practice that could take quite some time as only the barest minimum facts about cases are in a computer system. Once a case is pulled, the paper file is incomplete, which we found to be true of a lot of divorce lawsuits. The Boston Globe building is authentic and the interior doesn’t look that different than during my last visit there. The movie premise that there are story categories that the editors are reluctant to research or publish is consistent with what I was told (a reporter had dug around in the Massachusetts family court system and found that judges were appointing friends to serve as guardian ad litems (GALs) in custody lawsuits, contrary to the rule requiring GALs to be appointed sequentially from a list; the connected GALs were running up bills for $50,000 to be paid by the litigants despite the fact that the goal was supposed to be closer to $5,000; the story was killed by the editors and the reporter was told not to poke around in or write about the family court system).

The acting was good, though generally the movie concentrated on people doing their job. We didn’t get to learn a whole lot about these characters outside of their work. Rachel McAdams is my second favorite import from London, Ontario (first favorite), but print media journalists don’t usually look like movie stars. She seemed a little out of place.

Spotlight ends with text explaining what happens after the action of the movie, but doesn’t mention any of the financials. The lawsuits were for cash but we never found out how much was paid. Wikipedia has some numbers. Perhaps the after-movie titles should have been eliminated. The movie tells the story of investigative reporting, not the story of child abuse or pedophilia. So the logical end of the movie is the reporters getting their story out, not what happened to Cardinal Law or the Catholic church.

Readers who aren’t from Boston: What did you think of the movie?

Everyone: Will there be investigative reporting by local media going forward? How will they pay for it? Can the citizen-to-citizen communication made possible by the consumer Internet compensate for the loss of advertising revenue to enterprises that previously funded investigative reporting? Will it take more or less time in a world without profitable local newspapers for a secret like this to be uncovered?

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14 Comments

  1. davep

    December 16, 2015 @ 2:30 pm

    1

    philg: “it may end up being a great record of what we lost when the news business died”.

    About literally the first thought I had leaving the theater after watching it.

  2. Jerry

    December 16, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

    2

    There’s a lot going on. Much of the news industries injuries are self-inflicted.

    For every Spotlight, there’s a Rolling Stone UVA story, a The Hunting Ground, and a Tim Hunt story, and many many more, where media did an egregiously horrible job of reporting, and other media crowded in, not to critique, but to support and amplify the original narrative. Where if there were critiques, they came late, were small and weak, and pointed the finger at narrow causes, not industry practices.

    And then there’s the state of ads that media puts on their website, ads that add tens of seconds to page rendering if not break it altogether, cause multiple reflows, and are recognized as malware and malware vectors by security experts (including Edward Snowden), (not to mention many site’s autoplay video).

    Sites are now addicted to clickbait. Is it solely because that’s the only way to make money? I think not. I think they like clickbait because seeing their crap tweeted out, retweeted, facebooked, blogged, spread around and generating Internet Karma is pleasurable and addicting for them the same way monkeys and rats find brain stimulation rewards to be.

    I don’t have a new business model that supports news, but I am not convinced lack of ad revenue killed the news business any more than I am convinced eating ice cream causes shark attacks.

  3. philg

    December 16, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    3

    Perhaps we the readers are also responsible. Apparently it is possible to get a lot of readers (and therefore ad revenue) for a story about an offhand comment made by a political candidate who has almost no chance of being elected. Americans would apparently rather read about Donald Trump’s hair than systemic corruption and/or cronyism that is costing them 5% of their hard-earned wages.

  4. J. Peterson

    December 16, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    4

    Support for investigative journalism seems to be moving from business to philanthropy. Glenn Greenwald et. al. (of Snowden leaks fame) is propped up by EBay billionaire founder Pierre Omidyar. Pro-publica is an investigative news organization receiving most of its funding from a variety of philanthropic foundations.

    Ad-supported websites are generally incapable of original investigative journalism. Arrington tried a bit with TechCrunch (his expose on Zynga), but that promptly died as soon as he sold it to AOL. Now they just post press releases and funding announcements.

  5. davep

    December 16, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

    5

    “Frontline” (on PBS) does investigative journalism (without ads, sort of).

  6. Izzie L.

    December 16, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    6

    Reporters lean left almost as badly as college professors. The editorial page of the NY Times hews to the party line of the Democrat Party as closely as Pravda followed the line of the CPSU. It not surprising that newspapers are having trouble making money when they are writing off half of their potential customers.

  7. George Macdonald

    December 16, 2015 @ 11:58 pm

    7

    Truth has a liberal bias.
    Seriously, yes, who will dig up the shit when the newspapers die.

    Great movie. Loved it. Loved shaggy old Boston. Frayed, but still a great town.

  8. paddy

    December 17, 2015 @ 12:59 am

    8

    Who is exposing corruption now? It has moved online and it is people who are partisans who are exposing the other side’s corruption.

    IF the media is losing share, it is because in part, they have stopped telling the truth. Michael Crichton’s “Mediasaurus” article has many criticisms of the way newspapers (don’t) work – and it was written in 1993 or 1994.

  9. Federico

    December 17, 2015 @ 3:32 am

    9

    The notion that media tell the truth is peculiar: since when publishing newspapers and suchlike has been (1) free and (2) produced a predictable revenue? I’d venture that most media exists to be the loudspeaker for a faction or an interest group with money, even taxpayer funded media.

    Concerning the slant that truth has, I personally find that a more parsimonious explanation is that media acting as a loudspeaker for the right has already fallen deeper to the position of ‘let’s not even bother trying to appeal to the people sitting on the fence’. People trying to appeal to the undecided, or even more daring, to some of the other faction, are forced to remove much of the most blatant propaganda and lies to their argument. I personally find that, by ‘preaching to the choir’ right leaning media has no reasons to do any of the above.

  10. Zoran L

    December 17, 2015 @ 8:08 am

    10

    Bloomberg Markets Magazine and Bloomberg Business week have terrific investigative pieces. (Withholding life insurance from killed servicemen, The Banks That Fleeced Alabama). They are not afraid to go against banks, which are their potential clients.
    Decracy Now used to break great stories, although financed by donations. Likewise, Drudge Report crowdsources investgations.
    I don’t have a feeling that media is getting any worse, given that the readers demand Donald Trump coverage, as Phil said.

  11. Sam

    December 17, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    11

    I think that the left vs right battles are in a way a distraction from the real news, much like Trump’s hair.

  12. Smartest Woman on the Internet

    December 17, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

    12

    Dan Rather killed “60 Minutes.”

  13. paddy

    December 18, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

  14. anonymous

    December 27, 2015 @ 10:42 pm

    14

    HI Phil,
    If that reporter is still around. Here is the law on Guardians. The Commonwealth is supposed to pay them, not the clients. This is from MGL Chapter 215 Probate Courts
    Section 56A. Any judge of a probate court may appoint a guardian ad litem to investigate the facts of any proceeding pending in said court relating to or involving questions as to the care, custody or maintenance of minor children and as to any matter involving domestic relations except those for the investigation of which provision is made by section sixteen of chapter two hundred and eight. Said guardian ad litem shall, before final judgment or decree in such proceeding, report in writing to the court the results of the investigation, and such report shall be open to inspection to all the parties in such proceeding or their attorneys. The compensation shall be fixed by the court and shall be paid by the commonwealth, together with any expense approved by the court, upon certificate by the judge to the state treasurer. The state police, local police and probation officers shall assist the guardian ad litem so appointed, upon his request.

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