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April 22, 2010, 7 a.m.

Clay Shirky: Three reasons why a small news startup couldn’t break the Boston Globe’s abuse scandal

If you’ve read Clay Shirky‘s book Here Comes Everybody, you may remember his discussion of The Boston Globe’s coverage of the priest abuse scandal, which won the paper a Pulitzer. Shirky used it as an example of how the Internet gives people the tools to organize into ad hoc communities of interest. An earlier priest scandal covered by the Globe in 1992 generated outrage but not much in the way of change. But by 2002, with the Internet starting to take hold, it was much easier for angry Catholics to organize and advocate for change, and the scandal reached full flower.

But the disruptive power of the Internet has affected the creators of journalism at least as much as it has its consumers, and when Shirky came to Harvard to speak last fall, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones pointed out that other Boston media had been covering the priest abuse issue before The Globe blew the story wide open. Here’s what Alex had to say at the time:

The Boston Globe incident with the Catholic Church is very instructive for another reason, it seems to me. I remember the day, that Sunday morning, when those stories appeared on the front page, of The Boston Globe. And in that day, on that day, including that story, was the fact that the Catholic Church would simply not agree to engage this at all. They simply were not part of the story. The power of the institution that put that on the front page, I believe, married with what you described, this viral aspect, was what brought the Catholic Church to heel and force the Catholic Church to have to deal with us.

I think though, that it’s important to remember, that was — that a lot of what was on that front page, had already been reported, in that same, relatively same period of time, by The Boston Phoenix. So the mechanism of viral information was there. But it took the power of the Boston Globe, the institutional power, married with this other, to make this happen.

Now what I wanted to ask you is, can you, as you sort of imagine this future — do you see in this array of of smaller entities, an institutional power, that is going to, not just simply make this information available online, but effectively force the attention of the public and bring institutions of power to heel? You know, there’s a great deal of information on the web right now, that’s important and damning even that is ignored. Without that institutional power, it seems to me, something very important is going to be lost, and I wonder if you see a mechanism of any kind to replace that.

Shirky came back to Harvard this week to talk about this question in depth — and in conversation with Walter Robinson, the Globe editor who its Spotlight Team in covering the abuse story. (He’s now a journalism professor at Northeastern University.) Thanks to the Shorenstein Center, we’ve posted audio and a full transcript of Shirky and Robinson’s comments.

But first to summarize the discussion: Shirky raised three reasons the the Globe was uniquely situated to do this story well — and, in turn, why a small online news outlet would have a tough time replicating the same kind of work. Agree or disagree in the comments, and be sure to check out the full transcript and audio here.

A built-in capacity for waste

While working on the church story, Robinson headed a four-person unit at the Globe called the Spotlight Team, which focused solely on deep investigations, often for long stretches of time. Other reporters and another editor also contributed to the effort. Shirky said an Internet news operation would have a difficult time allowing reporters to disappear to do reporting for months at a time, and that it would be nearly impossible to risk working on a story — even for just a week or two — if it might not yield anything.

Institutional force

Robinson — being both modest and fair — said one reason the Globe was way out in front of the abuse scandal was thanks to a judge who ordered the church to unseal records in a pending abuse lawsuit. Once those documents were open, the reporting came together in a way that other local media had not been able to manage. The Phoenix had covered the story of the lawsuit, but was unable to piece together a clear picture of how the church in Massachusetts had been handling abuse cases. The expense and time required to take on an institution like the Catholic Church required the backing of another established institution like the Globe.

The infinite time horizon

Shirky described another reason the church, and other institutions of power can weather almost any storm. He calls it the “infinite time horizon.” The church could, in the past, simply wait out any problem — stall, not respond, sit on documents, etc. — indefinitely. Eventually, the problem would go away. “The only thing that can bring them to heel is other insitutions with an infinite time horizon.” In this case it was the Globe.

Here’s where Shirky got a little more hopeful. He cited ProPublica as a model that could address some of these issues, particularly the infinite time horizon problem. An endowed organization that is stable enough to wait out legal and bureaucratic hurdles that seem endless, could fill the shoes that investigative reporting units at newspapers once did.

Photo by Joi Ito.

POSTED     April 22, 2010, 7 a.m.
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