Editorial: John Oliver examines the price of free journalism

By The Herald Editorial Board

It might seem like an odd request, coming as it does from a newspaper, but go to the nearest computer or smartphone and watch the most recent clip from John Oliver’s HBO series, “Last Week Tonight,” on the fate of journalism and newspapers.

In a little more than 19 minutes, Oliver diagnoses how a loss of advertising revenue for newspapers and the rise of online “sources” of news have jeopardized the journalism on which the nation relies.

“The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers,” Oliver says in the clip.

Oliver, for those who don’t know him, is the British ex-pat who turned a substitute hosting gig on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” into his own successful weekly satire and comment series on HBO.

The problem, as Oliver lays out with clarity and humor, is that newspapers, which produce the bulk of the reporting and journalism that are produced in the nation — and which is then picked up and repackaged by television and online aggregator sites — have sustained a major loss in revenue as print advertising has declined. Publishers, and this includes The Herald’s publishing company, have sought ways to replace lost revenue, providing content online and on mobile devices. But online advertising has yet to come close to providing what print advertising brought in before or even now for most journalism companies.

Some of the results, Oliver shows, have been either plain odd — such as the Tribune Publishing, owners of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, recently changing its name to tronc, Inc., for Tribune online content — to the discouraging — such as that displayed by former Tribune publisher Sam Zell who once defended his call for more of the click-bait content that he believed readers “want” over the quality journalism reporters traditionally produce.

The decline in revenue has forced newspapers to lay off staff, cut or eliminate bureaus and beats and even limit home delivery to four days a week as Portland’s Oregonian has done.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun journalist and creator of the HBO series, “The Wire,” predicts what comes next:

“The next 10 to 15 years are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician,” Simon said during a C-SPAN forum on the future of journalism and newspapers.

It’s a fight for survival that is not unique to newspapers. Musicians and other recording artists have traveled a parallel path as they have struggled against piracy, theft and the “disruptive” technologies that stream their songs while paying only pennies in royalties. Book authors have faced a similar loss of leverage to be fairly paid for their work.

While reporters and other journalists have been eagerly sharing Oliver’s twist of satire since it first aired Sunday, at least one publisher, David Chavern, the Newspaper Association of America’s president and CEO, complained that Oliver’s piece offered only criticism of some publishing companies’ skewed priorities and odder strategies.

“John Oliver doesn’t seem to have any better ideas,” Chavern writes on the NAA website, defending what he calls “experimentation and evaluation of new business models.”

That, of course, is the responsibility of Chavern and others, and not Oliver’s. But even Oliver is able to suggest that you don’t attract readers and, thus, advertising dollars, by making drastic cuts to the staff that writes what people — and aggregators — open your newspaper for.

But Chavern shouldn’t feel as if publishing executives are being singled out for criticism; Oliver identifies the problem at its most basic level:

“The truth is a big part of the blame for this industry’s dire straits is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce,” Oliver says. “Sooner or later we are either going to have to pay for journalism or we are all going to pay for it.”

So, no, it doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s refreshing to hear somebody outside of the newspaper industry say it.

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