John Oliver Took a Passionate Look at the Decline of Good Journalism. Here’s Some of Why It’s Happened.

By Jack Limpert

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The “Show me the money!” scene in Jerry Maguire.

Everyone in journalism seems to have loved last night’s John Oliver segment on how journalism is going to hell and more people should be willing to pay for the good stuff. But it’s not news that in the digital world it’s very hard to get people to pay for good journalism. There’s just too much pretty good stuff free.

When the Internet arrived 20 years ago we mistakenly thought that the digital model would be like print: We’ll put editorial on a computer screen and sell ads to appear with the editorial. But we found out that ads on the screen didn’t get looked at or clicked on. The screen ads didn’t work and advertisers stopped paying for them.

An explanation for that: Print readers scan and are willing to look at the pages of a newspaper or magazine to see if there’s something interesting to read. While they scan, they  see the ads and sometimes respond to them. Readers on digital devices do more seeking of specific information—email, social media, the weather, sports, etc. They know what they’re looking for and they find ads a nuisance. How do digital advertisers respond? They make ads even more of a nuisance.

If websites can’t get much ad revenue, where’s the money coming from to pay for good journalism? As an editor, I helped the Washingtonian start its website in 1995. As the years went by we got more traffic but little revenue. The reality was that good print journalism brought in dollars of advertising and circulation revenue, good digital journalism brought in dimes—or often just pennies.

As we talked about how to invest more resources to improve the website and increase traffic, I kept thinking of the scene in the movie Jerry Maguire. Rod Tidwell, an athlete played by Cuba Gooding Jr., is being sweet talked by his agent, Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise. Finally Gooding begins shouting at Cruise: “Show me the money! Show me the money!”
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Some big newspapers in 1995—the dawn of the digital age for journalism—were thinking that they should make digital readers pay for a newspaper’s news. Here’s how one editor remembers it, much of it drawn from the book, The Deal from Hell, by James O’Shea, former editor of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times:

“When the Internet was just heating up, a number of newspaper executives realized the possible threat to revenues. This was the era of ‘Information wants to be free!’ So the biggest metropolitan newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Knight-Ridder, the Tribune Company, Times Mirror, Advance Publications, Cox Enterprises, Gannett, and Hearst, got clearance from their antitrust lawyers to meet and they hammered out a plan to form an organization, the New Century Network, that would pool content and place it behind a paywall.

“Imagine: Starting almost at the birth of the Internet, you would have had to pay to read stories from the best newspapers.

“But the members of the organization couldn’t get along. The egos were too big. They couldn’t decide who would make decisions. New Century Network broke up and newspapers started giving away their content free.”
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For good journalism to survive, will it have to be part of a non-profit enterprise, similar to sites like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, with the main revenues coming from foundations?

Will some newspapers survive only if bought by billionaires such as Jeff Bezos?

Will most journalism end up coming from very small sites, with a few editorial people doing specialized journalism, and very big sites, such as NYTimes.com, washingtonpost.com, buzzfeed.com, and huffingtonpost.com? Battling for survival in the middle of very small and very big will be many of the nation’s newspapers and magazines.

In 10 years, will John Oliver still be documenting the end of great local journalism—remember the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe?—and telling listeners they really should be willing to pay for good reporting and writing?

Comments

  1. Excellent questions. I look forward to your answers next week.

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