Need to pay… no joke, says comedian Oliver


Comedian John Oliver on his HBO news satire program, Last Week Tonight

British comedian John Oliver has joined a growing chorus of concern about the need to pay for serious journalism to maintain its role in society.

In a 20-minute segment on his satire show, Last Week Tonight on HBO, Oliver canvassed various industry challenges and highlighted the value of serious, quality journalism.

He began by noting the reliance of other media, especially TV, on newspaper newsrooms.

“The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers,” he said.

The topic of the civic value of journalism will be broached at the Future Forum by keynote speaker and the Chief Executive of Dow Jones, Will Lewis.

NewsMediaWorks CEO Mark Hollands said Oliver’s segment would heighten the awareness of the value of journalism, especially with a younger audience.

“Oliver made many good points – one of which was that journalism needed fiscal support,” Mr Hollands said. “In the name of comedy, however, he didn’t let us off the hook. Some of it made me wince, but the over-arching message had value to an important audience.”

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) was more sanguine with its CEO complaining Oliver had offered “petty insults”.

“Other than encouraging people to ‘pay for’ more news, (Oliver) doesn’t offer any answers. He spends most of the piece making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out,” said David Charvern, NAA president and chief executive.

Oliver said on his show: “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. We’ve just grown to accept we get our news for free” he said. “Sooner or later we are either going to have to pay for journalism or we’re all going to pay for it.”

He echoes a recent episode of ABC’s Media Watch, which examined ad-blocking and competition from Google and Facebook. Presenter Paul Barry said: “If people refuse to pay for the news they want and the scrutiny that society needs, then sooner or later they’ll find that it’s gone.”

Editor-in-Chief of the UK daily, The Guardian, recently offered a revealing perspective on the industry’s challenges created by reader and advertiser behaviour in a fragmented, digitally-charged media environment.

In an article headlined “How technology disrupted the truth’, Katharine Viner stated: “A strong journalistic culture is worth fighting for. So is a business model that serves and rewards media organisations that put the search for truth at the heart of everything – building an informed, active public that scrutinises the powerful, not an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable.

“Traditional news values must be embraced and celebrated: reporting, verifying, gathering together eyewitness statements, making a serious attempt to discover what really happened.”

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