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Pulitzer Winner Shines 'Spotlight' on the State of Journalism

By Brendan O'Hallarn

The newspaper industry might be under threat from changing economic conditions, accusations of rigging the presidential election and increasing resistance from governments. However, discussion about the state of journalism in the United States appears to be wildly popular, at least at Old Dominion University.

Dozens of additional chairs were needed to accommodate an overflow crowd that came to the Ted Constant Convocation Center's Big Blue Room to hear Walter V. Robinson, the investigative reporter and editor who led The Boston Globe's investigation into sexual abuse by officials of the Catholic Church. Robinson delivered a speech in the President's Lecture Series on Oct. 27.

Robinson, now editor at large at the Globe, led the Spotlight team, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. The team's groundbreaking investigation exposed a decades-long cover-up, which, in Boston alone, shielded the crimes of nearly 250 priests. The team's work sparked similar disclosures across the country and around the world.

The investigation inspired the Academy Award-winning film "Spotlight," starring Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. Michael Keaton played Robinson.

In his hour-long address, which included a thoughtful question-and-answer session with moderator Cathy Lewis, Robinson noted that the Spotlight investigation began with a story by a regional court reporter about lawsuits filed against a priest.

"The Globe doesn't have a reporter at that courthouse anymore," Robinson noted ruefully.

At the outset of his address, Robinson cited some sobering statistics about journalism. He said the newspaper industry employed 25,000 reporters in 1999. Two years ago, that number had shrunk to 15,000, "and there have been rounds of layoffs and buyouts since," he said.

The Boston Globe, where Robinson has worked off and on since the 1970s, employed 550 journalists in 2001. "Seven rounds of buyouts later, today it's 280. Fewer than half," Robinson said.

As journalists struggle with an outdated business model and repeated taunts or freezeouts from presidential candidates, the profession "newspaper reporter" has sunk to the bottom of desired careers, Robinson said.

However, the long-time newsman said he believes the public's need for solid journalism will ensure its healthy future, once the business model can be figured out. "I am convinced that the future holds great promise for journalists," Robinson said.

He said his students at Northeastern University in Boston are passionate about pursuing a career in the news business and are trained using the modern reporter's tools. Those students generated two front-page stories in the Globe simply by reviewing publicly available databases on the internet, Robinson said.

The students, he said, also need inspiration. That's where the movie "Spotlight" can play a role, by showing the impact of diligent reporting. "I truly believe that movie can be their generation's "All the President's Men.'"

Robinson is a 1974 graduate of Northeastern. He has been awarded honorary degrees by Northeastern and Emerson College. Robinson has served as a journalism fellow at Stanford University and co-wrote the 2002 book "Betrayal: Crisis in the Catholic Church."

Old Dominion University's President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring fascinating personalities who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

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