What ‘Spotlight’ got right: The morgue

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The Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” has been rightly praised for its authentic representation of newsrooms and newspaper culture. Earlier, I wrote about how starting the first newspaper scene with a gathering around newsroom cake was a smart move.

Another spot-on part of “Spotlight”: The newsroom library.

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The Boston Globe reporters and librarians dug through decades of old clips to shed light on the persistent and under-reported abuses within the Catholic church. Forgotten stories and dusty church directories helped them weave together the complicated and previously unconnected truths that so many had tried to keep hidden.

I vividly remember walking down the basement stairs to the library of the first newspaper where I worked full-time. My editor must have told me to check a clip file in the morgue — a term that’s such a wonderfully newspapery way to describe a collection of yesterday’s news. There, in all its pre-digital glory, were shelves upon shelves of carefully labeled folders stuffed with yellowing newspaper clips. For a girl who has always loved history, and who gets a not-so-small thrill from discovering cool facts found in old stories, this room was a revelation.

The morgue is still one of my favorite places to explore. I love that in our printed pages, reporters and photographers have preserved major moments — war, moon landings, and assassinations — but also small slices of long-forgotten local lore like downtown department stores and wedding announcements replete with old-fashioned descriptions of gowns, flowers, and honeymoon destinations.

Some of my favorite stories to research are the ones that depend on the hard work of journalists who came before me. It was fascinating to find our old clips from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 visit to Toledo when I was researching this story on the 50th anniversary of his death. The long-ago work of other reporters and photographers helped paint a picture for contemporary readers about what that day was like. (Even better: Tracking down an elderly Toledo judge who showed me his old home movies of JFK speaking at the courthouse and making sure we got them online to share with newspaper readers.)

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Decades ago, teams of newspaper librarians carefully clipped out every local story and filed them away in folders marked by subject. If I can’t find an old article in printed form, it can often be resurrected by reeling through old daily editions on microfilm, a dizzying but satisfying experience when I manage to find a key moment, such as this one from Sept. 20, 1959, depicting the then-Senator Kennedy stumping in Toledo.

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Newspapers morgues serve as a collective memory — an archive of pop culture, a trove of tragedies and victories, and a tool in investigations. It’s a reminder that, if I’m lucky, someone years from now may read something I’ve written and it will help them understand their world a little better.

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