I tuned in as usual on a Sunday evening to HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” It’s an acerbic and superior spinoff of “The Daily Show.” If offers hilarity, sarcasm, ranting, passion, penetrating commentary and language best broadcast at 10 p.m. or later on premium cable.
What I beheld that evening was Oliver’s powerful delivery of a compelling ode to—and challenge for—old-fashioned newspapers. It made the best case for newspapers since the movie “Spotlight.”
Oliver said the news business is a food chain and that newspapers are the farms without which there would be much less for others to sell or for all of us to consume for vital sustenance.
He ran a clip from David Simon, writer-creator of HBO’s “The Wire” and an old newspaper hand in Baltimore. Simon said he would accept that Internet news providers could replace newspapers the day he saw a blogger sitting through an interminable zoning commission meeting.
That’s the kind of place newspaper reporters once always were and are more likely than representatives of any other media entity to sit even now, despite plummeting ad revenue and reduced staffs.
The point is that our democracy requires information and that public corruption happens less when would-be corrupters are observed.
We once called them “newspapers of record.” Some newspapers still strive to that end, and the one in Little Rock publishing my regular column strives harder and performs better than most.
Oliver’s underlying point is that there’s a consumer price to be paid for what newspapers have traditionally provided. It’s that we’re either going to have to pay to get it or pay for losing it.
There are superb and vital local news providers on the Internet. In my hometown I’d site talkbusiness.net and the Arkansas Blog at arktimes.com. But, typically, they’re not staff-rich and they tend to limit their focus.
They’re basically the products of two uncommonly productive workaholic talents—Roby Brock at talkbusiness.net, selling ads and managing a few contributors and covering news and hosting a daily telecast, mixing news and advertising services by necessity in a way a newspaper shouldn’t and ideally wouldn’t, and Max Brantley at arktimes.com, sitting at a desk and working a phone, banging a keyboard and applying—notably—the irreplaceable training of an old Arkansas Gazette city editor madly piecing together a tornado story on deadline.
And there are invaluable niche publications, such as the weekly Arkansas Business, which sent a reporter from its small staff to devour federal court records and produce an exclusive article about a class-action lawyer cabal that led to a federal judge’s sanction. Still, though, it’s the local daily newspaper that has the only fulltime beat reporter at the federal courthouse.
The newspaper is still the best hope and most efficient product for getting the waterfront covered—for learning what the planning commission did last night, and what a legislative subcommittee proposed, and who died yesterday.
Oliver took on newspaper publishers, too, mainly those who deal with the challenges of the new digital world by trying to generate clicks through jargon and gimmickry rather than by covering the news.
That upset the Newspaper Association of America, which put out a statement saying: “Other than encouraging people to ‘pay for’ more news, (Oliver) doesn’t offer any answers…He spends most of the piece making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out…Pining away for days when classified ads and near-monopolistic positions in local ad markets funded journalism is pointless and ultimately harmful.”
But Oliver was pining only for days when news ruled. He was suggesting that a newspaper best attracts readers by the responsible and professional gathering, packaging and dissemination of valuable, indeed essential, expository material.
The better newspaper response to Oliver came on Twitter the next morning from Marty Baron. He was the editor of the Boston Globe who led the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage that became the movie “Spotlight.” He is now revitalizing the Washington Post…with news.
Baron tweeted Monday morning that Oliver’s show was “a must-see show about journalism.” He tweeted Tuesday morning that the aforementioned Newspaper Association of America response “could not be more clueless.”
Check a newspaper website’s “most-read” tally. You’ll almost always find that the most clicked-on items are local news stories.
It’s the same principle by which public interaction with a tree-trimming company most likely will have to do with trees in need of trimming.
John Brummett is a four-time-a-week columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, his hometown. He has been in the newspaper business for 47 years, since going to work as a part-time sportswriter for the afternoon daily in Little Rock a few days after his 16th birthday in 1969.