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Spotlight at 50

Globe editor Brian McGrory: Why the Spotlight Team matters

Investigative journalism helps us achieve one of our most important goals: Making our region a better, fairer, and safer place to live.

Images from Adobe Stock/Globe staff illustration

It’s impossible to dislike Tim Leland. He’s as well read as anyone on the planet, intellectually curious, a soft-spoken and gentle soul who bikes around downtown Boston in the early morning hours when much of the region is barely awake.

He’s also the guy who launched the Globe’s Spotlight Team, and, for that, he deserves this city’s gratitude.

It was legendary Globe editor Tom Winship who, in 1969, dispatched Tim overseas, where he’d get a firsthand view of the investigative unit at The Sunday Times in London. Journalists weren’t exactly jetting off to Europe all that often back then. Investigative reporting in the United States was not what it has become. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had yet to reveal the depths of Watergate. Organizations like ProPublica, entirely devoted to investigative journalism, didn’t exist. Newspapers did important accountability work, but most were still built to cover things, rather than uncover them.

Winship launched the Spotlight Team shortly after Tim returned stateside — with Tim as its first editor. The next year, in 1971, the team wrote a series of stories exposing widespread public corruption in Somerville that earned the Globe a coveted Pulitzer Prize. It would be easy to say the rest is history, but it’s really the present that matters most.

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This week’s issue of the Globe Magazine marks the 50th anniversary of the Spotlight Team’s founding, and yes, we understand that it’s actually the 51st, but nobody wanted to note the occasion in the throes of a pandemic, plus Spotlight always runs on its own timetable anyway. You try getting an investigative reporter to hurry up.

Those 51 years have been marked by some of the most important work in all of journalism: stories that have held some of the most powerful people and institutions in this region and the world to account — governors, mayors, world-class hospitals, the FBI, and of course, the Catholic Church.

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People have been indicted, convicted, and imprisoned based on Spotlight reporting. National health care policies have been changed. One of Boston’s most enduring secrets — that crime lord Whitey Bulger was a protected federal informant — was revealed in a Spotlight report. Countless children were spared from sexual assault, and those who had suffered its brutality were given a public voice, in Spotlight’s reporting on pedophilic priests.

It is rarely glamorous work. But the people who have done it have made a habit of turning doorstep interviews, dusty records, and complex data sets into essential journalism. It’s not just the misdeeds of the people and institutions that the team has exposed. It’s all the people who have stayed on the right side of wrong out of fear of getting a message that simply says, “Steve Kurkjian of Spotlight called.”

Steve, by the way, was the third editor of the team, a winner of three Pulitzer Prizes in three different decades. He could get a concrete wall to tell secrets with his affable, aw-shucks kind of way.

There are others, of course. The late Gerry O’Neill, a longtime Spotlight editor, had the demeanor of a state trooper and the literary touch of a poet. Walter Robinson, the editor who drove the Spotlight work that exposed the horrific misdeeds of the Catholic Church, is the most relentlessly resourceful journalist to have ever worked at the Globe. Tom Farragher was a gentlemanly Spotlight editor, full of laughs — until he had the goods — and always kept an eye trained on helping those who needed it most. As Spotlight leader, Scott Allen brought huge ambition and sweep in the subjects that he sought and the journalism that he led. Meanwhile, Mark Morrow, the Globe’s senior deputy managing editor, has provided wise and skilled editorial direction to Spotlight editors for more than two decades.

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Patty Wen is the Spotlight editor now and by any measure she lands among the best — a modern-day journalist who has made Spotlight as relevant as it’s ever been. We’ve more than doubled the size of the team in the past few years as it’s taken on seismic issues, such as racism in Boston. Spotlight has veered off our normal platform to create an award-winning podcast and print series on the late Patriots player Aaron Hernandez that further exposed the dangers of the NFL. Most recently, the team’s investigations have been central to the Globe’s coverage of the pandemic.

Now more than ever, to make these stories what they are takes a small army: deeply skilled and committed reporters, data journalists, creative graphic artists and designers, photographers and videographers, editors, producers, developers, and so many more. It’s not unusual for 20 or more staffers to pour themselves into these efforts, every one of them vital to the cause. An assignment to Spotlight is among the most coveted roles in the business.

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The Globe’s plan is to increase our investigative firepower even further. Our readership, the most sophisticated and committed of any major metropolitan news organization in the nation, demands it.

Our organization’s accountability work, including last year’s Pulitzer-winning series focusing on the nation’s failure to regulate bad drivers and truckers who should have been taken off the roads long ago, is devoured by our subscribers and others. You know the impact of the Catholic Church investigation, but another example: The 2017 series on race relations in Boston spawned a region-wide discussion, which still continues today.

This we’ve learned over 51 years: When you give talented journalists the time and resources they need, there’s literally no limit to what they will uncover. And in doing that, we achieve one of our most important goals, which is to make our namesake region a better, fairer, and safer place to live. That work will endure for the next half century and beyond.


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