Boston Globe's Walter Robinson on being made the star of a film and the 'horrible' state of investigative journalism

All The President's Men is widely regarded among journalists to be the best film ever made about their craft. This was the finding of a poll of Press Gazette's readers in 2012.

But the Washington Post's Woodward and Bernstein are facing a new challenger: Spotlight.

Currently in UK cinemas, this film tells the story of how the Boston Globe's investigative team exposed child abuse and a cover-up in the Catholic Church.

It won a BAFTA last night – best original screenplay – and is in contention for six more prizes at the Academy Awards later this month.

In the company of films like Bridge of Spies and The Revenant, you might expect Spotlight to feature high-drama car chases, love affairs or bear attacks.

But it doesn't. Other than the sinister suggestion public documents have been removed from a Boston court, the film primarily focuses reporters making spreadsheets, checking archives, meeting contacts and postponing their investigation following the 9/11 terrorism attacks. 

Here, Press Gazette talks to Walter Robinson (pictured above, right: Reuters), who was head of the Spotlight team. He was known as Robby in the film and was played by Michael Keaton (pictured below, right).

Was it odd as a journalist to see yourself, and your work, portrayed in a blockbuster film?

"Yes, of course. And it’s a bit odd to be answering questions all the time instead of asking them. That’s what we’re better at, which I’m probably about to prove.

"But the film was quite well done and exceeded our expectations for accuracy. It is a film, it is a dramatisation, but the director Tom McCarthy was intent on telling the story as it actually happened in 2001.

"So it very closely tracks, in two hours and eight minutes, what we did over a five-month period – in terms of the reporting we did and the personalities involved, and how we got to the story."

How much of the story was a dramatisation and how much was it told as it happened?

"You can’t say it’s just as it happened because that suggests that the film is a transcript or a documentary. It’s not that.

"There are some composite characters, there are scenes that didn’t occur in real life, but which were created by the filmmaker to carry the narrative of the story.

"There were times when the filmmaker was dealing with the fact that there were five or six people, for instance, helping us on one aspect of the story and he compressed them into one individual in a couple of cases.

"But on the whole we didn’t know going in whether… we feared that the movie would have sex scenes or shooting or car chases or something like that.

"None of that. I think it’s just very understated in its approach and it kind of de-glamourises reporting. Which I think is a good thing.”

Robinson left the Boston Globe in 2006 to become a professor of journalism at Northeastern University. He has now returned to the Globe as editor at large.

What does that include? Do you still do any reporting?

"I came back to the Globe in the spring of 2014 and I’ve probably done eight or ten stories.

"But it was soon after I came back that the film became a reality so I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time related to the film. And particularly the last several months, myself and a couple of my colleagues have spent a lot of time on the road talking about the film.

"So I haven’t done very much journalism. It will be nice to get back to it soon.”

What kind of impact has the film had on the Boston Globe? I imagine its reputation has been enhanced. Has this reflected in its circulation?

“Well, I think it’s given the Globe a lot of recognition elsewhere in the country and maybe even outside the US, which is a good thing.

"I don’t think – frankly, it doesn’t translate into any circulation gains. I don’t think they’ve sold any more papers because of it.

"I believe there’s probably been an [increase] in the number of people outside our readership area who have found their way to the Globe website. Partly because on the website they’ve managed to make available a lot of the coverage that we did in 2002/2003 and I’ve had a lot of emails – particularly since the film was opened overseas – a lot of emails from people who have seen the film and managed to get my email address off of Google search.

"But I don’t think… there’s any money in this for the Globe or any circulation gain. I think the Globe is facing the same long-term financial threats that other papers are. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

How has the Globe changed in terms of circulation since 2001/2002?

“In 2001 we had about 525,000 daily papers and close to 800,000 on Sunday. And now we’re down to about 225,000 papers daily and about, I think it’s 307,000, on Sunday.

"And of course the advertising revenue, which is true of most every paper, a lot of it is gone and gone forever.

"But it’s also true that there are probably more people reading the Globe now than ever before, simply because of its digital presence. And that’s not a lot different than other papers.

"The problem is nobody’s figured out how to monetise that."

In the film, the Spotlight team has four members. How has this figure changed?

“The figure right now is technically larger. It’s six now. But what happened is the paper had a shorter-term investigative team of three reporters in the newsroom who did short-term – you know, maybe one month or two month or three month – investigative projects.

"And two years ago the Globe combined the two teams into one large team. So I’d say technically the team is larger now.

"Essentially the paper’s commitment to investigative reporting remains unchanged. Which is not the same at most papers…

“A lot of papers have abandoned investigative reporting because it’s expensive to do. And I think that’s a kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish because when you ask readers what they consider most important in their daily newspapers, investigative reporting is almost at or near the top of the list.”

What do you make of the general state of investigative journalism?

“It’s in a horrible state.

"At the big national newspapers, it’s still very, very good. But local investigative reporting as practised by major metropolitan dailies either is not done at all or very little of it is done.

"And so the opportunities for public corruption have gone up a lot. In many, many cities if there’s a whistleblower with evidence of corruption that whistleblower has nobody to contact because newspapers don’t cover city hall very much at all in many cities.”

Can websites step into that void? And are they doing so?

“I think there are some that do that. But too much of journalism nowadays is reporters who think that the time they spend on social media amounts to real journalism, when in fact it doesn’t.

"There’s too much of journalism which is people repackaged other people’s stories and there’s too many talking heads on television and not enough reporters with notebooks knocking on doors. That’s a serious problem.

"It’s possible for anybody on any platform who knows what they’re doing to do really great investigative reporting that will go viral if they can get the story. There are so many more investigative tools that are available because of the internet. It’s just that the tools are not being used properly.

"And there are stories you can do in a day now because of the availability of databases online that once took you a month to do.

"The problem is there are a lot of reporters who aren’t trained to do that or don’t see the benefit. They'd rather be out tweeting.”

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