Marty Baron on 'Spotlight,' Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump and the slow death of printed news
When Liev Schreiber visited The Washington Post for a sitdown with Executive Editor Marty Baron, the veteran newsman tried to keep it quiet.
Baron hadn't told anybody the award-winning actor was there to talk with Baron before portraying him in "Spotlight." But, since it's a newspaper, word got out anyway.
People streamed by Baron's office, "including a woman who went by the first time with her hair up and the second time with her hair down," he said. Eventually, Baron concluded that Schreiber wasn't there for an idle chat.
"I realized after a while that this wasn’t so much an interview as an observation session," Baron said. "He was trying to get a sense of my mannerisms and how I spoke and all of that."
Baron recounted the story Tuesday night during another sitdown — this one not so secret — at The Poynter Institute. Now that "Spotlight" has gone on to win an Academy Award, Baron is fielding plenty of questions about Schreiber. He talked with Poynter President Tim Franklin about his experience being portrayed in a movie.
He quickly rebuffed the notion that he was "a hero" during the 2002 Spotlight investigation, which exposed rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and won The Boston Globe a Pulitzer Prize.
"I’m not sure I like hearing the word ‘hero,'" Baron said. "Because we’re just doing our jobs: holding the powerful people accountable."
But he did steer The Globe's coverage at critical times. At a key juncture in the investigation, Baron encouraged his reporters to prove that the clergy was covering up for child abusers. This was risky, given that The Globe was already sitting on a dynamite exposé — dozens of pedophile priests who committed crimes with impunity.
But Baron knew it wasn't enough, he said.
"I didn’t think that would cut it," he said. "I thought it would seem sensational. It wasn’t the first time that people had written about priests who had abused kids."
So, The Globe held onto the investigation until it got a trove of court documents that proved the Boston Archdiocese were making the problem worse.
That was more than a decade ago. Would he make the same decision today, now that the internet has accelerated the news cycle and turbocharged competition?
"It would be very difficult today to just sit on that story and say, 'we’re going for the bigger story,'" Baron said. "We’re competing in a matter of minutes. Seconds, sometimes."
The changing nature of the media business came up later during the conversation, when Franklin asked Baron about the future of The Post's print edition. Baron was characteristically concise.
"On printed newspapers, I would say one word: Grim," Baron said.
He predicted that print editions would be around "for at least five years" and noted that eventually The Washington Post's print edition would become "such a small portion of our business that we don’t think much about it."
The future lies instead with the paper's digital business, Baron said. On that front, The Washington Post is fortunate to have an owner in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has provided ample financial runway and outlined a new business strategy for the newspaper: shift away from being a regional news organization to become a national and international one.
Bezos has made himself a benign presence by providing business guidance and staying out of the newsroom, Baron said. He's also made important personal gestures, like flying to New York last month unannounced to see Baron accept the Hitchens Prize.
"He’s incredibly engaging," Baron said. "He’s incredibly smart. I find him amazingly down to earth given that his wealth...is not down to earth."
Bezos was an object of Donald Trump's scorn during the election, when he accused the billionaire businessman of trying to sway The Post's coverage. Bezos doesn't try to influence editors, Baron said, and the idea that The Washington Post is serving up unduly critical coverage isn't so. In fact, Baron said, concept of "positive" or "negative" coverage is alien to him.
"I don’t think about it that way," Baron said. "I think about, ‘what do we need to know, and how do we get it?'"
Baron offered critiques of some colleagues in the media business Tuesday night. When asked to evaluate the overall performance of journalists during 2016, he noted that it had "its good points and its bad points." The highs: investigative journalism, such as the kind produced by Washington Post Twitter sleuth David Fahrenthold. The lows: Live feeds of Trump rallies, even when there was no candidate to be seen.
"That’s not journalism," Baron said. "That’s advertising."
After the conversation with Franklin, Baron fielded questions from the audience. He noted that the spread of fake news has become a problem and that enhanced literacy among readers is central to combating it. He defended publication of newsworthy leaked documents, even if they come from unsavory sources. And he stood by coverage of Trump's tweets, citing a recent post that caused Boeing's stock to tumble temporarily.
"I think what we can do is cover it and then say what’s true and what’s not true," Baron said. "...We have two people who work as fact-checkers. And I can tell you, they’ve never been busier."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly summarized Baron's assessment of The Washington Post's changing strategy. The Post did not "ditch" the notion of being D.C.'s hometown paper. Rather, it is shifting from a regional focus to a national and international one.