Spotlight on Journalism

Innovation Posted Apr 11, 2016 by Carro Halpin

At two recent Northeastern University future of media and investigative journalism events, the movie Spotlight was, well, in the spotlight. The success of the Academy Award-winning movie sparked a renewed interest in investigative journalism and its power for good – yet the number of investigative reporters across the country continues to decrease. Still, according to the panelists, there’s never been a better time for journalism than right now because of the unprecedented amount of work to be done and technology that is redefining the future of the craft.

IMG_1126Washington Post editor in chief Marty Baron was less optimistic about the future of media. Baron who, as editor in chief of the Boston Globe, pushed that paper’s Spotlight team to investigate sexual abuse within the Catholic church, calls for innovation in media to protect our democracy. Baron thinks we cannot find common ground anymore because the internet allows people to believe untrue things and only read news agreeing with their existing views. Is uncheckable journalism really new? In the 1700s people only read their party’s newspaper. The internet simply provides more options.

Baron says the Post is a strong example of a traditional media company transforming to be technology-driven. Software engineers sit in the newsroom working side-by-side with journalists. The Post surpassed The New York Times in monthly unique visitors with monthly growth rates as high as 70% year-over-year and is building an open-source comment platform to better engage audiences. It had unique resources in the form of monetary support and leadership pushing innovation from top-down from its new owner, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – a man with sophisticated knowledge of technology and consumer behavior and an obsession with growth.

There were tradeoffs. The Post shifted its focus to being a national publication and closed its international bureaus instead of cutting investigative reporters. The entire organization adapted to being data-driven, exemplified by the large live monitors of ChartBeat decorating the office. Baron was candid about tracking everything on their digital platforms – how much of an article you read, how fast you read it, where you found that article and much more. Articles publish with multiple headlines and software automatically updates the story with the most engaging headline. I understand why they do this, The Post wants and needs their content to actually reach people. I’m not sure how I feel about this yet – but the transparency is a step in the right direction. It enables conversation.

Walter Robinson, a former journalism professor at Northeastern and a Globe editor who led the Spotlight team, believes their reporting had such a large impact because it spread virally, globally, quickly via the internet. The end of the movie is powerful: scrolling lists of hundreds of cities around the world where massive church sex abuse scandals were uncovered directly after the Spotlight article published. Robinson argued Spotlight was the first major investigative report of the internet age. It took time, commitment and resources – taking reporters off the street and paying them.

Rosalind Helderman, an investigative reporter with The Post, commended the citizen journalism we see today because of technology, but citizens often miss the nuance and main story. She stressed the importance of bringing traditional journalism to internet driven documentation, to dig deeper and wider and interview people.

IMG_1152Prior to Spotlight, screenwriter Josh Singer wrote the screenplay for the The Fifth Estate, a movie about Edward Snowden and the news-leaking website, WikiLeaks. Singer joked at the event, “three, maybe four people” saw the film. Frustrated an important issue was not being looked at, Spotlight showed quality journalism keeping power in check at a local level, instead of just talking about it. Comparing the two stories highlights the difference between a dump of raw data versus real reporting, a hot topic since the recent leak of four decades of sensitive documents from law firm Mossack Fonseca, known as the Panama Papers. At 2.6 terabytes the Panama Papers is far and away the largest-ever data breach. The WikiLeaks Cablegate disclosure was “only” 1.7 gigabytes. For the past year,  highly secure technology empowered 400 journalists around the world to investigate the 11.5 million documents of the Panama Papers without the story breaking. Software enabled the 400 journalists collaborate and analyze the massive data. The files will not be released to the public, but is available to journalists and many more stories are expected to come from it.

The non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists coordinated much of the behind the scenes, logistical action of the Panama Papers. Community organizations like the ICIJ deserve recognition and support for reporting important stories and ensuring the integrity of serious investigative journalism. Right here in Boston, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting is training the next generation of investigative reporters through partnerships with WGBH and Boston University.

Technology enables media organizations to understand what people want to read and how to read it. For all the metrics available, consumers still want in-depth, exclusive, original content. A Boston Globe survey found that investigate journalism is the highest rated content by readers. Thirty-four percent of readers who started a recent 8,000 word Globe Spotlight investigation into concurrent surgeries finished the entire piece. Investigative journalism keeps power in check. Too many editors have decided that it is a luxury in favor of a click-driven world. With the power of technology, investigative journalists have more tools than ever before but they need support. In a world that is rapidly, continually changing – what if quality reporting is the one thing that is meant to stay the same?

By Carro Halpin