John Oliver Makes a Case for Cash-Strapped Local Newspapers

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has stirred up a national conversation about the importance of the declining local newspaper industry in food chain of journalism. Much of his segment focused on major changes at The Oregonian.

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has stirred up a national conversation about the importance of the declining local newspaper industry in food chain of journalism. Much of his segment focused on major changes at The Oregonian.

Late night comedy star John Oliver delved into the decline of local newspapers in his latest episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, bringing the struggles of Oregon’s largest publication under an enormous microscope.

For anyone familiar with the stories of The Oregonian’s shrinking staff and scaled-down delivery amid its painful transition to a digital-first model over the past few years, Oliver’s 19-minute segment was nothing particularly new. Nonetheless, he used the example (along with several other stories of an industry stuck in an existential crisis) to make a bold statement about the importance of local newspapers.  

“It’s pretty obvious without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” Oliver said. “The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.”

Oliver went on to detail a story his show ran two years ago that heavily drew upon former Oregonian political reporter Harry Esteve’s coverage of the Oregon Lottery. Later, Oliver flashed back to a clip from 20 years earlier of former Oregonian editor Bill Hilliard speaking to the City Club about a steady stream of growth in staffing and salaries at the paper every year he’d been there. That kind of confidence was almost tempting fate, Oliver said.

In 2013, Harry Esteve was at The Oregonian during a round of cuts that wiped out about 22 percent of the staff. Then, a few months down the road in early 2014, Willamette Week broke the news that Oregonian reporters would be required to meet a new quota to publish at least three blog posts a day. The rule has loosened up since, but the general pressure to produce more snippets of content stands. Esteve is also no longer with the paper. He resigned after taking a job with Portland State University, where he works today.

“If journalists are constantly required to write, edit, shoot videos and tweet, mistakes are going to get made,” he said, lamenting the decline in standards and depth that tends to come with shrinking staffs.

Of course, Oliver is right. If you watch TV news, stop and consider how often anchors and reporters attribute facts or even their entire stories to the local newspapers that broke that news to begin with? Happens all the time.

Takeaways from the Pew Research Center's 2016 Newspaper Fact Sheet

  • Weekday circulation fell 7 percent, and Sunday circulation dropped 4 percent in 2015.
  • The cash flow for digital advertising fell about 2 percent last year.
  • In 2015, newspapers saw their biggest drop in advertising since 2009. 

Now consider the financial picture at the macro level. Between 2004 and 2014, newspapers gained $2 billion in online advertising revenue. But in that same time frame, the industry also lost $30 billion in print ad revenue, Oliver highlighted.

“No one seems to have a perfect plan to keep newspapers afloat,” Oliver said. “And the truth is a big part of the blame for this industry’s dire straights is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce. We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free.”

And Oliver may also be right about that last bleak point. Unless print journalism establishes a stable revenue stream, we could be entering an unprecedented era of growth in government corruption as media watchdogs become harder and harder to find, he said.

Newspapers have been closing and laying off staff for years now. Sometimes the Harry Esteves of local newsrooms are replaced, but not often enough to fill in the most critical coverage gaps.

For instance, the number of full time statehouse reporters at more than 200 papers across the nation declined by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, according to Pew Research Center study cited in Oliver’s segment.

Some major online startup publications, like BuzzFeed, Vox and The Huffington Post, have expanded their national political coverage over the past several years. Even so, today’s online media market still fails to fill the gaps left by the shrinking print journalism industry.

“Those places are often just repackaging the work of newspapers,” Oliver said. “And it is not just news outlets. Stupid shows like ours lean heavily on local newspapers.”

Time will tell whether Oliver’s plea for people to buy print ads and subscribe to newspapers will resonate deep enough to spur any change for the industry. He may be a rockstar on social media, but perhaps the problems of the news business are too far gone to solve at this point. Maybe that’s not the solution anyway, though. But in any case, Oliver’s segment is getting people talking, and it’s big picture conversations like this that often later prove to be the spark for game-changing ideas. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist