At The Boston Globe, Spotlight is changing, but it hasn't dimmed
Visitors to The Boston Globe might have a hard time finding the Spotlight team without a little help.
There’s no sign on the wall. No fancy plaque. No display case crammed with awards. No visual reminder heralding the team of journalists that exposed rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic church, laid bare city-wide corruption and shed light on illegal, dilapidated housing.
Except one. One of the walls by the Spotlight team is papered with old front pages from stories that shook things up. For a newsroom about to undergo sweeping transformation and move to another part of town, the front pages are a reminder that deep digging still matters.
“Those are the stories that have made a real difference,” said Mike Rezendes, a Spotlight reporter who shared the Pulitzer Prize for the Globe’s 2002 investigation into the Catholic Church. “The stories that have really changed things.”
Rezendes should know. Since he joined the Spotlight team in 2000, he’s participated in stories that helped police put away wrongdoers. He's cultivated sources that send along more tips than he can handle by himself. And he's seen the demand for investigative journalism grow even as news organizations across the United States have cut back on reporting.
And he's seen major changes within his own investigative team. In the years since he joined the Globe, Spotlight has expanded and merged with the newspaper's metro investigative team. They've moved out of their dingy offices in the Globe's mezzanine and into the main newsroom. They've picked up the pace, balancing quick-hit investigative projects with deeper dives. And they're enjoying broader recognition thanks to an Academy Award-winning movie that brought the Globe's universe of Excel spreadsheets and shoe-leather reporting to a wider audience.
Meanwhile, the entire newspaper is on the verge of big changes. Earlier this year, Editor Brian McGrory announced an initiative to rethink the newspaper's coverage, technology and workflow. Sometime next year, the Globe will leave its longtime home in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood for its new downtown headquarters — the old building will be sold.
All of this comes as U.S. newspapers weather declining print revenues that have hit regional publications especially hard. The Boston Globe, which was purchased in 2013 by Red Sox owner John Henry, has managed to innovate during the industrywide downturn, spinning out new publications focused on the biomedical industry, Catholicism and New England startups (the latter two were flipped to the Knights of Columbus and folded into the Globe's business section, respectively). But the Globe has not been immune to the buyouts that have touched other newspapers across the United States.
Despite that, the Spotlight team is not going anywhere, McGrory told Poynter in an email.
"There's not a scenario imaginable in which Spotlight doesn't continue to flourish in a reorganized newsroom at a reinvented Globe," McGrory said. "Investigative and accountability reporting are core to what we do and always will be."
Indeed, the team has grown over the years to its current peak size. Once, the team was down to three journalists. Now, after its merger with the metro investigative team, there are six full-time reporters, two "guest" reporters from other areas in the newsroom and a full-time editor. After "Spotlight" went on to commercial and critical success, production company Open Road Films put up money for a fellowship program that's brought two additional journalists into the fold. That brings the total team up to 10 reporters and an editor.
"At a time of diminishing resources in a lot of parts of the paper, it's very gratifying to be in charge of something that's growing and has big ambitions," said Scott Allen, Spotlight's editor.
Those ambitions have required changing the way the team works together. After it merged with the Globe's metro team in 2014, the team has run its projects on two parallel tracks: long, in-depth investigations, the kind that take between six months and a year and stories that take between a month and six weeks. This increased pace has become a necessity over the last year as the recognition from the "Spotlight" film has inspired tipsters to pick up their phones and send emails.
Since "Spotlight" began screenings, the team hasn't let up. They've published a deep dive into Massachusetts' mental health system, New England's flawed private schools and a story about the practice of surgeons operating on multiple patients simultaneously (that one took more than a year).
The stories are a hit with the Globe's audience, Allen said. Although he declined to break out specific audience figures, he said that the investigative pieces are usually the most-read articles of the day, week or month that they're published. People read them for longer than other stories, too — readers often spend five to eight minutes on a Spotlight story — an eon in digital journalism. Many actually reach the end of investigations thousands of words long.
"We're doing this unapologetic, longform journalism, but we're presenting it in a way that's pretty easy follow...and it seems to work," Allen said.
Much of that engagement is owing to the presentation of the journalism, Allen said. In the surgery article, for example, the Globe featured documentary evidence from the investigation in the body of the text. They also embedded video, interactive graphics, asides and high-resolution photos. The private schools investigation included videos from sexual abuse victims.
The team also benefits from having a designated number cruncher. Todd Wallack, the Globe's data whiz, contributes to Spotlight investigations and helps the wider newsroom with stories that require statistics and databases. From his desk adorned with a stuffed panda (it's a data journalism joke), Wallack also crafts open-records requests and coordinates the team's facts and figures on Google Sheets.
Wallack, who joined the Globe years after the Catholic Church investigation, says moving out of the dark mezzanine offices has given the Spotlight team access to the journalistic muscle of the wider newsroom.
"We're certainly seeing reporters all the time walking over and asking questions because we're in the main newsroom and no longer on a separate floor isolated where nobody would see us for the longest time," Wallack said.
Although basic software has enabled Spotlight reporters and editors to collaborate more effectively, the team hasn't drastically altered the way it works, said Jenn Abelson, who's been at the Globe for 14 years. Team members aren't on Slack, for example, preferring to ask each other questions over their cubicles.
"Journalism has changed, but at the end of the day, reporting is still pounding the pavement and getting people who aren't supposed to talk to you to talk to you," Abelson said. "So I think the basics of how we go about our jobs hasn't changed and our goals and ambitions have grown."
When the Globe moves to its new downtown headquarters next year, it's still unclear exactly what the offices of the Spotlight team will look like. The team has a space set aside, and Allen will have his own office. The front pages that remind passers-by of the Spotlight team's legacy don't have a place set aside yet. But that's fine by Rezendes.
“I don’t really worry about that sort of thing," Rezendes said. "I worry about the stories. It’s nice to have them here, but I’m not really concerned about office decor.”