Save journalism, buy a newspaper

The newspaper industry couldn’t get out of its own way yesterday when it responded to a critical segment of comedian John Oliver’s HBO program, which aired on Sunday.

Oliver lamented what everyone who is not in the newspaper industry knows — the business once led the news agenda through aggressive reporting and investigations. Other media — that includes you, radio — followed. Without newspapers, many non-newspaper newsrooms would’ve ceased to exist long ago.

Editorial decisions have been traditionally made on the importance of the story. But newspaper organizations are joining the new news leaders, where editorial decisions are based on potential page views.

The result. It’s a great time to be a corrupt politician, Oliver says.

The response from David Chavern, the boss of the Newspaper Association of America (it represents over 2,000 newspapers), was a little frightening, pushing back at Oliver and asking if he had any ideas, a comment which suggested that the Newspaper Association of America doesn’t.

Last night John Oliver decided to take on local newspaper journalism. I actually loved how the piece starts. In particular, he strongly emphasized the point that “media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.” He also really makes the case for the power and importance of local journalism to everyone.

However, other than encouraging people to “pay for” more news, he 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.

The fact is that we are in a transitional phase within the entire industry. People want, need and consume more hard news than they ever have. The core demand for the product isn’t decreasing at all, and based upon that we will find our way to the far shore where the industry is thriving and growing once again. But in the meantime, there is going to be a lot of experimentation and evaluation of new business models.
Some experiments will work and some won’t, and our VP of Innovation, Michael MaLoon is committed to keeping you up-to-date on what is happening on that front. But 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.

I would just ask Mr. Oliver to spend more time talking about what the future of news could be, and less time poking fun at publishers who are trying to get there.

Journalists took to Twitter — the newspaper wasn’t going to be out for several hours yet — to respond.

“Oliver’s piece — widely read and talked about on Monday, not only in media circles but among lots of nonjournalists who value good journalism — was pretty much a love letter to newspapers,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote.

“And those who saw it might even realize, more than ever before, that they have to do something about this demise — something involving opening up their wallets,” Sullivan said.

And there’s the takeaway. Subscribe to a newspaper if you want to save the business of journalism.

No matter what you may think, the internet isn’t going to do it.

[Note: I’m flying back to Minnesota today so posting will be light. I’m scheduling several stops to update the blog. If you see a story for NewsCut, send it along.