Journalists filled the gala room of San Luis Obispo’s Embassy Suites Saturday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cal Poly’s student media, which began with The Polygram in 1916. Few, if any, at the gala had more experience in journalism than former Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. who spoke to the crowd about his career, the industry’s uncertain future and why preservation of journalistic values is essential to an informed public.
Bradlee’s career, which spanned more than three decades, found its way onto the silver screen last year with the Academy Award winning film “Spotlight.” The film tells the story of the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team, named Spotlight, which revealed cover-ups of child molestation within Boston’s Catholic clergy.
Bradlee was an editor at the Boston Globe and oversaw the Spotlight team at this time.
“We had them cold and they were doing some terrible things, and they deserved to be exposed,” Bradlee said.
The coverage won the Boston Globe a Pulitzer Prize, which is considered to be the journalism industry’s highest honor. However, the great success of those stories didn’t muddle Bradlee’s sense of fair coverage. He ensured that people didn’t forget about the good priests.
“What I worried about after the fact was there was such an avalanche of publicity about this,” Bradlee said. “I worried if the good priests were being tarred by the bad priests. So we took care to do stories about the good priests.
Before the speech, Bradlee discussed the evolution of the newsroom, which he observed over his 32-year career. Twenty-five of those years, 1979 to 2004, were at the Boston Globe.
“You see the microcosm of the evolution of journalism (in the newsroom). Guys were still using typewriters and smoking in the newsroom,” he said. “Then we all went on computers and the office started to sound like an insurance office. But before it was so loud, the typewriters and the clouds of smoke.”
Bradlee says the time of that camaraderie is long gone. What concerns him now is industry’s struggle to find a business model in an increasingly digital world.
According to Bradlee, one great hurdle is finding a way for people to pay for news, given that news has been free as long as it’s been on the web. That’s why attempts to increase revenue with measures such as paywalls, which limit online access to paying subscribers, are unattractive to the internet.
“The internet is killing newspapers” Bradlee said. “You have two or three generations of young people who have grown up with the idea that news should be free and they don’t seem to be willing to pay for it.”
Bradlee says the gap between the money a newspaper needs to sustain itself and what it earns today is crippling to its ability to function — especially for investigative stories, like the one that Spotlight’s plot is based on.
“In that environment, investigative reporting is becoming more and more rare as editors perceive that as a luxury. They’re worried about having enough reporters just to put out the paper,” Bradlee said.
The editor was adamant that the public realize its duty to put in its fair share to fund good journalism. He says that’s how stories like Spotlight’s coverage of the molestation scandal are reported — by being well-funded.
“You’re not doing your duty as a citizen. You have to be informed. Too many people these days are just scanning the news for headlines. They don’t seem to care about reading a long investigative piece from beginning to end,” Bradlee said.
Changing that mentality begins with supporting local papers.
“The San Luis Obispo Tribune is $1.99 a month to subscribe online. Come on. That’s throw away money. Support your local paper,” he said.