Why ‘Spotlight’ probably wouldn’t happen today

Nick Smit investigates why Spotlight’s brand of journalism is being left in the dark.

It’s been almost two weeks since the biographical crime drama on child abuse within the Catholic Church, Spotlight, took the Oscar for Best Picture (read our review here). I, for one, was certainly happy to see it up there. But amongst the applause, the headlines, and later on the gentle knowing smiles from friends and colleagues, I felt a certain sadness. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t separate my appreciation for the story those journalists at the real-life Spotlight had worked so hard to tell from the fact that it would almost certainly not be told today.

I am referring, of course, to the state of investigative journalism. What separates investigative journalism from its kin is the much higher investment of time and money, of which there is already a growing scarcity in the journalistic world. Given the utterance that traditional journalism is dying is heard by Communication students perhaps slightly more than the word ‘hello’, investigative journalism seems to have been placed first on the chopping block. In a number of ways, investigative journalism might as well be the journalism of journalism, as the problems that plague the larger industry only become more potent within the investigative format.

A lot of the problems the format faces come down to money, money, money. The ongoing financial crisis that news has undergone as a result of the digital revolution has led many media organisations to dump what is seen as one of their highest-expense, lowest-return products. While Spotlight itself has gone on to outlast many of its competitors and it still be an aspect of The Boston Globe, it’s not exactly a good sign when you need to reveal an international conspiracy to stay open, is it?

But it’s also important to note how media organisations themselves have changed. Now, with the rise of massive media conglomerates and the significant shift towards editorial and commentary that require far less in terms of research, a cynical man might argue that there’s been a conflict of interest between providing high-quality journalism and making easy money. In all fairness, it’s hard to see them doing anything else with the coffers strained as they are, but nevertheless, the pool of investigative journalism provided by wage-workers within media organisations has shrunk significantly as a result.

So what about the freelancers? The tweeters, the bloggers, the on-the-ground neo-reporters? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that online advertising revenue has been hitting some record lows as of late. If an independent journalist could manage $1 per thousand views by monetising a webpage or video, they’d be doing above average. Advertising revenue is simply not liveable anymore, for big business or the indies.

Some factors include the increasing use of adblock or the diminishing effect traditional advertising seems to have on the new generation of consumers, but perhaps the biggest reason advertisers don’t pay out like they used to (still not that much) is that there’s just so many creators out there and only so much advertising money to go around. Without the revenue to sustain it, independent journalists can rarely be anything more than hobbyists, let alone trying to be deep-dive investigators who can work on a project for 12 months before they see a paycheck.

Indeed, a film depicting investigative journalism of such calibre could almost be referred to as a period piece at this point. That is, if we only look at the financing models that have been failing us. Enter: crowdfunding. A small but important number of journalists have been trying their hand on crowdfunding sites like Patreon and Kickstarter, with the aim to supplement or replace the money made from advertising. One of the major concerns of the advertising model is that it’s hard for journalists to strive for objectivity if they fear the scorn of their advertisers, so reducing this hold will be good for all involved.

Perhaps more importantly on our end, crowdfunding projects are usually made publically available as opposed to subscription models that put valuable stories behind pay walls. While we’re unlikely to see a mass adoption of crowdfunded investigative journalism any time soon, hybrid models like this give me hope that the practice will survive. And it must, because without a Spotlight for this era, who knows what stories will be left in the dark.



Image: ANDR3W A, Flickr, no changes made.

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