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?
- Boston Globe archives that are relevant
- “Why Tickets to College Games Come Easy on Capitol Hill” (WSJ, December 14, 2015), a recent example of what reporters get when they dig through public records
- Opportunity in the demise of Boston Globe (from 2009)