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On the birth of the Spotlight Team

In 1969, Boston Globe editor Tom Winship sent staffer Timothy Leland to look at best journalistic practices overseas. He returned after spending six months at The Sunday Times in London, where he studied its special investigative unit, the Insight team.

Timothy Leland, founding Spotlight editor: Back then, the concept of a full-time team of reporters with no newsroom connection who might spend months on a single story was unheard of.

Walter V. Robinson, former Spotlight editor: The Insight team, which became famous almost instantly, broke open the thalidomide scandal in Britain. The series had this huge impact.

Leland: After I briefed Tom on the big stories Insight had broken, he sent me to D.C. to meet with Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, his good friend. Apparently, he’d tried something similar at the Post. Not only had it cost a lot of money, he said, it had taken two veteran reporters out of circulation. “Don’t do that,” Bradlee warned me. “It would be a huge mistake.”

Robinson: But Tim came back and he was persistent.

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Leland: [I said] here’s what our team would need: an office physically separate from the newsroom; our own telephone line, ensuring secrecy; an editor who reports directly to the managing editor; and a name that, like Insight, creates a mystique. “Spotlight” appealed to me because it had a similar aura. After a long silence, Tom said, “Well, OK. The heck with the Post. Let’s give it a try.”

Robinson: So finally Winship said, “All right, we’re going to pick a team.”

Leland: I walked over to Gerry O’Neill’s desk. Gerry was a young, take-no-prisoners reporter, just the kind I wanted. Steve Kurkjian, whom I knew from the State House News Bureau, was next. Later we added Ann Desantis as researcher.

Stephen A. Kurkjian, founding Spotlight reporter and former editor: The corruption, the tribalism — back then, we did not yet have a deep sense of how Boston operated. That first day [as a team], I remember turning to Gerry and saying, “Now what are we going to do?”

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What they did was get down to work. After a relatively quick first project, they aimed high for their second outing with a deep look at years of public corruption in the city of Somerville. It brought immediate change — and got noticed.

Leland: I was at my parents’ house when the phone rang. “You son of a gun,” a booming voice said. “You and your Spotlight Team just won a Pulitzer Prize.” It was Tom [Winship], who hadn’t even bothered to say hello.

Robinson: Somerville was the second [Pulitzer the Globe had won]. And so then the team was off and running.

The Boston Globe Spotlight Team
A look behind the scenes of The Boston Globe Spotlight team

On being a woman in a male-dominated profession

“I had worked for a Connecticut paper before joining Spotlight as a researcher in 1977. It was not an unusual path for a woman at the time. I wanted to be a staff reporter, not a researcher answering the phone. I would answer the tip line and people would say, ‘I want to talk to one of the guys!’ I’d tell them the ‘guys’ were busy and got them to talk to me. Steve [Kurkjian] and Gerry [O’Neill] taught me everything: tenacity, the need to document and verify, to be tough but fair, that a reporter’s first obligation is to the reader. I really owe my journalistic career to the training I got in Spotlight.” — Joan Vennochi, Globe op-ed columnist, former Spotlight researcher

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On going undercover in the 1980s

“We were working on a series about money laundering. We looked into tracing drug money going into banks overseas. I traveled to the Bahamas posing as a money launderer and, while reporting in Colombia, wound up in Medellín, at a housing project funded by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. With only an interpreter along, I began interviewing residents. They loved Escobar and got upset about being questioned by a reporter. I was nervous just walking back to our car, and I began to appreciate the risks that many reporters posted abroad undergo every day. I also interviewed Colombia’s justice minister, who had signed Escobar’s arrest warrant. The minister, who told me that the cartel was bugging his phone, was later shot five times in an assassination attempt.” — Daniel Golden, former Spotlight reporter (now at ProPublica)

On Spotlight’s power to reveal problems that are taken for granted

“The job of our team in many ways is not only to expose things that people don’t know, but it’s also to shine a light on things people think they know and to show them what this really means and how it affects their lives.” — Jenn Abelson, former Spotlight reporter (now at The Washington Post)

On joining Spotlight as a mother

“Not everyone’s interested in investigative reporting, but I certainly was. One of my last beats was the Boston Public Schools. And then I became pregnant with my first child. This is 1989, and it was a time for women in newsrooms where I was worried about being “mommy tracked.” Would people think I don’t take my career seriously? Around the fifth month [of maternity leave], I got a call from Gerry O’Neill, who was the editor of Spotlight. He said he had been impressed with my coverage of the Boston Public Schools, and was I interested in a potential opening at Spotlight? Here I was worried that I was gonna be mommy tracked and now I’m getting this job that I really wanted. I joined Spotlight in 1990.” — Patricia Wen, current Spotlight editor, former Spotlight reporter

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On embarking on a new spotlight investigation

“There was this feeling that you have to meet a certain bar to have a Spotlight story. Even when you kind of know what you might want to do, there’s a scary phase of, like, can you do it? So that at a certain point you have to decide: Are you all in for this or not?” — Marcella Bombardieri, former Spotlight reporter (now at Center for American Progress)

On making a difference

“Our team was the first in the city to exercise the power of the First Amendment with the Globe, to use that muscular ability of speaking out to make a difference. Maybe you’d seen it on the editorial page, but never had the paper said this is wrong on the front page. Early on, Mayor Kevin White told [Globe editor Thomas] Winship that the Spotlight Team’s biggest impact would not be the stories it did, but the stories it did not [have to] do, because of the malfeasance it prevented from happening.” — Stephen A. Kurkjian, founding Spotlight reporter and former editor

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On getting sources to open up

Walter Robinson
Walter RobinsonKeith Bedford/Globe Staff

“When I joined Spotlight, Robby and his team were already superstars. It amazed me how he could get people to talk. Robby is very calm and disarming. And though it’s usually not a good thing to learn that Walter Robinson (pictured at right) is on the line, people tend to be truthful with him. I’ll never forget Robby calling up Paul C. Cabot Jr. and asking why his [charitable] foundation was using funds for personal expenses. Suddenly Cabot is telling Robby that he took $200,000 out to pay for his daughter’s wedding. Wow, I thought. But that’s Robby.” — Beth Healy, former Spotlight reporter (now at WBUR)


On the Catholic Church investigation

“Arthur Austin was the first man I interviewed. He’d been victimized by Paul Shanley, who used to take kids to a Stoneham campsite and molest them there. Arthur and I went to a Chili’s, and as we sat there, he started crying and crying. Like so many others, he figured he’d been the only one harboring secrets like these. The anger I felt then — that we all felt — became fuel for our reporting.” — Sacha Pfeiffer, former Spotlight reporter (now at NPR)

“[Previous reporting in other outlets] raised questions, sometimes just saying, “Surely the higher-ups knew.” Well, prove it. They weren’t able to prove it. It took an investigative team that had the time to dig deep. What’s really going on? How often, particularly nowadays, do we get the opportunity to dig behind the scenes and get at the real truth?” — Walter V. Robinson, former Spotlight editor

“The morning we published the first Geoghan story, we expected protestors outside the Globe. We came into work that morning, and there were no protestors. Nothing but an eerie silence. We were looking at one another, thinking, Did anyone read our story? Then our phone started ringing. Again. And again. And again. It was like a dam bursting. Suddenly, all these victims realized, Hey, I’m not the only one. What happened in Boston that week reverberated around the world, with literally tens of thousands of victims coming forward.” — Michael Rezendes, former Spotlight reporter (now at the Associated Press)

Former priest and convicted child molester John Geoghan in court in 2001. He was killed in prison in 2003.
Former priest and convicted child molester John Geoghan in court in 2001. He was killed in prison in 2003.PATRICIA MCDONNELL

On making the Spotlight film

“In Boston, [co-writer] Josh [Singer] and I embedded with the Spotlight Team. We were following them around, just hanging out with them, and also vetting every detail again and again. We kind of started working like journalists ourselves.

Our mind-set was, We’re telling a story about facts. We better get our facts right. As the movie proved, the story was compelling enough when factually accurate. I believed that part of the core of the Spotlight Team was that it brought together these individual talents who, as a whole, became this kind of uber force of investigative reporting. It took that team to bring this story to light.

It makes you think, What if there was no Boston Globe? Who would have told the stories? Today, we’re looking around and seeing newspapers shuttering left, right, and center. What happens when these papers disappear? What other crime and corruption goes unreported? When you think about that, you realize this wasn’t just a journalism story; it was a local journalism story. Marty [Baron] kept stressing that. Those reporters, they understood the fabric of the community, they understood the challenges, and the price of it all.

As we were finishing the film and screening it for people, I could tell it was starting to work. But you never really know. It became really clear when we got to [the Toronto film festival]. It wasn’t just the way the film was received, but the way the journalists of the Spotlight Team were received. We brought them on stage and they were being treated as heroes. We thought, Oh my God, these guys are like astronauts.

That’s a good feeling. Especially now, when journalism is viewed negatively by too many Americans. Today, the film feels like a love letter to that particular job at a time when we might need it most.” — Tom McCarthy, director and co-writer of the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight

Tom McCarthy, director and co-writer of the film "Spotlight."
Tom McCarthy, director and co-writer of the film "Spotlight." NYT

On the reputation of Spotlight

“I grew up in Massachusetts reading Steve Kurkjian and Gerry O’Neill. Years later, Gerry became my editor and Steve became my friend. It was a sense of almost unreality in that. These guys were my journalistic heroes. They formed the Spotlight Team and breathed life into it. I think we all owe them a debt of gratitude for what Spotlight is and what it has become — which is this treasured Globe franchise that readers depend on, whenever it resurfaces, to tell them something that they must know. And I think most importantly, that it is regarded by our readers — maybe this is a bit immodest — as the unassailable truth. I mean, there’s sort of a bulletproof quality to a Spotlight report that of course we take great care in delivering. And I think our readers have trust that if it’s in the Globe, and certainly if it’s Spotlight, it is just so rigorously reported that it’s true.” — Thomas Farragher, Globe columnist, former Spotlight editor

On getting an iconic photo

“I drove to Castle Island because it was a hot day and I was going to get people enjoying the weather. So I pulled into the parking lot and a car pulls up on my right. I look over — it was Whitey Bulger. There he was, wearing a T-shirt and this Red Sox baseball hat. I knew the Globe was doing a Spotlight piece on the mob. I backed up and I just waited for [Bulger and his lieutenant, Kevin Weeks] to walk toward me, and I slipped down in the driver’s seat. I just kept shooting away and made that photo. When we used it on the front page, we got a call from the FBI. They said, We had an agent in the bushes but we didn’t get the photo, and we need that photograph. They subpoenaed it. We had to give it to them.” — John Tlumacki, Globe photographer

Whitey Bulger (left) and Kevin Weeks on a walk around Castle Island.
Whitey Bulger (left) and Kevin Weeks on a walk around Castle Island. John Tlumacki/Globe staff/File

On what’s changed about the job over time — and what hasn’t

“Our techniques have changed. If you go back and look at some of the early investigations, a lot of them rely on going undercover — like pretending to be a student and enrolling in some police training program. What you see today is that we have access to vastly larger amounts of data, lots more ability to be systematic in the way we look at it. But, even as the methods change, one thing hasn’t: We still aim to reveal uncomfortable facts that make people think — and make institutions change.” — Scott Allen, Globe assistant managing editor for projects, former Spotlight editor

On the future of Spotlight

Spotlight editor Patricia Wen.
Spotlight editor Patricia Wen.

“Spotlight has to keep proving itself. You’re not going to be good because you’ve intimidated somebody, because you said, “I’m a Spotlight reporter,” and then they’re suddenly going to talk to you. It’s never gonna work like that. It’s going to work because we produce journalism that resonates with our local community, where people feel like I subscribe to the Globe because they give me this kind of depth that I don’t have time to do myself. I have always been impressed how ordinary people, an ordinary readership, really does seem to want the truth. And that there are a lot of people who are willing to take risks to give the truth.” — Patricia Wen, current Spotlight editor, former Spotlight reporter


As told to Mike Damiano, Joseph P. Kahn, Dasia Moore, and Annalisa Quinn. Interviews have been condensed and edited. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.