The value of newspapers – Arkansas Online

I tuned in Sunday night to HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, an acerbic and superior spinoff of The Daily Show.

It offers penetrating commentary, harshly hilarious sarcasm, passion, ranting and certain language best broadcast, if at all, at 10 p.m. or later on premium cable.

What I beheld was Oliver’s powerful delivery of a compelling ode to–and challenge for–old-fashioned newspapers. It made the best case for newspapers since the movie Spotlight.

Oliver said the news business is a food chain and that newspapers are the farms without which there would be much less for others to sell or for all of us to consume for vital sustenance.

He ran a clip from David Simon, writer-creator of HBO’s The Wire and an old newspaper hand in Baltimore. Simon said he would accept that Internet news providers could replace newspapers the day he saw a blogger sitting through an interminable zoning commission meeting.

That’s the kind of place newspaper reporters once always were and are more likely than representatives of any other media entity to sit even now, despite plummeting ad revenue and reduced staffs.

The point is that our democracy requires information; that public corruption happens less when would-be corrupters are observed, and that democracy is in trouble and corruption goes on a happy holiday when newspapers fade.

We used to call them “newspapers of record.” Some newspapers still strive to that end, and the one you’re now reading strives harder and performs better than most. There are some sad, sick newspapers out there.

Actually, Oliver’s real point is that there’s a consumer price to be paid for what newspapers have traditionally provided. It’s that we’re either going to have to pay to get it or pay for losing it.

There are superb and vital news providers on the Internet. Locally I’d cite talkbusiness.net and the Arkansas Blog at arktimes.com. But they’re not staff-rich and they tend to limit their focus.

They’re basically the products of two uncommonly productive workaholic talents–Roby Brock at talkbusiness.net, selling ads and managing a few contributors and covering news and hosting a daily telecast, and Max Brantley at arktimes.com, sitting at a desk and working a phone, banging a keyboard and applying an uncommon nose for news and the irreplaceable training of an old Arkansas Gazette city editor madly piecing together a tornado story on deadline.

People who say they get their news these days from Facebook and Twitter and Fox and a good neighborhood blogger like Forbidden Hillcrest are generally well-informed, but in a limited, insulated and likely biased way. The newspaper is still, generally speaking, their best hope and most efficient product for getting their waterfront covered–for learning what the planning commission did last night, or what a legislative subcommittee proposed on taxes or pre-K or hog waste, or who died yesterday, or where and what the police incidents were.

Because he’s candid and free, Oliver took on newspaper publishers, too, mainly those who deal with the challenges of the new digital world by trying to generate mouse clicks through jargon and gimmickry rather than by covering the news.

That upset the Newspaper Association of America, which put out a statement saying: “Other than encouraging people to ‘pay for’ more news, [Oliver] doesn’t offer any answers. More particularly, he spends most of the piece making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out … Making fun of experiments and pining away for days when classified ads and near-monopolistic positions in local ad markets funded journalism is pointless and ultimately harmful.”

How dare Oliver say newspapers ought to do news? What’s next? Tree trimmers ought to trim trees?

Anyway, Oliver wasn’t pining for days when classified ads ruled. He was pining for days when news ruled. He was suggesting that a newspaper best attracts readers–whether in print or via a mouse click–by doing what newspapers do, or should do.

That would be the responsible and professional gathering and packaging and dissemination of valuable, indeed essential, reading material.

The better newspaper response to Oliver came on Twitter the next morning from Marty Baron. He was the editor of the Boston Globe who led the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage that became the story Spotlight. He is now revitalizing the Washington Post … with news.

Baron tweeted Monday morning that Oliver’s show was “a must-see show about journalism.” He tweeted Tuesday morning that the aforementioned Newspaper Association of America response “could not be more clueless.”

Check this newspaper’s website at arkansasonline.com. You’ll see that the most clicked-on items are the news stories.

That’s not to say they’re the items most commented on by oddly enraged people. Those are the political opinion columns. So newspapers need those, too.

————v————

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 08/11/2016

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