The problem with newspapers today: the Marty Baron perspective

"In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear," says Marty Baron, the former editor of the Boston Globe, highlighted in the movie Spotlight. Neil Macdonald reports on their dinner conversation.

'Spotlight's' Marty Baron may be the last of the old-time Humphrey Bogart editors. Pity

Marty Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe, currently the editor of the Washington Post, attends the Boston area premiere of Spotlight in October. Is he the last of a breed? (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Newspaper reporters are admirably unmatched at self-aggrandizement.

Ferociously independent speakers of truth to power, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, a herd of individualists dedicated to steely principles that shield democracy itself. You've heard it all I'm sure.

Humphrey Bogart distilled the stereotype 64 years ago as Ed Hutcheson, the crusading editor in Deadline USA.

After replying to a racketeer's threats with a speech about how bullets and pressure and censorship are impotent if "even one newspaper will print the truth," he holds the phone up as bells ring and the presses of The Day groan and clatter into action, printing the big scoop the bad guy wants to kill.

"That's the press, baby," says Bogey, before hanging up. "And there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing."

I still love that scene. But it was just myth.

The people who really run the world, it turns out, are perfectly capable of silencing the presses, and there's nothing journalists can do about it. Nothing.

Spotlight on newspapers

Consider Postmedia, the biggest newspaper chain in the country.

It is largely owned by an American hedge fund, which regularly drains the member newspapers' dwindling profits at a handsome interest rate as their newsrooms are merged and hollowed out to cut costs, and editorial direction is dictated from corporate headquarters.

No one knows where it will end, but end-stage asset stripping is probably a safe bet.

Meanwhile, Bogart's speech is a quaint palimpsest, long since painted over by accommodating policies aimed at attracting what scarce advertising dollars are left.

"Native content" — advertiser-controlled copy designed to resemble news — now bestrides news websites, taking up ever more prominent placement.

A few Bogey-like editors do remain, though, and I had supper the other night with one of them.

Marty Baron is the guy played by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight, a compelling account of journalism at its most excellent. He spoke recently at a packed forum organized by Carleton University's journalism school.

Baron took over the Boston Globe back in 2001, a Jewish outsider from Miami who, on his first day at the biggest newspaper in a city where the Roman Catholic Church dominates, ordered the newspaper's investigative unit to go after pedophile priests.

The investigation took a year, and produced a scoop of historic proportion — proving church complicity in covering up heinous crimes. All the movie was missing was Baron on the phone with the cardinal of Boston, inviting him to listen to the presses roll.

Hobbled and shrunken

Fifteen years later, like most North American newspapers, the Boston Globe is hobbled and shrunken. Whether it would have the will, let alone the resources, to take on the Catholic Church today is questionable.

Bogart-like defiance has mostly given way to naked fear, as media managers, and not just in newspapers, desperately try to hold onto splintering audiences and plummeting revenue.

A closeup of a person's legs walking past three newspaper boxes on a city sidewalk.
Postmedia announced last month that they will combine the newsrooms of the two Vancouver newspapers it owns, and will do the same in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton, despite earlier promises to run them as fully separate operations. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Baron, now executive editor of the Washington Post, acknowledged the economic forces ripping the business to shreds.

Like most media managers, he has an app that shows how many readers are on any story on the paper's website at any moment, and how long they keep reading. Those metrics are now indices of survival.

But, said Baron, news institutions must place principle ahead of metrics, or our core withers, and we become clickbait hustlers for corporate paymasters who would rather see stories about a Kardashian. (He didn't quite put it that way, but you get the idea.)

Over dinner, I asked him how media managers in such a shaky financial environment can possibly be expected to operate without fear or favour.

Baron, who actually is as serious in person as the character played by Schreiber, put down his fork and recited a segment from a speech he regularly gives.

It is so on target that I'm going to quote its most salient passage:

"The greatest danger to a vigorous press today," he begins, "comes from ourselves.

"The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting) …   

"Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda.

Mutlimedia reporter Sam Cooley makes his way to his car after being laid off from the Ottawa Sun on Jan. 19, during the latest round of Postmedia cutbacks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone.

"Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight."

Amen, Brother Baron.

Any reporter who has, for example, ever been based in the Middle East, or has tried to bring some sensible context to a domestic audience whipped into fear about terror, terror, terror, has often seen the mettle of his or her managers tested to the limit. 

When Baron's Washington Post, along with The Guardian, revealed U.S. government lying and law-breaking, courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden, public outrage was mostly directed against the newspapers and Snowden himself.

Baron made one other key point. He's not the first one to make it, but it's a gleam of optimistic logic in these tumultuous times: Anybody can Google anything, he said. Everyone does.

But the original information, before it is aggregated and re-aggregated a thousand times, has to come from someone with the experience, brains and training to uncover it in the first place.

That is usually the work of credentialed journalism. It's what Baron did in Boston. The alternative is usually just spin and corporatist fantasy, and let us all hope the latter does not overwhelm the former.

Although, I have my doubts.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.