Every couple of years or so, I feel the need to whine about the plight of newspapers. Itâs August. Iâm Trumped out. So todayâs the day.
Except that HBOâs John Oliver beat me to it with the best defense of newspapers â ever. His recent âLast Week Tonight With John Oliverâ monologue about the suffering newspaper industry has gone viral in journalism circles but deserves a broader audience.
Besides, itâs funny.
Leavening his important message with enough levity to keep the dopamine flowing, Oliver points out that most news outlets, faux, Fox and otherwise, essentially rely on newspapers for their material. This includes, he says, pulsing with self-awareness, Oliver himself. Heâs sort of part of the problem, in other words, but at least he knows it, which makes it okay, sort of.
The problem: People want news but they donât want to pay for it.
Consequently, newspapers are failing while consumers get their information from comedy shows, talk shows and websites that essentially lift material for their own purposes.
But somewhere, somebody is sitting through a boring meeting, poring over data or interviewing someone who isnât nearly as important as he thinks he is in order to produce a story that will become news. As Oliver points out, news is a food chain, yet with rare exceptions, the most important members of the chain are at the bottom, turning off the lights in newsrooms where gladiators, scholars and characters once roamed.
Some still do, though most are becoming rather long-ish in the tooth. (You can actually get that fixed, you know.)
That any newspapers are surviving, if not for much longer in any recognizable form, can be attributed at least in some part to the dedication of people who really believe in the mission of a free press and are willing to work harder for less â tweeting, blogging, filming and whatnot in addition to trying to write worthy copy. Most of the poor slobs who fell in love with the printed word go unnoticed by any but their peers.
An exception is Marty Baron, the unassuming executive editor of The Post, recently featured in the film âSpotlight,â about the Boston Globeâs stories under Baronâs leadership uncovering sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Itâs a good movie, not just because of great casting and acting but because itâs a great tale about a massive investigative effort that led to church reform and the beginning of healing for victims. (Not to worry, my pay comes as a percentage of the money I make for the company. This wonât make a dime of difference.)
My point â shared by Oliver â is that only newspapers are the brick and mortar of the Fourth Estateâs edifice. Only they have the wherewithal to do the kind of reporting that leads to stories such as âSpotlight.â What happens to the ânewsâ when there are no newspapers left?
We seem doomed to find out as people increasingly give up their newspaper subscriptions and seek information from free-content sources. And though newspapers have an online presence, itâs hard to get readers to pay for content.
As Oliver says, now is a very good time to be a corrupt politician. Between buyouts, layoffs and news-space reductions, thereâs hardly anyone paying attention.
Except, perhaps, to kitties.
In a hilarious spinoff of âSpotlightâ called âStoplight,â Oliver shows a short film of a news meeting where the old-school reporter is pitching a story about city hall corruption. The rest of the staff, cheerful human topiaries to the reporterâs kudzu-draped mangrove â are more interested in a cat that looks like a raccoon.
And then thereâs Sam Zell, erstwhile owner of the Tribune Co., who summed up the sad trajectory of the nationâs interests and, perhaps, our future while speaking to Orlando Sentinel staffers in 2008. When he said he wanted to increase revenues by giving readers what they want, a female voice objected, âWhat readers want are puppy dogs.â
Zell exploded, calling her comment the sort of âjournalistic arrogance of deciding that puppies donât count. .â.â. Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq, okay? [Expletive] you.â
Yes, he said that.
Moral of the story: If you donât subscribe to a newspaper, you donât get to complain about the sorry state of journalism â and puppies you shall have.