Marty Baron took over as editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe at a time before the internet significantly changed the business and distribution of journalism. His pushing of the Globe’s now-famous Spotlight team to deeply pursue the intuitional corruption of the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse cover-up in the Boston Archdiocese is portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.” Baron has since moved on to lead the Washington Post. But since the movie reignited the 2001 to 2002 Pulitzer-winning work of the Globe, he’s probably best known now for his leadership in Boston during that time.
Baron was the featured speaker in a Q&A keynote session at the 2016 Excellence in Journalism conference, Sept. 18 in New Orleans. Kirsten Lundberg, a journalist, professor and author of numerous case studies (including one on the Boston Globe investigation that helped spark the movie) interviewed him on stage. Following is a condensed version of that Q&A session.
Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Kirsten Lundberg: I was wondering if we could start with a little bit about your experience of the story from the inside. Talk us through the fall (after arriving at the Globe) and where the story went.
Marty Baron: I was reading the paper before I started, trying to figure out what the good stories were. I went into the morning meeting my first day, and we went around the room just as portrayed in the movie, and nobody mentioned the story (by a Boston Globe columnist writing about a legal case involving the Archdiocese), and so I inquired about it, and I asked whether we couldn’t get past one side saying one thing and one side saying something else. Couldn’t we get to the truth of the matter?
Lundberg: Had you intended this to be a Spotlight project from the get-go?
Baron: Before I arrived in Boston I didn’t know that there was a Spotlight team. I was informed of it when I arrived. I wasn’t thinking about it being a Spotlight investigation. I was just thinking we need to pursue this story. When I brought it up, other editors there said we should bring the Spotlight team into this.
Lundberg: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of the things about investigative reporting that are timeless and some of the things you think are more contemporary, driven by the internet.
Baron: I think most of these things are things that apply today. One is computer-assisted reporting, although it’s much more sophisticated now. I think street reporting, just going out and knocking on peoples’ doors is really important. It think it’s a bit of a lost art these days. I think the cultivation of sources is also something that’s incredibly important. That’s something I think reporters need to do more of now.
Lundberg: When you’re hiring for a unit like the Spotlight team, what are you looking for in an investigative journalist, and related to that, do you think anyone can do investigative journalism or does it take a particular kind of personality?
Baron: I think it takes a certain type. It takes a certain type of person who is not satisfied with official explanations, a person who has a great nose for a deeper story, somebody who is sort of willing to pull on the thread and see how things unspool. Obviously someone who has acquired one way or another a knowledge about documents and where data is. I do think it takes someone who has a good meter for BS, and not everybody has that. … I think everybody should be an investigative journalist, no matter what your beat is. We shouldn’t be relegating investigations strictly to investigative units.
Lundberg: When the Spotlight team was working on the story, was it a secret project? Were they in fact not able to tell families and so forth what they were working on?
Baron: Yeah, they kept it as confidential as possible. They work on a different floor. You walk through these cinderblock hallways until you get to their office, which was often locked. And so they didn’t tell a lot of people.
Lundberg: How do you as the editor decide when enough is enough? When you have enough to go on?
Baron: That’s a very hard question to answer in the abstract. In this instance there’s that key scene in the movie, which is accurate, that I was concerned that we would have a story that just said there are lots of priests who abused lots of kids, and I did not want a story like that. I wanted better than that, more than that, because I was concerned that that would seem very sensational.
Lundberg: We all know that the business model of newspapers has changed dramatically with the advent of the internet. Investigative journalism is a very expensive undertaking. How do you fund investigative journalism in today’s news environment?
Baron: I think that every media institution has to make that decision on its own. I believe that you fund it because it has to be done. It’s absolutely core to our mission, and no matter what your resources, you have to find resources to do that. I think that readers what that of us. They expect that of us. I don’t think they’d forgive us if we abandoned that mission. And I don’t think that they should forgive us. I think that investigative reporting actually does strengthen the loyalty of readers. When I was in Boston and whenever we had an investigative story, I would get lots of emails from people saying thank you for doing that story.
Lundberg (On celebrity from the movie): What’s it like now to walk down the street, to go into a restaurant … I just wonder if you ever have a chance to sit down with your former colleagues at the Spotlight team and talk about how nice it was when you were able to go down to the corner Starbucks and have a peaceful cup of coffee versus the reality today.
Baron: I’ve spent a lot of time with my former colleagues, and I haven’t once heard them say, ‘boy, this is terrible.’ It’s just very strange. I view it as a low-grade celebrity. I do get recognized from time to time, but the people tend to have some sort of journalism connection. It’s weird to be asked for selfies. The great thing about it has been how it’s inspired a lot of people. I do hope that it causes the public to think about journalism and the necessity of the work that we do.
Audience Question: Would you please speak to the accuracy of the film?
Baron: I think the movie is quite faithful to the broad outlines of the investigation. I think it’s important to remember, though, that this is a movie, it’s not a documentary, and a lot of stuff has to be compressed into two hours. There are certain details that are there for dramatic effect, but they’re designed to capture themes that emerged over the course of the investigation.
Audience Question: I’m a student and going to be a future investigative reporter. One of the things I constantly get told is that I shouldn’t go into investigative journalism because it’s a dying art and there’s no jobs for it. What is your response to that?
Baron: When you get into the career, you don’t just go into investigative reporting. You go into reporting. And then when you’re a reporter, you investigate when the opportunity arises and makes sense. Maybe your aspiration is to be a full-time investigative reporter at some point. I think there is a demand for reporting, and there are opportunities in a lot of different arenas.