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John Oliver touches a sore nerve with rant on U.S. journalism

'Sooner or later, we are either going to have to pay for journalism or we are all going to pay for it," John Oliver warned in his HBO show Last Week Tonight.

John Oliver , host of "Last Week Tonight." ERIC LIEBOWITZ / HBO
John Oliver , host of "Last Week Tonight." ERIC LIEBOWITZ / HBORead more

'Sooner or later, we are either going to have to pay for journalism or we are all going to pay for it," John Oliver warned in his HBO show Last Week Tonight.

On Sunday, Oliver took aim at the declining newspaper industry in the United States, citing diminishing advertising revenue as the Fourth Estate's death knell if people continue not buying subscriptions. Between 2004 and 2014, online ad revenue generated $2 billion in profit, Oliver said, while print ad revenue fell by $30 billion. "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," he joked.

According to the Pew Research Center's "State of the News Media 2016" report, print ad revenue fell eight percent in 2015 alone, and digital ad revenue took a two percent dive. Circulation decreased by seven percent on weekdays and four percent on weekends, the largest dips since 2010. Twenty thousand media jobs have disappeared in the last 20 years. The ramifications trouble Oliver because he claims "the media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers."

His report drew attention from both journalists and consumers. On one post, a commenter admitted, "I've never really thought about this before."

In a letter Monday, Newspaper Association of America president and CEO David Chavern complained that "making fun of experiments and pining away for days when classified ads and near-monopolistic positions in local ad markets funded journalism is pointless and ultimately harmful."

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested to Chavern that "when someone hilariously and poignantly celebrates the industry that you are paid to defend and protect, you ought to laugh at the funny parts and then simply say 'Thank you.' Or maybe nothing at all."

Taylor Maycan, 24, multimedia editor at USA Today's education-oriented blog USA Today College, defended Oliver against Chavern, saying that although the host has a "tendency to commit acts of journalism . . . at the end of the day, I think the NAA needs to realize that John Oliver is a comedian. That's all he is, and that's all he claims to be." But Maycan did grant "the issues that he highlighted are things that people within the industry acknowledge as pain points."

One of those issues is clickbait. "It is clearly smart for newspapers to expand online, but the danger in doing that is the temptation to gravitate toward whatever gets the most clicks," Oliver said. As an editor at an online publication attached to a newspaper, Maycan spoke about walking the line between popularity and sensationalism in an age of digital content. "A lot of it is just gut," she said. "If you feel icky, and feel like you're being clickbaity, you tend to know."

Amanda Florian, a 21-year-old Milligan College journalism student who interned at the American Journalism Center this summer, also decried newsrooms that prioritize clicks over integrity. "I don't know, maybe I'm kind of old school," she said, "but I really want to be the kind of journalist who values her work."

Some new media sites are especially tied to clickbait through their design. Clapway, for example, incentivizes writers by basing their salaries on a percent of profits from the ad revenue their articles generate. But, as Oliver mentioned, even once-traditional papers are embracing a digital-first setup that promotes news linked to the possibility of views. Oliver satirized the term digital-first, saying it "sounds like a high school euphemism for seductively sucking on a finger," but really it's a business plan that focuses on online content before print.

"What digital-first actually means is having a digital business," said Cory Haik, chief strategy officer at the millennial-targeted publication Mic. "It doesn't just mean tweeting and doing video. It means orienting the entire business to digital, which is arguably very, very difficult to do. So a lot of newsrooms have seen the engagement editors, and the social desk, and the rise of video teams, and all of these things happening within their newsrooms. . . . But when there's not a business model that necessarily supports that, it becomes people running around trying to do things, trying to figure out if this is how we do journalism."

Haik was an executive producer of digital news at the Washington Post before transferring to Mic in January. She said she made the jump because she was attracted to Mic's goal: to be a "new, substantive reporting entity that young people can turn to for news."

Haik said she had a "very visceral reaction" to Oliver's segment, as over the last decade and a half, she has witnessed the events he documented. "He was absolutely dead-on, in that there's no bigger threat to democracy than the lack of reporters covering the process," she said.

Florian stressed multimedia's potential to expand on a story. "The written word is so powerful, but these devices just add more to that," she said. "They definitely add another layer. If you're adding multimedia, adding podcast, video, whatever it is, I think you're reaching another audience, engaging your audience more." She imagines a world where digital and print work hand in hand to produce ethical, informative watchdog reporting.

"I personally love newspapers. I love the feel of a newspaper, the smell of the ink," she said. "I really hope that newspapers survive, and I hope that we can have this push for the integration, using newspapers, but also using digital media to our advantage."