“Spotlight” shines light on journalism that used to be common

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It wasn’t so long ago, in the days after Watergate, when news organizations large and small threw dollars at big investigative projects that, truth be told, never really made economic sense. Having teams of people spend a lot of time doing research, rather than producing stories, was never a way to make huge profits. Nor do such projects win journalists a lot of friends among the powerful.  But they are critical to making a democratic society work, by exposing wrongs and informing the public. (Of course, there were always some less noble news organizations that would sensationalize the work in their eagerness to win prizes, with little regard for the public interest.)

The movie “Spotlight,” and its Oscar this week, has helped generate renewed discussion about why this kind of reporting matters, and whether it has a future. The truth is that in recent years, traditional news organizations have seen their staffs and ambition slashed, both in print and in broadcast. While plenty of great journalists at major institutions still do fabulous work, there are fewer bodies given the time and freedom to do so, and it’s harder to accomplish now than a generation ago.

That poses dangers to society, of course. And while nobody has figured out the answer, there is a lot of healthy experimentation going on across the country, in non-profit newsrooms large and small, trying to figure out how to make sure such work thrives. Places like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, where director Andy Hall notes that these kind of projects, in truth, never really paid their own way. Or like the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, where executive director Lyle Muller notes that fewer people are still doing this work.

I once worked in Philadelphia where old-time reporters told stories of turning out the newsroom lights when they had a scoop at deadline, so reporters at the competition down the street would not know that something big was happening. But in contrast to that frierce competition, many of these organizations are now collaborating, recognizing the public good that is served by harnessing resources. (One good example: this week’s This American Life, where the fine collaborative effort of two leading of the more successful nonprofit newsrooms, The Marshall Project and ProPublica, was developed into audio.

We’re proud, at Injustice Watch, to be part of this changing landscape, and bringing our own efforts to use the combination of data and storytelling to expose causes of systemic social injustices. It’s a strange and scary time. But the hard work that Boston Globe reporters undertook in Spotlight is more needed than ever.

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