John Oliver. (photo: HBO)
John Oliver Explains Why Local Newspapers Are So Important
By Ryan Bort, Newsweek
09 August 16
In case you haven't noticed, journalism as an industry isn't doing so great. Staffs are getting cut. Budgets are getting slashed. Headlines are making promises the contents of articles can't keep. Ads and auto-playing video are everywhere. Underneath it all is some semblance of journalism, but it was likely written and edited quickly. None of this is ideal. In fact, it reeks of desperation—and that is because media outlets are desperate. As John Oliver said on the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight, “No one seems to have a perfect plan to keep newspapers afloat." And, as he pointed out over the course of the episode's 15-minute feature segment, the real-world impact of the decline of newspapers is more significant than many of us realize.
A subscription to your local paper was once as necessary an expense as gas, water and electricity. Everyone paid for their journalism, which meant the journalism industry was doing well. This wasn't all that long ago: Oliver played a clip from 1993 of the editor of The Oregonian talking about how the paper's staff has increased and employees have received yearly raises every year for decades. Yes, it's hard to believe, but in the not-so-distant past newspapers actually made money, like a real business.
Then, shortly after 1993, the internet arrived and with it came a never-ending stream of "journalism" and "stories" and "cat videos" that rendered ink-and-paper dailies pretty damn boring. So bountiful was the content that the consumer became the curator as well, and when cat video are an option, local court reporting is going to slowly but surely fall by the wayside. Oliver pointed out a study of 200 papers that found the number full-time statehouse reporters to have declined by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014.
When people aren't as interested in local newspaper reporting, local newspapers are going to be less interested in paying for it, which means there will be less reporting, which, as Oliver pointed out last night, is a huge problem. He started by playing a 2009 clip of David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, speaking about this very lack of reporting on local government. “The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption," he said. "It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician. I really envy them. I really do.”
Or, as Oliver put it, "Not having reporters at government meetings is like a teacher leaving her room of seventh graders to supervise themselves.”
The problem is that no one seems to know how get things back on track. Advertisers are less interested in spending money on print than ever. Between 2004 and 2014, newspapers lost $30 billion in print revenue. At the same time, they gained $2 billion in digital revenue. Digital advertisers need to see clicks to justify their investment, though, which has led to vacuous, click-able content replacing actual reporting on real issues, the latter of which costs more money, takes more time and, for the average person mindlessly speeding through the internet, isn't as interesting.
So with all of this in mind, if you clicked on this article and made it through to the end (advertisers love engagement time, too), thank you. Seriously.
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