Hur­ray for John Oliver

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Kath­leen Parker

— Ev­ery cou­ple of years or so, I feel the need to whine about the plight of news­pa­pers. It’s Au­gust. I’m Trumped out. So to­day’s the day.

Ex­cept that HBO’s John Oliver beat me to it with the best de­fense of news­pa­pers — ever. His re­cent “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” mono­logue about the suf­fer­ing news­pa­per in­dus­try has gone vi­ral in jour­nal­ism cir­cles but he de­serves a broader au­di­ence. Be­sides, it’s funny. Leav­en­ing his im­por­tant mes­sage with enough lev­ity to keep the dopamine flow­ing, Oliver points out that most news out­lets, faux, Fox and oth­er­wise, es­sen­tially rely on news­pa­pers for their ma­te­rial. This in­cludes, he says, puls­ing with self-aware­ness, Oliver him­self. He’s sort of part of the prob­lem, in other words, but at least he knows it, which makes it OK, sort of.

The prob­lem: Peo­ple want news but they don’t want to pay for it.

Con­se­quently, news­pa­pers are fail­ing while con­sumers get their in­for­ma­tion from com­edy shows, talk shows and web­sites that es­sen­tially lift ma­te­rial for their own pur­poses.

But some­where, some­body is ac­tu­ally sit­ting through a bor­ing meet­ing, por­ing over data or in­ter­view­ing some­one who isn’t nearly as im­por­tant as he thinks he is in or­der to pro­duce a story that will be­come news. As Oliver points out, news is a food chain, yet with rare ex­cep­tions, the most im­por­tant mem­bers of the chain are at the bot­tom, turn­ing off the lights in news­rooms where glad­i­a­tors, schol­ars and char­ac­ters once roamed.

Some still do, though most are be­com­ing rather long-ish in the tooth. (You can ac­tu­ally get that fixed, you know.)

That any news­pa­pers are sur­viv­ing, if not for much longer in any rec­og­niz­able form, can be at­trib­uted at least in some part to the ded­i­ca­tion of peo­ple who re­ally be­lieve in the mis­sion of a free press and are will­ing to work harder for less — tweet­ing, blog­ging, film­ing and what­not in ad­di­tion to try­ing to write wor­thy copy. Most of the poor slobs who fell in love with the printed word go un­no­ticed by any but their peers.

An ex­cep­tion is Marty Baron, the unas­sum­ing ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Post, re­cently fea­tured in the film, “Spot­light” about the Bos­ton Globe’s sto­ries un­der Baron’s lead­er­ship about sex­ual abuse in the Catholic Church.

It’s a good movie, not just be­cause of great cast­ing and act­ing but be­cause it’s a great tale about a mas­sive in­ves­tiga­tive ef­fort that led to church re­form and the be­gin­ning of heal­ing for vic­tims. (Not to worry, my pay comes as a per­cent­age of the money I make for the com­pany. This won’t make a dime of dif­fer­ence.)

My point — shared by Oliver — is that only news­pa­pers are the brickand-mor­tar of the Fourth Es­tate’s ed­i­fice. Only they have the where­withal to do the kind of re­port­ing that leads to sto­ries such as “Spot­light.” What hap­pens to the “news” when there are no news­pa­pers left?

We seem doomed to find out as peo­ple in­creas­ingly give up their news­pa­per sub­scrip­tions and seek in­for­ma­tion from free-con­tent sources. And though news­pa­pers have an on­line pres­ence, it’s hard to get read­ers to pay for con­tent.

As Oliver says, now is a very good time to be a cor­rupt politi­cian. Be­tween buy­outs, lay­offs and news-hole re­duc­tions, there’s hardly any­one pay­ing at­ten­tion. Ex­cept, per­haps, to kit­ties. In a hi­lar­i­ous spinoff of “Spot­light” called “Stop­light,” Oliver shows a short film of a news meet­ing where the old-school reporter is pitch­ing a story about city hall cor­rup­tion. The rest of the staff, cheer­ful hu­man top­i­aries to the reporter’s kudzu-draped man­grove — are more in­ter­ested in a cat that looks like a rac­coon.

And then there’s Sam Zell, erst­while owner of the Tri­bune Com­pany, who summed up the sad tra­jec­tory of the na­tion’s in­ter­ests and, per­haps, our fu­ture while speak­ing to Or­lando Sen­tinel staffers in 2008. When he said he wanted to in­crease rev­enues by giv­ing read­ers what they want, a fe­male voice ob­jected, “What read­ers want are puppy dogs”

Zell ex­ploded, call­ing her com­ment the sort of “jour­nal­is­tic ar­ro­gance of de­cid­ing that pup­pies don’t count. … Hope­fully we get to the point where our rev­enue is so sig­nif­i­cant that we can do pup­pies and Iraq, OK? [Ex­ple­tive] you.” Yes, he said that. Moral of the story: If you don’t sub­scribe to a news­pa­per, you don’t get to com­plain about the sorry state of jour­nal­ism — and pup­pies you shall have.

Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at kath­leen­parker@ wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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