John Oliver Finds the Roots of the Dismal State of Journalism


The subject of John Oliver’s magnetically disheartening weekly tirade last night was the erosion of the journalistic ecosystem by the mercurial demands of Internet capitalism — predominantly by the rippling effects of advertisers weaning off of print. Now, the downfall of print is nothing we haven’t heard about for years, but Oliver’s thorough aggregation and commentary (representing the best of what, ahem, someone like a blogger can do) has, as usual, provided a completist, funny, and bleak overview of the state of the industry. To help Oliver sum up his sad portrait of the present — and future — of journalism, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and Jason Sudeikis showed up towards the end of the segment in a Spotlight-like sketch for a buzz-fed generation.

Oliver also began the 19-minute segment on Spotlight. “One of the things that made Spotlight so powerful is the knowledge that the newspaper industry today is in big trouble. Papers have been closing and downsizing for years, and that effects all of us,” he said.

He noted how often TV news and websites repackage print sources — as Oliver mentions, he does it too! — and then websites like the one you’re loyally reading right now then repost his repackaging from the night prior. Alas, the “media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers,” Oliver admonishes.

But the existence of the food chain isn’t itself the worrisome part: it’s what capitalism has done to devalue the foundational sources of that chain. Advertisers now know they can make impressions with online ads, which are less expensive, and thus of course produce far less revenue for publications. Oliver brings up the statistic that between 2004 and 2014, newspapers gained $2 billion in online ad revenue and lost $30 billion — which the host equates to “finding a lucky penny on the sidewalk on the same day your account is drained by a 16-year-old Belgian hacker.”

He uses as an example The Oregonian, which transitioned to a “digital first” format — laying off 1/4 of their newsroom — and began demanding quotas of three blog posts a day from writers. “If journalists are constantly required to write, edit, shoot videos and Tweet, mistakes are going to get made.” He posits that this necessitating of multitasking has led to a climate where things like this can easily happen:

The ramifications, Oliver stated, extend far beyond the quality of journalism: government corruption — particularly at a local level, in places where newspapers have shut down or reporters have been laid off in droves — could feasibly become far easier to get away with if publications don’t have the resources to do extensive investigative journalism (or even to show up to government meetings).

Oliver emphasized that the need for an online presence for print publications is wholly understandable, but that it often leads to a devolution towards click-oriented publishing. One solution, he mentioned, is a publication being bought by a multibillionaire who can bankroll extensive research — but then the publication risks having to cater to that person’s sensibilities, or worse, to ignore his or her indiscretions.

Oliver asserted that part of the blame, as well as the potential for reversing the deterioration of journalism, is on readers; he suggested that part of what could change is for people to start paying a bit for their news — which was, of course, what everyone did prior to the Internet.

Thus ensued the aforementioned Spotlight spoof, in which Bobby Cannavale plays a journalist passionately pitching a piece on corruption in Boston, which is then shot down for its lack of clickability.

“I’ve got a thing about a cat that looks like a raccoon,” says the Rose Byrne-alist, quickly winning the approval of her Jason Sudeikis EIC. “Or it could be a raccoon that looks like a cat.”

Watch the segment:

And once you’re done, despite the bleakness, here’s one small silver lining: Facebook is aiming to suppress the spread of clickbait. Of course, that doesn’t speak to the issue of how hegemonic single corporations like Facebook and Twitter have become at spreading the news. So yeah, still pretty bleak.