In 2015, jaded journalists were reduced to sentimental blobs by the movie Spotlight. Chills ran down spines, pride swelled in hearts. There were reports of teary eyes. Spotlight, the story of how The Boston Globe painstakingly unraveled the Catholic Church’s coverup of sexual abuse of children by priests, has nothing going for it by movie standards. It shows people talking on the phone, writing on notepads, filling spreadsheets while wearing ill-fitting khaki pants.
But it has something better than Hollywood glamour. It has a dream team.
Journalism movies of the past gave us the lone hero (Good Night and Good Luck, Citizenfour) or the dynamic duo (All the President’s Men). Spotlight gives us a team. A real one, not one of those lesser working groups, denounced by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith as “amorphous groups that we call teams because we think that the label is motivating and energizing.” The Spotlight team fits Katzenbach and Smith’s seminal definition of a real team: a small cast of people recruited for their complementary skills, not their meshing personalities, who hold one another accountable, and who have common purpose and a sense of urgency. Like The Avengers, but with FOIAgirl and Spreadsheetman.
Investigative teams make great marketing ploys (“Read this new story by our Team!”), great recruiting tools (“Come join our Team!”), and great management devices, elastic enough to lose some members and gain new ones.
But the best thing about real teams is that they perform. They take down institutions as big as the Catholic Church. Real teams always win against corrupt groups because corruption is not real teamwork: It doesn’t maximize the assets and skills of a group; it provides just enough incentive for individuals to cover their part in a scandal. A weak link in a corruption ring is the thread that pulls the whole thing apart. But if someone drops the ball on a team of investigative journalists, the rest are there to catch it.
It’s easy to dismiss investigative teams as a luxury of the past, when newspapers were flush. The fact is there are some teams doing incredible journalism today, in the leaner digital age: ProPublica’s news app team, WNYC’s data news team, and many others. And we’ll need more of those if we are to tackle the complex challenges of 2016: the prominence of chat apps, adblockers, Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles, VR, podcasting, not to mention ongoing narratives around police brutality, guns, and terrorism.
So this is my prediction for 2016: Spotlight wins an Oscar (preferably Best Picture!), the myth of the one-man-band journalist is shown the door, and the age of the team is ushered in.
Marie Gilot is the director of CUNY J+, a series of workshops for working journalists at the CUNY Journalism School.