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Stealing the spotlight

An unexpected Oscar winner shows how much things have changed in the past 15 years.

The Boston Globe’s investigative journalists played by Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James.
The Boston Globe’s investigative journalists played by Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James.

Spotlight – the based-on-a-true-story news­paper procedural about a team of Boston Globe reporters who uncover a systemic paedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church – has to be one of the least likely Oscar darlings in Academy Awards history. Somehow, this movie has managed to rack up six nominations and the award for Best Picture while being painstakingly faithful to the actual practice of investigative reporting.

There are no clandestine meetings in parking garages with deep background informers, no hot reporters who sleep with their sources. The movie’s commitment to realism is so complete that there are no hot reporters at all. One of the most thrilling moments comes when a guy sits down at his desk and cross-references a set of parish directories with a list of names in an Excel spreadsheet. I understand why journalists like this movie. But why are normal people going to see it?

The answer, I think, has a lot to do with the state of the American newspaper in 2016. The daily paper used to be one of this country’s great institutions, animated by an expansive sense of mission. From small-town rags to mid-sized dailies to titans like the New York Times, the best papers believed they had a social responsi­bility to aggressively expose corruption and to provide deeply researched explanations of public policy to their readers.

Often, this meant allocating resources in a way that didn’t make sense from a pure business perspective. The Globe’s four-person Spotlight team, for instance, would spend up to two years on each investigation – it took them a couple of months just to pick the right project. As recently as the early 2000s, it was common for regional papers to dispatch reporters to cover international events like the Iraq War. And the claim to a higher calling could verge on the priestly: Len Downie, a former editor of the Washington Post, famously abstained from voting for the 17 years he held the job because he thought it would compromise his objectivity.

Then the internet ­happened and everything went pear-shaped. Online classifieds killed the ones in the back of the paper. When newspapers started publishing everything on their websites for free, people stopped subscribing and the bottom dropped out of the ad market. Newspapers ­everywhere announced mass layoffs and years-long hiring freezes. Between 2008 and 2010, 166 print papers vanished entirely.

Things have stabilised, but everything has changed. All the journalism jobs now are in online publications, some of which publish excellent work but rarely at the sustained level of a major newspaper at its peak. Most surviving papers, meanwhile, are shells of their former selves. Some of the cutbacks are perfectly ­sensible – the Baltimore Sun doesn’t need bureaus in London, Johannesburg, Beijing, Jerusalem and Moscow. But it desperately needs hard-hitting ­reporters to hold the city to account and make sense of its many and ­complex problems.

My favourite moment in Spotlight comes when the team’s lead reporter discovers a vital piece of evidence after months of painstaking work. He returns to the office, where a giant AOL billboard looms over the building. Its bright poppy logo makes the Globe’s brick headquarters look tired, diminished – a premonition of the upheaval to come. This is a period movie, even if the period it depicts is only a few years past. The “morgue” where old clippings were stored is a period detail, as are the godawful khakis worn by all the male reporters that are always at least one size too large. But so is the newspaper’s capa­city to dedicate itself so completely to the public interest. The movie is so compelling because it captures a world that’s already gone.

New Zealander Rachel Morris is executive editor of Huffington Post Highline.

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