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Kathleen Parker: If newspapers are going to the dogs, it’s because readers won’t pay the freight

🕐 4 min read

WASHINGTON – 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 longish in the tooth.

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 exposing 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. My praise of Baron won’t make a dime of difference.)

My point, shared by Oliver, is that newspapers are the brick-and-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’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.

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