Missing from ‘Spotlight’ Movie: How News Sites Pay for Top-Quality Investigative Journalism

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The movie “Spotlight” is a heartbreaking yet inspiring drama about local journalism at its imperfect best. But this “based on actual events” portrayal of how the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team uncovered the pedophile priest scandal in the Catholic Church overlooks one sobering detail: The Globe’s hundreds of stories of sexual abuse, for all the acclaim they won, didn’t save the paper from a catastrophic financial decline that nearly put it out of business.

In 2002, the year the Globe broke the scandal open, it published a story almost every day about the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up and the suffering of the many hundreds of mostly male victims. But the paper’s circulation still plunged 11 percent from 2001 — from 467,000 to 413,000. Revenue for 2002 did go up one percent over 2001, but was still off more than 15 percent from its peak in 2000.

Despite the recognition the Globe won for its reporting and its role in spurring change at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, the paper teetered on a financial cliff through the rest of the 2000s and into the next decade, losing millions of dollars for its owner, the New York Times. Finally, two years ago, John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, rescued the Globe, paying $70 million for the paper, which had cost the Times $1.1 billion in 1993.

To understand how such journalistic success could be followed by such financial failure, I went to Dan Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, who has written extensively about the subject in his blog Media Nation, and is the author of  “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

The web was coming into its own by the time the Spotlight series came out in January 2002. Wasn’t the timing just right for the Globe to pull off a digital publishing coup and pave the way for digital subscriptions?
When newspaper after newspaper launched initially free websites in the mid-1990s, it was perfectly reasonable to think that the rather small amount of subscriber income they received would be more than offset by getting rid of the costs of printing and distribution. Of course, that didn’t happen, as print — to nearly everyone’s surprise — remains the chief revenue driver 20 years later. Meanwhile, no one understood that Craigslist was about to destroy the classified ad business, and that display advertising would not make a successful transition to digital.

The Globe had boston.com since 1995, and it received around six million unique monthly visitors by the time Spotlight’s findings were published. Why couldn’t the Globe have used that popular site to give users a smattering of Spotlight, but saved the full story for the Globe? Wouldn’t that have prepared readers for a paywall that could have produced bigger revenue dividends from Spotlight’s findings?
There was no BostonGlobe.com in 2002, just the free boston.com. The Globe, like virtually all major metropolitan newspapers at the time, had bet the ranch on free online distribution. It wasn’t until 2011 that the Globe unveiled a digital subscription model. There was a considerable public benefit to making the pedophile-priest stories freely available. As Clay Shirky points out in his book “Here Comes Everybody,” the Globe’s reporting went viral, shaking the Catholic Church to its foundations both nationally and internationally. That impact may have been blunted if the Globe had had a strict paywall in effect.

So you’re skeptical about digital subscriptions, regardless of how well they may be timed?
You certainly can’t blame newspapers for trying to sell digital subscriptions, but there are two huge problems. First, it goes against the grain of how people consume news online — checking in with multiple sources. They certainly aren’t going to pay for more than one or two papers. Second, back when we all paid for home delivery, we weren’t paying hundreds of dollars every month for broadband, cellular access, and all our digital devices. I don’t think you can blame the consumer in any way for thinking that the content ought to be included in that huge monthly cost.

Because the advertising market has shrunk so dramatically, newspaper owners have to find ways of persuading their audience to pay. I’m just pointing out that the structural obstacles to that are considerable.

How does the Globe offset the cost of Spotlight, which today has six reporters whose cost is probably close to a million dollars? Or is investigative journalism, however important the public service it may render, a loss leader now and forever?
Newspapers have to concentrate on what they do best. The Globe recently cut about 45 full-time positions from its newsroom, which had previously been around 350. At the same time, it’s investing in free online verticals such as Stat, which covers health and life sciences, and Crux, which covers (ironically) the Catholic Church. And yes, one of the continuing investments the paper is making under the ownership of John Henry is in investigative reporting.

Investigative reporting has always been a loss leader, but it’s an important way for a news organization to enhance its standing in the community. For the Globe, the Spotlight team is an enormous expense. Without it, though, its value as a business — not just as a civic institution — would be substantially less.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.