Normally television programs aren’t particularly supportive of newspapers. They compete for advertising and for news.
But enter John Oliver and his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.”
Oliver delivered an impassioned defense of local newspapers, with a particular emphasis on midsize dailies. That would include The Sacramento Bee, as opposed to The Samantha Bee.
Oliver noted correctly that local newspapers are the backbone of virtually all electronic coverage, and that younger news consumers aren’t particularly inclined to pay for news online, or, really, anything online.
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When the local newspaper shrinks, bad things happen, especially at city halls. No bodies at the meeting, no coverage. When Oliver did his bit, newspapers noticed.
David Chavern, the head of the Newspaper Association of America, reacted oddly, seemingly taking Oliver’s routine as a kind of attack, which it most surely wasn’t. Oliver was impassioned about the existential threat to newspapers and how to fix it.
Chavern said Oliver was “making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out,” and that Oliver “doesn’t seem to have any better ideas.”
OK, but I don’t think it’s Oliver’s role to solve the problem. He’s highlighting it.
Kathleen Parker, the Washington Post columnist, correctly asks, “What happens to ‘news’ when there are no newspapers left?”
Local newspapers get rapped for the slimness of the Monday paper, or lack of coverage of this subject or that. Many times it’s true. But some criticism comes from intriguing corners.
One Sacramento elected official, who I decline to name because he so often seeks to get his name in the paper, posted the Oliver video on his Facebook page with enthusiastic relish, and took the “Last Week Tonight” piece as an opportunity to criticize The Bee.
This elected offical thrives on Bee coverage. A Capitol insider wrote me to note that this particular elected official’s criticism was somewhat ironic, given the politician’s propensity to call The Bee, and offer legislation or public pronouncements right off the front page.
One of the pol’s commenters was, interestingly, the son of a former Bee writer, and he was scathing.
“Journalism has only itself to blame. By tarnishing their own brand for 50 years with blatant partisanship and lazy reporting, people have realized that sources like the Bee (and certainly Mother Jones and John Oliver) cannot be trusted. Why give your money to someone who is giving you slanted, fake news?”
Hmm. A fascinating analysis from a guy whose father worked here and raised him on The Bee’s dime. Not that we don’t need more Washington, D.C., lawyers.
All of this raises the question of the symbiotic relationship between the politician and the actual press – you know, the institutions that have real printing presses.
Every local paper criticizes local elected officials and offers helpful pointers about how they can improve, be it through editorials, columns, and even the lowly political cartoon. Those officials are perfectly welcome to add their two cents in response. It’s part of the process.
When I am asked about the survival of newspapers and what readers can do to stop the slippage, I always say the same thing: Subscribe. Tell your friends. We are not nonprofits. The more readers we have, the more revenue we get. The more revenue we get, the more reporters we can add. More reporters means more coverage of all those people in the Capitol who want so very desperately to have their names in the paper boldly calling for resignations of wayward college chancellors or offering up legislation.
And, in the cited local politician’s case, we can hire a special receptionist to take his many phone calls.