After two straight weeks of focusing primarily on political conventions, late-night comedian John Oliver turned to different topics on Sunday night. So, after mocking the NBC anchors who narrated the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Oliver dedicated most of the latest episode of Last Week Tonight on HBO to troubled world of newspaper journalism.
Speaking of the investigative journalism-focused movie to win the most recent Best Picture Oscar, Oliver said: “One of the things that made Spotlight so powerful is the knowledge that the newspaper industry today is in big trouble.”
The comedian described the troubling state of the print journalism industry today, pointing to the myriad newspaper closures and downsizing efforts. Oliver described how revenue from print advertising has plummeted while advertisers are not willing to pay as much for digital ads; as a result, digital advertising has failed to offset print’s decline despite publications reporting rising digital ad revenue. “That’s like finding a lucky penny on the sidewalk on the same day your bank account is drained by a 16-year-old Belgian hacker,” Oliver joked.
Oliver noted that “stupid shows like ours lean heavily on local papers. In fact, whenever this show is mistakenly called ‘journalism,’ it is a slap in the face to the actual journalists whose work we rely on.” The comedian pointed specifically to a popular segment Last Week Tonight ran two years ago on state lotteries, which relied heavily on the work of The Oregonian newspaper reporter Harry Esteve. Oliver eventually pointed out that The Oregonian‘s publisher, Advance Publications, later put the newspaper through a major reorganization aimed at making it “a digital-first” publication, while cutting roughly 22% of the newsroom staff, including Esteve.
Even the Boston Globe, the newspaper that was portrayed so glowingly in Spotlight, has had its share of gaffes due to the constant streamlining and job cuts. “If journalists are constantly required to write, edit, shoot videos, and tweet, mistakes are going to get made,” Oliver said. “Perhaps that is how the Boston Globe wound up tweeting following a shooting in Tennessee that the FBI had ‘investifarted’ about 70 leads.”
“Clearly if they had more time they would have written #investifarted, because that’s how you drive the conversation,” he joked.
Noting that publishers are “desperate,” Oliver mocked the recent rebranding efforts of Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, and Chicago Tribune. While trying to stave off a potential takeover from rival publisher Gannett Co., Tribune recently changed its name to Tronc—short for “tribune online content”—and released a much-discussed, much-mocked promotional video announcing the changes.
Tronc “sounds like the noise an ejaculating elephant makes or, more appropriately, the sound of a stack of print newspapers being thrown into a dumpster,” Oliver said.
The HBO comedian then made fun of the company’s stated plan to “harness the power of our local journalism, feed it into a funnel, and then optimize it,” with Oliver rephrasing those plans as: “We’re just going to take content and simply cram it down your throat like you’re an abused goose.”
“The truth is, a big part of the blame for this industry’s dire straits is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce,” Oliver said. “We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free. And, the longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it.”
At some point, Oliver went on, people will need to be willing to pay for the news in order to get quality journalism that performs the democratic duty of holding accountable those who are in power—from politicians to CEOs. Otherwise, Oliver continued, future movies about journalism will look less like Spotlight and more like a trailer Last Week Tonight aired for a fake movie in which actor Bobby Cannavale plays a disheveled and disheartened newspaper reporter who is blocked from investigating local political corruption by editors (played by actors Jason Sudeikis and Brian Doyle Murray) who are so hungry for web traffic that they prefer fluffy click-bait—like “a raccoon that looks like a cat”—over substantial journalism.