John Oliver’s Chilling Last Week Tonight Segment on the Future of Journalism
A bit of an unpleasant truth: print journalism is in trouble. As you may or may not be aware, the digital plane has started to overpower print simply because folks are just not paying for their news anymore. With the advent of the internet so long ago, things that once required money were suddenly shared for free in the name of free and open information. To a point, that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. However, this steep, sustained decline in print sales could be the symptom of a larger problem that might negatively change the way news is reported and shared as a whole.
John Oliver—who, notably, came up through The Daily Show, a comedy television news program—has created a nearly 20 minute long segment for Last Week Tonight highlighting this problem within print journalism, and expertly breaks down the negative effects that we can expect should we see traditional journalism come to an end.
Simply put: in trying to keep up with digital platforms, print papers are stretching themselves incredibly thin, asking more and more of their reporters. They’re being asked to participate in social media (a full time job in and of itself, sometimes), edit and produce content for videos, and more, leaving less time to dig into a story. Often times, this results in factual errors or a critical oversight, each a problem that would likely have been avoided if only a reporter was given time to focus. Oliver provided the example of the Boston Globe mistakenly tweeting “Investifarted” in what Mediaite had called “the Typo of the Year.” Sure, a humorous example, but still, one that shows how even the simplest things can slip through the cracks.
Oliver’s most salient point comes in this quote: “We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free. And the longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it.” There’s certainly a sense of entitlement to news and information, especially on the internet, a sense that isn’t wholly unfounded. However, that entitlement can be considered a significant part of why we’re seeing these former news mainstays suddenly collapsing under the weight of being unable to keep up with digital formats.
It is critically important at this point to remember that many, many, many of these digital platforms often cite print sources for their posts and articles. The nexus, the very source for a lot of internet news publishing comes from these papers and the journalists who create them. If that source were to suddenly vanish, then we all would suddenly find ourselves bereft of a hell of a lot of information.
Oliver points to David Simon, who worked as a journalist before creating The Wire. Simon brought up the example of courtroom hearings, saying, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium.” It’s that kind of ground-level in-the-weeds reporting that we’d lose, along with a significant amount of transparency into our local governments.
I personally hate to sound so dire when it comes to news, journalism, and blogging, especially considering my current job title (hello, there). But the pure and simple truth is that it’s getting incredibly difficult to maintain free and independent reporting. It’s like we keep saying in our multitude of subscription posts: it’s your money, kindly given and offered, that keeps us doing what we’re doing. And, yes, you deactivating your ad blocker helps that, too. There’s such a moral righteousness to saying “f— you” to ads and then complaining about it when websites stop you from looking at their content if you block their ads. Writers have to eat, too, and just like in all industries, we can’t survive on exposure. Sometimes, a not so small part of me often wonders where people will go for their news should WIRED, The Washington Post, or even your local paper (if they do track story counts or block ad blockers) shut down.
You should absolutely watch the whole Last Week Tonight segment, if only for a more detailed look at how much the journalism industry has changed within the past few decades. And, because it’s Last Week Tonight, they even finish out with a hilarious parody trailer of the journalism-based thriller Spotlight, 2015’s Best Picture Academy Award winner.
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