Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe's 2002 investigation of the Catholic Church. Credit: First Look

Journalism has always been a big, sloppy business in which, for warmth and succor, the highest principle curls up alongside the most shameless shilling. Most of the time we barely think about the contradictions. Once in a while they yank our collar.

This Saturday the Chicago Headline Club is offering a half-day seminar that’s “all about building your brand.” I imagine attendance will be heavy; even older and more tradition-bound journalists are learning to accept the idea that brand building is something they’ve got to do. 

“Find out what you need to create a website to showcase your work, and which social media tool will attract the most readers,” CHC advertises. “Get the edge from those who do this every day—and get results.”

Even if we are nominally in the hire of someone else, we work for ourselves. We promote ourselves. We hustle ourselves. Our product is us. “Snag some tips and insight from those who have built their brand well,” says CHC, touting a roster of tutors whose names we know because they saw to it.

On Monday night the Headline Club sponsored an advance screening of the new movie Spotlight at the Lake Street Screening Room. Spotlight is a newspaper movie: it tells the story of the 2002 Boston Globe investigation into decades of pedophilia within Boston’s priesthood that the Catholic archdiocese tolerated and concealed. 

Jada Yuan, writing in New York magazine, observed that “the movie is less about big moments than the quotidian craft of newspaper reporting—knocking on doors, staking out the courthouse.” The director, Tom McCarthy, told Yuan, “I sometimes wonder if the general public has a sense of how dire the state of journalism is and how important it is. I think we’ve lost track of that a little bit with citizen journalists and everyone having a camera and a tweet.”

The purpose of this weekend’s Headline Club seminar is to teach journalists in an age in which everybody is equally a journalist how to be a little more equal than anyone else. Spotlight is about what journalists can do working for months on end as a team. I heard McCarthy say on the radio that his film’s about one great local institution, the Globe, taking on another, the Church. 

It happened just as a long era was beginning to draw to an abrupt close, the era in which a city reporter could easily think of himself as in service to a great local institution. We hadn’t gotten to the point of every man for himself.

As it should, the Headline Club honors that era but prepares its members for this one. The sea change can chill the bone. Yuan concluded her story on Spotlight with this anecdote:

“Someone asked McCarthy why he didn’t throw in a title card saying the reporters had won the Pulitzer Prize. I put it to the reporters, and they said no. They said, ‘That’s not why we did it. We did it for the facts that you represented there, and those are the facts that we’re most proud of.’ What mattered, in the end, was the work.”

The work remains important, but it’s not the brand.