This summer, the Newspaper Association of America (now the News Media Alliance) denounced John Oliver’s segment on the crisis facing the newspaper industry, stating that he should “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.” Do you agree with their response?
Vail is a print and online journalism major. She has worked for the Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, since spring 2016.
Watching John Oliver’s blistering 20 minute take-down of the newspaper industry instantly made me recall any one of the conversations I’ve had with fellow journalism students about the same issues. To be fair, his commentary was a lot more nuanced and clever than our classroom discussions, which very quickly devolved into inarticulate ranting about how much we hate BuzzFeed while our professors looked on. The point is Oliver delivered journalism’s worst kept secret to the public: the industry has problems and nobody knows how to fix them.
And while most people in the business cheered the host of “Last Week Tonight” for his unflinching critique, one person in particular was very unhappy. David Chavern, the president of what was formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America, posted a grumpy rebuttal on the organization’s website, accusing Oliver of “petty insults and stating the obvious.”
The thing is, at no point is Oliver mean to the actual reporters and editors that serve as the backbone of journalism. Instead, he spends a good majority of his segment stressing their importance and celebrating them and the work they do. We as journalists should be glad that someone is finally acknowledging our service to the community. Our job is overwhelming and thankless, and part of this is actually due to the people on top—like Chavern, ironically—who focus more on digital traffic and ad revenue than actual journalism.
Maybe that’s why Chavern felt the need to go on the defensive. Maybe that’s why he felt personally attacked by a piece that objectively had nothing to do with him. Or maybe he’s just confused about his and Oliver’s jobs, based on his suggestion for the television host 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.”
Poking fun at things is literally Oliver’s job, and focusing on the future of news, you would think, is Chavern’s. Perhaps if Chavern had actually been doing his job in the first place, Oliver wouldn’t have had anything to poke fun at. And most importantly, Chavern wouldn’t have exposed himself and the very industry he’s paid to protect as being tone deaf and humorless.
Lubbers has been executive editor of the Tribune since 2014. He has worked at the newspaper, owned by Forum Communications Co., for more than a decade.
Instead of criticizing Oliver’s thoughtful, incisive and hilarious segment zinging the current state of newspaper journalism, the Newspaper Association of America should have sent the host of “Last Week Tonight” a thank-you gift.
In less than 20 minutes, Oliver accomplished what the newspaper industry has not for 20-plus years: He effectively explained its importance to a mass audience.
Using humor throughout the piece, Oliver expertly broke down the daunting challenges facing newspapers—shrinking print readership and advertising revenue, fewer newsroom resources than in decades past and the fickle nature of digital publishing. He also stressed the importance of newspapers and what their readers stand to lose without the vital watchdog role that they play.
Oliver didn’t tell newspaper professionals anything new or surprising about their industry—variations of his rant have been acted out in newsrooms for years. Unfortunately, most of those rants are never heard outside of those newsrooms, and even more rarely make it to the printed or electronic page.
That’s why most newspaper folks dug into Oliver’s piece like reporters diving into free pizza on Election Night. Finally, someone was telling the world not only about newspaper woes, but, more importantly, stressing the strengths and immeasurable value of newspapers to the communities they cover. Oliver’s words fired up most journalists, in much the same way the Oscar Award-winning movie “Spotlight” captivated editors and reporters.
Which is exactly Oliver’s point…we should be fired up about the opportunities we have in front of us and the built-in strengths and advantages that we possess, and not merely dwelling on the hurdles we face. Excellent work is being produced in countless newsrooms every day. Oliver simply reminded his audience why newspapers are important and why they should care about them. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that, too.
Humor can be a powerful way to emphasize a message, but not everyone will get the joke. The NAA didn’t; it focused too much on Oliver’s humor and lost his message.