John Oliver, the Daily Show alum who has since moved to HBO and is winning fans across the ‘Net for his self-deprecating, funny, and sometimes insightful investigative pieces, recently did a segment on journalism in America today. Most of what he discusses is old hat to those who have been in the business for a while — I remember having these discussions with colleagues more than a decade ago and spending many years struggling (and failing) to convince a former employer to move into the 21th Century — but it remains a relevant and worthwhile discussion even today.
Hell, even more today than ever. The stories I hear from friends still in the business are enough to make a grown man cry. Things are only made worse by the pervasive sense of entitlement on the Internet, where many users believe that no one should have to pay for anything. Information wants to be free! They want their news for nothing, but also want it to be good. They don’t want to pay for quality journalists, then complain when what they get is invariably crap. Grade school economics eludes them, it seems.
Anyway, here is the piece:
Again, none of this is a surprise to anyone who is or has been in the news industry. It’s a mess of aging upper management who don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re heading, ownership who believe they can cut their way to success, tired old reporters who know they are perpetually 48 hours away from being laid off, and readers who gripe about a lack of good journalism yet who keep clicking Kardashian stories and who balk at anything and everything that might help a news organization generate the revenue needed to pay good journalists (paywalls, web ads, subscriptions, etc.).
What a disaster.
So imagine my surprise when the Newspaper Association of America issued a statement about this piece and it was … well, read on:
Other than encouraging people to “pay for” more news, Mr. 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. Whatever you think of the name “tronc” and that company’s announced growth strategy, at least they are trying new things and trying to figure out how to create great news journalism in the digital era. John Oliver doesn’t seem to have any better ideas
What kind of defensive trash is this? We’ve had well over a decade to adjust for the digital age. The landscape was clear 15 years ago. If news organizations are only just now trying to figure out how to survive in a changed marketplace, shame on them, because it was clear ages ago where we were headed.
The focus on clicks clicks clicks over all is a gigantic red flag illustrating why real journalism is so difficult to find right now, and let’s be clear: aiming for clicks clicks clicks is not “trying new things,” it’s just self-destructive audience pandering. I know award-winning investigative journalists who are now asked to keep detailed social media metrics and gear their stories towards those numbers. They are getting important, meaningful stories spiked because they won’t fly on Facebook. This is a problem. Finding better ways to measure clicks is not a solution.
Spelling out this issue for the general public is long overdue. John Oliver doesn’t need to offer any answers, you do, you assholes.
And, ummm, yes, suggesting that people need to be willing to pay for their news if they actually want good journalism is a frickin’ important point to make. It’s something people in the business should be doing more often, louder, longer, and with decisiveness — provided, of course, they are actually giving people something WORTH paying for, which is something too few news organizations are doing these days.
They say John Oliver doesn’t seem to have any better ideas. That’s true, except, you know, he’s actually engaging in real frickin’ investigative journalism that people find entertaining and informative, and has managed to draw a big audience doing it. What a crazy idea!
The Newspaper Association of America should be ashamed at this idiotic, defensive release. Instead of having skin almost as thin as Donald Trump’s, perhaps they should applaud the fact that Oliver is helping to bring attention to an issue that longtime editors and journalists have been grappling with for 15+ years, acknowledge that the business is fundamentally broken and the old white guys at the top no longer have a fucking clue of how to fix it, and continue with their ineffectual lobbying while younger, smarter people do what you should be doing right now: remind the public that good journalism costs money.