Michael Rezendes: “Most people don’t understand how important journalism is”

Por ~ Publicado el 18 mayo 2016

One of the journalists who inspired Spotlight, the 2016 Oscar winner for Best Picture, was in Chile invited by the Excellence in Journalism Prize granted by the School of Journalism at Alberto Hurtado University. We talked with Rezendes about what lies beyond his sudden fame: his taste for running, his reporting methods, his fascination for film writing. It is a fast and accurate dialogue, like the answers he delivers. This is an investigative journalist who is convinced—and wants to convince—that journalism does contribute to the common good.

Michael Rezendes - Photo by Pablo Baeza

Michael Rezendes. Photo by Pablo Baeza Contreras.

Michael Rezendes says it is impossible to calculate how many interviews he has given in the last year. While promoting Spotlight, the film inspired by the Boston Globe investigation that uncovered sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in that city, Rezendes and some of his partners—Sacha Pfeiffer, Walter Robinson— had to endure marathonic sessions of up to twenty daily interviews.

“I consider it both justice in a way, because I spent so much of my life interviewing people so now the tables are turned and people interview me,” he says.

The word “marathonic” is usual for him. In addition to winning two Pulitzer Prizes—one with the Spotlight Team (2003), another with all the staff of the Boston Globe (2014)— as well as working since 1989 in the main newspaper of that city, and having studied film writing, besides being a fan of the work of Denis Johnson and Jim Harrison, and besides of his strong believe that his journalism can change the world, Rezendes is also a marathon runner. And not just an occasional one.

He estimates he has run thirteen marathons: eight in Boston, two in New York, and one in Chicago, Washington and Las Vegas. He belongs to a local team of runners, the L Street Running Club. He used to wear Asics running shoes, now he prefers Brooks. “I think because I am small there were not a lot of other sports I could play. But I found that running I enjoyed it, I like the endurance aspect of it and it was a sport where I could compete,” he says.

On April 15, 2013 Rezendes had run 25.5 miles of the Boston Marathon. He was the runner number 25903. He was six blocks away from the finish line when two bombs exploded, killing three people and wounding more than 260. He did not hear the blasts but the police was detouring the race and he realized that something was wrong. Without hesitation, Rezendes abandoned the race and began to report the attack. It would be the beginning of a busy day.

—How can someone report a terrorist attack for an entire day after running 25 miles? How was that day for you?
I don’t understand it either, haha. And I thought to myself, ‘I must not have been running hard enough if I still had all that leftover energy, maybe I should have been running faster.’ But truthfully I think is the adrenaline, it’s a very powerful drug we have inside of ourselves. To me there was no question that I had to immediately start covering the bombing and go to work.

Later, the Newseum in Washington D.C. organized an exhibition of FBI related objects, and they asked to the Boston Globe staff, especially to the reporting-runners of that day, if someone wanted to donate something. Rezendes gave his bib number, his shorts, his running shoes and the first notes he made that day on a flyer.

Museum pieces that are no longer on display, but remain as “hidden treasures” donated by a journalist who during the past 27 years—with a few comes and goes—has dedicated his life to the Boston Globe, the investigative journalism and his surrounding community.


—Do you remember your first day at the Boston Globe?
It was a crazy day because there was a pregnant woman who was murdered that day. There was a manhunt going on for the killer, so the whole newsroom was kind of in a state of chaos. I honestly cannot remember what my first story was.

—Can you describe the atmosphere at the Boston Globe?
The newsroom it’s a great place because there is always something happening, there is always people to talk to, there is always something going on. It feels like a very interesting and busy place.

—That’s good for the job, isn’t it?
Yeah, there is always a new day in the newsroom and that’s the great thing about the newspaper. It’s always a new day, maybe you can do a better job today.

—During the Excellence in Journalism Prize ceremony you mentioned the crisis in the news industry, the crisis of the business model. Do you sense that at the Boston Globe?
I think if you walk into our newsroom, you wouldn’t get an immediate sense that there is any anxiety about that. It’s a really hard working dedicated newsroom. But I am sure that in the back of everyone’s mind people are worried about it because we had many cuts and we had layoffs at the Globe and I think we are going to have more. And everybody understands that. So I think there is anxiety about it but if you walk into the Globe newsroom at first you wouldn’t sense it because people would be working very hard on their stories. But if you hang around for a few days and talk to people you’d pick it up.

—You have said that Boston is the “biggest small town in America”. What that does mean for the newspaper?
It means the newspaper has a lot of impact because everybody knows what the Boston Globe is doing. So, you can really have a lot of impact, even though is not one of the biggest papers in America we have a significant impact on our geographical area.

—It’s like the “biggest local newspaper” in America?
Maybe, that’s a good way to put it.

—How does that affect your kind of reporting?
What I meant when I said it was the “biggest small town in America” is that everybody knows everybody else in a way. Even if you don’t know someone, you probably know someone who knows that person. You ever heard the term “six degrees of separation”? In Boston is more like two or three.


—Where do you find your stories?
Usually people call me. I get a lot of tips. I got ideas of my own and sometimes editors suggest stories. There is a lot of different ways I get stories. At this point at my career, a lot of people call me with story ideas all the time. Most of them are not very good ideas, quite honestly, but occasionally someone calls with some very important information that becomes a story.

—How do you feel when someone calls you? Do you feel you are helpful for the community?
Sure, I think my journalism is very helpful to the community, all the time.

—Do you have a method for your reporting or just the basic stuff: taking notes, calling sources, knocking on doors, the shoe-leather reporting?
When I have a good idea for a story or when someone suggest an idea that I think it could make a very good story, the first question I asked myself is ‘OK, it sounds like a great story. Can I get it?’ In other words, can I prove it? Are there documents available? Is there someone who’ll talk to me on the record? That’s my first consideration, to asses whether the story is gettable or not. In other words, is it worth my time? I don’t like to get into situations where I might spend three weeks doing research only to find out, well, it’s not really the story I thought it was. Or we are not going to be able to get it because the data doesn’t exist. The skill that I have is to assess whether a story is worthy of publication and then whether we can get it or I can get it. And I think that is the most important thing I do.

—At the end of the nineties you studied filmwriting at the American Film Institute. You wanted to move beyond journalism or you wanted to improve your storytelling skills?
I’m really a big fan of the movies and cinema. And I thought it would be interesting to write a screenplay that became a movie. I had artistic aspirations. Initially, when I was a student, I was an English major, I was not a Journalism major, and I thought I would be a novelist. So, I was always interested in the writing of fiction and poetry. Film is a similar art form, except that it’s visual and it’s a more powerful art form. I was interested in the form and exploring the idea of becoming a screenwriter.

—And how this filmwriting studies helped you in your journalism?
When you are writing a long story with a lot of complicated information, it helps to use narrative writing techniques. In other words, if you are just going to pile a lot of information in front of the reader, probably they are not going to get through it and not going to read it. It’s helpful to be able to craft a story that includes the information that you want to communicate and express it in a very powerful way. And I think the study of screenwriting is helpful because screenwriting is a very discipline form. Every movie is about two hours which means that every screenplay is about 120 pages. It’s like a news story: you have a fine universe in which to work, and you want to have dramatic highlights, cliffhangers, turning points. Those are the things that keep a movie alive. And it’s the same for a story. You want to have the dramatic moments, cliffhangers, turning points. Same principles apply.

—Would you recommend that to young reporters that want to become investigative journalists? Because right now everybody is talking about data journalism, visualization, the cross between tech and journalism.
I think that learning data analysis and data visualization today is very very important. The narrative storytelling techniques I am talking about I don’t think it should be the first priority for a journalism student. I think it’s a more advanced class, I would say. Maybe when the student is a senior or about to graduate can start exploring those techniques. Initially students have to learn the basics, just getting the facts, making sure everything is accurate, telling a shorter story in a way that’s readable, learning the inverted pyramid style, learning what a good lead is. There are a lot of things a journalism student should be learning before getting into a conversation about how best to do long form journalism.


During your JSK fellowship, in 2009, your main interest was “the threat of secrecy in a democratic society”. Are leaks the solution to that threat or do you believe in an improvement at the institutional level?
Both. People leak information because it’s not public and they believe it should be public. Whistleblowers play a very important role in our society but they also point to the fact that there is a lot of information that’s secret that ought to be public.

If you had to lead and put together an investigative unit like Spotlight, what would your main focus be? What kind or reporters would you look for?
I would look for reporters who have experience in various areas. I would probably want someone very experienced covering the courts, maybe someone very experienced covering politics, maybe someone very experienced covering crime. And I would also look for reporters who are not prima donnas, reporters who are able to subsumed their egos to work with the team. I don’t think everyone is well suited to work for a team. Takes a certain kind of individual, someone who is cooperative and likes to work cooperatively with other people. Many journalists by nature are loners and that’s not the kind of person that would work well on the team, even though that person might be very skilled, but it’s not the kind of person you would want on a team.

—Newspapers need strong teams.
A newspaper should have a mix of people and personality types. There is a time and place for the lone wolfs. It’s great to have an organization that’s big enough that can accommodate different kinds of people and different styles of reporting.

How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as a person who left the world better than he found it.

—Journalism is helping society do that right now?
Oh yeah. Without any doubt. We give voice to the voiceless, we help people in trouble, we correct systemic failure in society. Journalists do a great deal for the common good.

—And what would you say to the critics of news industry?
News organization are not perfect. And some are better than others. So I would try to respond specifically to the criticism. I think most people don’t understand how important journalism is and how valuable is. That’s one of the reasons I like this movie so much, it really shows in very dramatic fashion how important journalism is. Many people don’t appreciate that. It’s one reason I give a lot of interviews. I want people to understand that.

—Would you encourage other reporters to talk more about their jobs?
Yeah, I would. People really don’t understand what we do. I had a girlfriend once and she had this idea of my job. She thought I just sat around all day and tried to figure out where to put the commas in my stories, you know. She had no conception of reporting. She just thought I sat around all day with my feet up trying to, like, write the perfect sentence.

—What did you thought about that idea?
It just showed me how much of a disconnect there is between public perception and the reality. It was very funny.


—This year the Pulitzer made a publication with pictures of past winners describing in one word how does it feel to win the Prize. In your case, which word would you choose for your Pulitzers?

—To whom?
For instance, when we won the Pulitzer for the Catholic Church investigation, I would say gratitude towards the survivors for trusting us with their stories. That was the most important thing. And also is very gratifying to have such important work recognized and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this kind of work and grateful for the chance to work at the Boston Globe which has a lot of resources and will hire lawyers to defend me if I’m ever sued.

—And in the case of the bombings in 2013?
Gratitude works pretty well. Grateful for everyone’s hard work. Everyone in the newsroom worked incredibly hard. No one slept, virtually. People worked seven days a week under tremendous pressure. It was a very competitive story, there were news organizations from all over the world in Boston. And we wanted to be the best and we wanted to be first. And that’s very hard to do and there is a lot of pressure around that. I’m just grateful for the incredible work that my colleagues did.

—With the same idea. In one word, the state of investigative reporting in the United States.
I can’t say it in a word, haha. It’s impressive. I was a judge in an investigative reporting journalism contest this year, the Goldsmith Awards for Investigative Reporting. There were very very encouraging number of fantastic submissions. At the same time journalism is in crisis and everybody is struggling with less and less revenue. It’s a strange time. It’s both encouraging and discouraging.

—And your time here in Chile? In one word.