Politicoâs Playbook reported Monday that Rob Reiner was in town recently to study up forÂ Shock and Awe, a film he plans about some of theÂ few journalists who reported skeptically about the run-up to the Iraq War. âWe also hope that it serves as maybe what âSpotlightâ did to motivate young journalists and show what investigative journalism is like and how important it is,âÂ Warren Strobel, who was one of those journalists and who met with Reiner, told Politico.
Indeed,Â Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in February, has the potential toÂ fill journalism schools in much theÂ sameÂ wayÂ All the Presidentâs Men reportedly did in the â70s. And since Hollywood loves a winner, itâs no surprise that Reinerâs film,Â which has been in the works for at least aÂ coupleÂ years, has found financing.
ButÂ as much as movies likeÂ Shock and Awe,Â Spotlight, and the 2014 filmÂ Kill the Messenger make heroes of journalists, itâs worth noting that the time they portray was a very different one in media. We live in an age where itâsÂ a better time to make a movie about newspapers than to work for one.
All those movies wereÂ set in a time before the Great Recession andÂ changes in the wayÂ advertisers found eyeballs began toÂ eat newsrooms from the inside. Between 1990 and 2014, newsroom jobs at mid-sized American dailies, like many of the ones Strobel, Jonathan Landay, and their editor John Walcott served from the Washington bureau of the newspaper company Knight Ridder, declined by 20 percent. That drop was concurrent with sickening plunges inÂ ad revenue and circulation.
Spotlight was set in the relatively fat and happy early 2000s, when a Boston Globe investigation showedÂ a pattern of priests getting away with sexual abuse of children. At the end ofÂ the film, not only is theÂ story delivered primarily on printed paper, readers use something called a telephone to callÂ the journalists behind theÂ monster scoopÂ to contribute their own stories.
But the biggest changes since then arenât technological. Consider the key roles that librarians play in bothÂ Spotlight andÂ All the Presidentâs Men. Those jobs have been hit very hard by newspapersâ decline, as tracked in a database by (yep, former)Â Palm Beach Post researcherÂ Michelle Quigley. This yearâs Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was shared by reporter Wesley Lowery andÂ PostÂ researchers Julie Tate andÂ Jennifer Jenkins. TateÂ hasÂ played a crucial role in nine Pulitzer-winning entries and formerÂ Publisher Katharine Weymouth honored her in 2013.Â In 2008 Erik Wemple, then at Washington City Paper, called Tate the âUnsung Hero of the Washington Post,â noting her supreme importance to prize-winning investigations. SheÂ was then part of a 13-person research department; sheâs now part of a department that numbers five full-time employees, aÂ PostÂ spokesperson tellsÂ Washingtonian.
Print publicationsÂ played an outsize role in selling the Iraq War, Bill Moyers reported in a 2007 segment. The New York Times, theÂ Post, and Vanity FairÂ all presented ginned-up evidence against Sadaam Hussein, including one particularly surreal moment when Vice President Dick Cheney appeared onÂ Meet the PressÂ and discussed a blockbusterÂ New York TimesÂ story about aluminum tubes to buttress the administrationâs cassus belli. That story almost certainly originated from Cheneyâs own office. âRemarkable,â the late 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon told Moyers.Â âYou leak a story, and then you quote the story.â
And theÂ newspapers that mattered most were in New York and Washington. Knight Ridder owned dozens of newspapers, but most were in citiesÂ that made themÂ at bestÂ second reads forÂ the type of people the administration was really trying to reach: lawmakers, captains of industry, opinion board members. âWe were under the radar most of the time at Knight Ridder,â Walcott told Moyers.Â âWe were not a company that, I think, Karl Rove and others cared deeply about, even though in terms of readers, weâre much bigger than the New York TimesÂ and the Washington Post. Weâre less influential. Thereâs no way around that.â
One big difference between that era and today is that digital news delivery has erased much of theÂ structural advantage theÂ TimesÂ and theÂ PostÂ had. Edward Snowden bypassed theÂ Times when he released his documents, and theÂ Sarasota Herald-Tribune has won twoÂ Pulitzers for Investigative Reporting since 2010âthe same number as the Gray Lady. (Snowden is the subject of an upcoming biopic; Zachary Quinto will playÂ Glenn Greenwald, who reported his revelations for the Guardian.) Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald has led reportingÂ on Guantanamo, and local papers have beaten national outlets at reporting the deaths of Harper Lee and Antonin Scalia.
But theÂ biggest realignment around newsÂ is entirely beyond the pluck and resourcefulness of reporters outside the Acela corridor. 63 percent of Americans get news from Facebook, aÂ route to readersÂ that publishersÂ can only pray remains open to them. Facebook, which employs fewer than 14,000 people worldwide, had $5.2 billion in ad revenue in the first quarter of 2016,Â putting it on track to make more from advertising than the entire newspaper industry, which employs about 33,000 people and puts out considerablyÂ more products.
Knight Ridder Â vanished in 2006, purchased by McClatchy, which borrowed $3 billion to buy it.Â Two years before Lehman Brothers collapsed, and theÂ costs of servicing that debt continue to make McClatchy earnings reports grim reading. Its WashingtonÂ bureau still pushes out great journalism, but it closed its foreign bureaus last year to âfocus above all on regional and political coverage, as well as national stories of particular impact in our communities,â McClatchy vice president for news Anders Gyllenhaal wrote in a memo. Landay described the move as âshutting off an important source of news and analysis at a time when we need to be paying more attention because our mission is to inform and educate.âÂ He, Strobel, and Walcott now work for the news agency Reuters.