It was a moment of joy and triumph to be sure, but there was also a tinge of irony, even sadness when the Best Picture Academy Award went to "Spotlight" Sunday night.
Here, before millions of TV-viewers' eyes, was the world's most prestigious cinematic honour handed to a movie that shone its own spotlight on the critical importance of investigative newspaper journalism in a free and democratic society.
Yet the envelope was opened, the golden statue delivered and the acceptance speech recited at the same time the newspaper industry in North America was fighting for its life.
For those who haven't seen it, "Spotlight" chronicles the long and arduous journalistic probe of how Roman Catholic clergy sexually abused children in Boston — and how the Church covered it up. This is a true story that would have neither seen the light of day nor provoked necessary calls for action had it not been for a first-rate investigative reporting team on the Boston Globe as well as the supportive employer, readers and advertisers who made their work possible.
Speaking before the Oscar ceremony, "Spotlight" star Mark Ruffalo explained how the film awakened him to the importance of investigative reporting. Left unsaid was the question: How long can this work continue?
It is a query likely going through the minds of the members of Parliament's Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage who last week in Ottawa began examining how people in this country "are informed about local and regional experiences" by newspapers, broadcasters and digital media.
In Canada, as in the U.S., the traditional media upon which generations relied for news and information are being hammered by a technological revolution that shows no sign of letting up.
People still crave information. People still see the need for vigorous news media to keep them informed and help them make vital decisions, especially when it comes to electing governments. But as more people get their news online — via laptops, tablets or smartphones — fewer see the need to pay for getting it on newsprint. Meanwhile, too many advertisers are abandoning newspapers, television and radio in favour of newer digital options.
Last week, the parliamentary standing committee learned the impact of these changes. In the past five years, 22 Canadian daily newspapers have closed, a sorry number that includes in this part of the country the 149-year-old Guelph Mercury print edition.
Elsewhere, most daily newspapers that have survived have downsized their news operations. Earlier this winter, Postmedia, Canada's largest newspaper chain, cut staff and merged newsrooms in several cities.
Rejecting the alarms being sounded about such trends, some observers say don't worry — the same journalism will be done by online outlets. Such assurances ring false. First, they don't account for the sheer number of journalistic jobs being lost in traditional news media outlets and not compensated for in online hirings.
Second, they ignore the reality that much of the most meaningful investigative journalism is done at the local level by local journalists. It took a Boston newspaper to uncover a Boston — and ultimately nationwide — scandal. It took the Waterloo Region Record to uncover the RIM Park financing scandal in the City of Waterloo more than a decade ago — an effort that eventually led to a settlement kinder to Waterloo taxpayers. There's no way an online investigative reporter based in Montreal or Vancouver would feel moved to dig into this community's muck.
As illnesses go, what afflicts Canada's news media is easier to diagnose than cure. We won't say use it or lose it. Trying to shame people into buying a newspaper or watching the six o'clock news would be insulting as well as futile. As for the earnest labours of the parliamentary committee, they're well-meant but unlikely to produce workable solutions. Yes, public tax dollars fund the CBC. But daily newspapers and private broadcasters relish their independence from government support — and possible government interference.
Though definitive remedies are lacking, we heartily congratulate the people who made "Spotlight" and showed so dramatically the need for healthy, inquiring and fearless news media. As for the public, we urge them to watch this film and remember what it takes to shine such penetrating shafts of light into the darkest corners of society.