The movie “Spotlight” packed an emotional wallop with ink-stained journalists because of its expert depiction of how we think, work and even dress (too quickly). To most moviegoers, it was a detective story about the tawdry corruption of a powerful religion. To newsrooms, it was about us.
It opened with a scene that’s become all too familiar in newsrooms: the ceremonial cake, jokes and remembrances for a departing journalist (who probably won’t be replaced).
This is a difficult subject to write about, because of the obvious conflict in declaring the importance of journalism. So when someone else does it, we are grateful.
Well, most of us.
In last Sunday’s episode of the HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” comedian/commentator John Oliver praised newspapers and their unsung importance. He also gave an accurate assessment of our financial struggles, which isn’t really news, but it’s nice to know he cares.
Oliver then mocked some of the industry’s efforts to figure out how to boost revenue. In short, nobody has really solved this puzzle, but the flailing about has produced some embarrassing content (as opposed to journalism).
The Newspaper Association of America was not amused, and CEO David Chavern issued a defensive rejoinder. He actually complained that a comedian didn’t produce solutions. What he missed is that Oliver clearly loves newspapers and appreciates their vital role.
The problem, in a nutshell, is the public has come to expect free content online, and advertising revenue has fallen off. For all the talk about “digital first,” the vast majority of revenue is still derived from the paper version.
It would’ve been smarter for the NAA to highlight Oliver’s observations on the value of newspapers. For instance. Oliver showed many instances of TV stations citing newspapers as the original source of their information. He joked that without newspapers, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer would be “endlessly batting a ball of yarn around.”
I beamed when he said, “The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.”
He observed, correctly, that aggregating the news isn’t the same as reporting it, and he underlined the stakes.
“Papers have been closing and downsizing for years, and that affects all of us, even if you only get your news from Facebook, Google, Twitter or Arianna Huffington’s blockquote junction and book excerpt clearinghouse.”
Oliver noted that watchdog journalism has declined (the number of statehouse reporters is down significantly), and he incorporated this spot-on quote from former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon:
“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.”
There was so much to cheer, yet a national publishers’ organization jeered. We’re an industry that preaches transparency, so we shouldn’t act like defensive government officials when some harsh truths are revealed.
Personally, I think our struggles are a big story, because the consequences of dwindling newspaper choices are dire. Imagine not having professional journalists covering city halls, statehouses, schools and police departments.
Good luck logging on to social media and finding 130 versions of “the truth.” It’s like the old Joni Mitchell lyric, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Technology allows people to log on and just take stuff, and this expectation of free grows because nobody explains the consequences.
If only there were an information-gathering profession suited to the task. Perhaps I’ll think of one, but in the meantime, search for John Oliver’s witty and insightful take online. (Warning: It is profane.)
It’s worth your while, and I’m positive you can find it for free.
Opinion Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.
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