Local Commentary

Editorial: On Newspapers: ‘Content is King’

Social commentator and humorist John Oliver struck a nerve on his HBO weekly show, Last Week Tonight, on Sunday night, devoting a full 19-minute segment to a starkly precise commentary on the demise of the U.S. newspaper industry, spiced as the best conveyances of such harsh realities often are, with funny stuff.

While the segment went “viral,” especially among journalists, newspapermen and their admirers, the fallout drew Falls Church’s own David Chavern into the fray, and not, as we see it, in a good way. Chavern served a commendable term on the Falls Church City Council from 2004-2008 as an insightful advocate of quality education and commercial development. But the same cannot be said about his “day job” efforts as the COO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and its redoubled but failed, thankfully, effort to target now vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine for defeat in his U.S. Senate election in 2012) and now as CEO of the Arlington-based Newspaper Association of America.

Chavern crafted a grumpy denunciation of Oliver’s effort, as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted, accusing Oliver of “petty insults and stating the obvious,” probably at the behest of some of his organization’s more powerful members, the likes of Sam Zell, owner of the Tribune company, one of those non-newspaper-based corporate owners skewered by Oliver.

The Post’s Kathleen Parker, keeping this important topic alive with a column yesterday entitled, “John Oliver’s Paean to Newspapers,” noted that Oliver included a video of Zell speaking to the staff of his newly-acquired Orlando Sentinel in 2008. Zell told the newspaper staff he wanted to increase revenues by “giving readers what they want,” and when someone objected saying, “What readers want are puppy dogs,” Zell is shown blowing up, calling the comment “journalistic arrogance,” ranting, “Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq. F**k you!”

But Sullivan wrote, “What Oliver did was precisely nail everything that’s been happening in the industry that Chavern represents: the shrinking staffs, the abandonment of important beats, the love of “click bait” over substance, the deadly loss of ad revenue, the truly bad ideas that have come to the surface out of desperation, the persistent failures to serve the reading public.”

Oliver “took some well-deserved shots at media’s addiction to content that generates digital traffic, particularly ever-weirder stories about cats,” Sullivan wrote, concluding that his segment was “pretty much a love letter to newspapers.”

Largely missing in the struggle to reverse the demise of newspapers as we’ve known them has been the mantra, “Content is King,” oft repeated by our owner’s late brother, Dr. Steven Benton, a founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Content – that is, real news – must not be subordinated to revenue. It has to be the other way around.