‘Spotlight’: salient reminder of the power, and importance, of the press


One of the best parts of the recently released movie, “Spotlight,” is when Martin Baron, the new editor of the Boston Globe, meets Cardinal Law in Law’s residence. Baron has just commissioned his team of investigative writers and editors – dubbed “Spotlight” because of their in-depth and revelatory reporting – to look into allegations that Cardinal Law knew about the sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston and that he covered it up, schlepping abusive priests around the various parishes of the archdiocese in a perverted attempt to hide their crimes. For the moviegoer, then, their meeting is tense; though cordial on the surface – Law chats with the new editor about Boston and shares a cup of coffee with him. We know that Baron knows about Law’s actions. It is awkward, to say the least.

Near the end of the scene, though, Law tells Baron that he believes that Boston is a great city made better when its prestigious and influential institutions – i.e. the Roman Catholic Church and the Boston Globe – work together. Baron gives him an answer that made me – the editor of a small, much less influential weekly newspaper – cheer.

“I believe,” Baron says (or something close to this), “That a newspaper works best when it is working independently.”

Yes, I thought, this is why newspapers are still great. This is why they are still the bastions of truth and information. They are not afraid to uncover scandal and crime. They are not afraid to take on powerful institutions – in the name of justice.

But, of course, this pride that was stoked within me was tempered by a looming threat: the decline of print media. I firmly believe that print media plays a unique role in society that cannot be fully replaced by online content. But Internet media is certainly making a strong push to replace those hardworking newspapers that have informed us of some of society’s great issues – like the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Facebook and other social media continually try to push content to the reader, but it is content culled from sections of the web that these sites think will interest you; it is tailored news that performs little real service. It doesn’t tell you things that you should know. It shows you stories that it thinks will interest you, and this is not what the news business should be about. Newspapers are there to present you with information that you might not otherwise encounter.

I have found, fortunately, that I am not alone in my quest to make print media relevant again, especially with people my age – the twenty-somethings who are increasingly glued to our phones. (On that note, my allies in this crusade are usually aged professionals, experienced journalists who know the value of their craft.) John R. MacArthur, for example, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine, was recently featured in the New York Times in an article that stressed his allegiance to print media. (Harper’s has an online presence, but one must be a print subscriber to access the organization’s digital content.)

The Times article focused on MacArthur’s mantra, the ideals that drive his passion for all things print.

“His thesis,” the article says, “is built on three pillars. The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write posed, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It’s bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it’s bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash and generally distract.”

MacArthur’s points are accurate: the Internet has thrown the print world into an almost untenable situation. We’re at a point now where news organizations straddle the line between print and digital; papers like the New York Times still have a healthy print edition, for example, but they have extended their array of offerings by producing a website and smartphone app. The future, then, is up-for-grabs, and there are three options: everything could go digital, with no print; things could continue on the path we’re currently on, a hybrid of the two; or society could have an awakening and revert back to its old ways, print only.

In the Times article, MacArthur offers a sharp critique of the online medium. “I’ve got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the Internet and blowing off steam. If they want to do that, that’s fine,” he says in the piece. “But it doesn’t pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism.”

MacArthur, perhaps, is going a little too far; online content is a valuable way for lots of people to access information. Certainly the Internet is a powerful tool for communication, and its benefits are evident: fast sharing of crucial messages and life events, for example. But he has a point: There’s a lot of crap out there, and it would be best for society if we support those hard-working reporters – like the Spotlight team – who provide an essential service to society.

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