By Will Racke
Medill News Service
Marty Baron gets about three public speaking requests a week, thanks to his newfound celebrity courtesy of “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film that depicts the true story of the Baron-led Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church.
His day job as the executive editor of the Washington Post prevents him from fulfilling most of those requests, but on Friday night Baron answered SABEW’s call to share insights gleaned from a 40-year career in journalism.
At Friday night’s special event, “Spotlight on Marty Baron,” Baron discussed a wide range of issues, from his experience leading the Globe’s groundbreaking investigation to his current role at the helm of the Washington Post as it continues to evolve under the ownership of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
The question-and-answer session at the National Press Club was led by Mark Hamrick, bankrate.com Washington bureau chief and the co-chair of this year’s SABEW annual conference. Hamrick began by asking Baron to elaborate on his experience managing the now-famous Spotlight project in the face of local resistance, some of which came from inside his own paper.
“I didn’t decide to go after the Catholic Church,” Baron said. “I decided to go after the story.”
Baron recalled being struck by the fact the Globe reporters were not following up on credible allegations of sexual abuse within one of Boston’s most important and respected institutions. He pushed his team to take the provocative of step initiating legal action to unseal court documents related to the allegations.
“I said, ‘Have we thought about the possibility of bringing a motion to unseal the documents,’ and there was just silence,” Baron said. “I don’t think that’s what they expected from their new editor on the first day.”
The decision to pursue an investigation into the Catholic Church came not from an outsider’s animus but from a core value of journalism: holding those in power accountable for their actions.
“We need to pursue stories, particularly when there are allegations of wrongdoing by very powerful people,” Baron said.
What started as an uncomfortable period in Baron’s life and career has turned into a source of inspiration for reporters and editors throughout the industry. Hamrick touched on this “Spotlight” phenomenon, asking Baron what the film has done for journalists and the public perception of their work.
“There’s no question, I continually hear from people about how inspiring it’s been for young people who are thinking about getting into the profession, and also for people who have been in the profession for a long time,” Baron said.
“In a very authentic way, it has portrayed what it takes to do deep investigative reporting, and people appreciate that,” he added.
Baron’s influence on the world of journalism comes from much more than his achievements at the Globe. Since taking over at the Post in 2013, he has continued the paper’s transformation to a nationally focused product and the foremost outlet for political journalism.
Hamrick asked how Baron defines success for the Post, and the editor explained that he has two core goals: producing ambitious, impactful journalism and making progress on the digital media front.
To achieve the latter, Baron and his managing editors try to foster an environment where digital experimentation is encouraged and expected. “We have to not only adapt, but actually embrace it, and we have to move quickly, because the world is moving quickly,” he said.
Under Baron’s leadership, the Post has indeed moved rapidly into the digital domain. So quickly, in fact, that it now regularly surpasses the New York Times in monthly digital users in the United States and bests digital-only competitors like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post in total pageviews.
Much of this progress, Baron explained, has been enabled by Bezos’ forward-looking ownership. The Amazon CEO’s deep knowledge of the tech world and consumer behavior means that the Post will continue to push the boundaries of digital media and experiment with new ways to grow its audience.
Bezos clearly brings financial capital to the Post, but Baron values even more the intellectual capital his boss provides to the entire organization.
“That’s really important to us, his seeing things in a different way and helping us see things in a different way,” he said.
Hamrick asked Baron about the role of business news at the Post, a question of interest among the writers and editors in attendance. Baron, who was a business reporter at the Los Angeles Times early in his career, explained that the paper’s focus continues to be the confluence of lawmaking and business — how policy affects the business world and vice versa.
“It’s a little different for the Post, I think we’re particularly interested in the intersection of business and government and policy issues,” he said. “Rather than just covering companies as companies, we want to see what are the implications of policy.”
More broadly, Baron still sees a need for accountability journalism focused on the business world. Too much of today’s business reporting, he said, paints corporations and corporate leaders as either heroes or scum and lacks the nuance to properly explain the role of business in the larger society.
“Business gets its charter from society, so it has societal obligations,” Baron said, and he encouraged the SABEW members to make identifying and explaining those obligations a priority in their reporting.