Spotlight on Spotlight

Boston Globe’s investigative team becoming cultural meme

FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS, the Boston Globe’s award-winning Spotlight Team – not the same people, they do change them – has put a spotlight on corruption, scandal, and inequity in the region.

From exposing James “Whitey” Bulger as an FBI informant to revealing slothful schedules of Massachusetts judges to uncovering redlining by mortgage companies in minority neighborhoods to pulling back the veil on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic church, Spotlight has defined the best in investigative journalism for those in and outside of the industry. For decades, reporters pined to ascend to a spot on the team, the mere mention of the Spotlight name sent shivers down the back of pols receiving calls from the reporters, and readers would eagerly anticipate the Sunday morning delivery of the first in a series on a subject.

But with the massive decline in readership of newspapers, reporting itself may no longer be enough to engage readers. The latest iteration of Spotlight, which produced last year’s series on race in Boston, was the fulcrum for a bit this week on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. With a couple shots of the collective team that did the series, the show’s roving “correspondent” Ron Wood did a segment on “How racist is Boston?” Reporter Akilah Johnson played the straight-faced foil in an interview with Wood, who made some increasingly, kind-of-funny but outlandish statements and actions.

Johnson, and the Spotlight team itself, willingly participated in what was a satirical look at Boston’s racist reputation. Using the paper’s reports as the foundation for the bit is a new turn in promoting the journalism of a news outlet in today’s online world.

There are some old-timers (hand raised) who think the stories are too important to be used as fodder for a comedy sketch. We also think that when the reporters themselves become part of the story, it dilutes the focus. But others argue that a diminished audience for newspapers, whether print or online, calls for more proactive actions in unconventional ways to get the information in front of more eyes. It’s a valid argument.

Spotlight is becoming a valuable brand for the Globe and owner John Henry. Younger generations have no allegiance or knowledge of the legendary Robert Healey, Gerry O’Neill, Dick Lehr, or the recently retired Steve Kurkjian. Some may know Walter Robinson, Mike Rezendes, or former editor Marty Baron only because they were played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Liev Schreiber, respectively, in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.

As many point out, though, the movie was not merely about the sex abuse scandal, but the often-mundane yet laborious search for data and information tidbits that, put together, make a compelling and important investigative news story. It was journalism at its best. And, like All the President’s Men more than 40 years ago, it is spurring new interest in younger reporters getting into the business.

With The Daily Show skit, Johnson and the other Spotlight reporters did little more than lend their name and their reporting to the segment. But, in turn, they’re getting a big return. Social media lit up with links and references to the video and Spotlight’s appearance. They hailed the segment as a way to relay the team’s journalism through a highly watched show nationally in a funny and accessible manner.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Interestingly, Wood took his camera and microphone to Fenway Park, also owned by Henry, to interview fans about whether they thought Boston was racist. (Whites, “no,” blacks, “yes.”) It was a cross promotion twofer for Henry, who also recently led the charge to change the name of Yawkey Way because of the late Red Sox owner’s alleged racist attitudes. Henry was able to not only highlight his paper and his sports team but get attention for an issue that clearly resonates with him. That the spoof made some of his (white) paying customers look like clueless dolts apparently was irrelevant.

In the end, maybe getting people to read the hard and important work of real reporters and newspapers is what matters, not how they got there.