No, fuck YOU, Sam Zell -- as newspapers slide into journalistic irrelevance, if not actual oblivion
"One of the things that made Spotlight so powerful is the knowledge that the newspaper industry today is in big trouble."
-- John Oliver, on this week's Last Week Tonight
Another dazzling and indispensable report by the Last Week Tonight team. You'd think they would be smart enough not to set the bar so high, in terms of both the subjects they tackle and the sensibleness of their coverage, forcing themselves to have to keep rising to it. But no, they just keep doing it.
One thing they don't do, as John Oliver is at pains to explain here, is call what they do "journalism," because while they add as much as they can from assorted sources and their own follow-up reporting, what they do is based on the nitty-gritty reporting of actual reporters. This is especially bothersome to John because they take pains to ensure that their journalistic sources are properly credited. In a lot of cases, I suspect that this is the loudest recognition that the reporters in question receive. And yet, before John's eyes and our own, those reporters' jobs are disappearing -- or being transformed into something that smacks more of side-show entertainment than journalism.
As the report is at pains to note, the economic squeeze facing newspapers represents a major turnaround for an industry that once made money, and a lot of it -- back in the days when newspapers had the cash cow of local advertising. It's how local businesses made contact with their potential customer base.
And even then, it's not as if newspaper publishers generally saw their mission as producing the kind of status-quo-busting journalism we know from, say, All the President's Men. One of the lessons of All the President's Men is that the Washington Post itself didn't see its mission as including significant attention to the no-account burglary we came to know as "Watergate," which is how the story remained with a pair of no-status metro reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. Still, eventually the Post came to understand the importance of what its guys had glommed onto, and the story of how the story was ultimately supported up to the paper's highest echelons is, well, history, not to mention a grand book and movie.
Now, however, with the economics of newspapering and the digital shift having daily print journalism by the balls, there's still no solution in sight. As the report points out, local reporters who still have jobs have found that they're not the jobs they used to have. Now it's producing three online posts a day (and spam-commenting on your own posts), tweeting and working the social media playground, and generally promoting chatter on the most clickable subjects. And if you dare to question the journalistic appropriatenes of this brave new world, you may be lucky enough to be accused of "journalistic arrogance" by a world-class scumbag of the order of Sam Zell, and maybe even told, "Fuck you."
THE DAWN OF A GOLDEN AGE OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION?
As the report also points out, this is the best possible news for corruptible local politicians, who look to be at the dawn of a golden age of political corruption. As David Simon, the veteran newspaperman man who gave us, most notably, The Wire, points out, the only check on that corruptibility is the presence of reporters at the daily grind of local government. This was never a glamorous job, and most reporters who did it did it primarily to graduate to better assignments en route to the journalistic Big Time.
Some years ago, a friend who'd hooked up with an alternative paper in the Twin Cities got the crazy idea of covering local government -- which of course in the Twin Cities is also state government -- by going and watching them work. He started attending sessions of, for example, the state legislature on a regular basis, and reporting what he saw and heard there. And even given the limited visibility of the publication in which his reports appeared, the pols who found their shenanigans and blitherings finding their way into print went apeshit. How dare this [expletive deleted] report what we say and do in public meetings of the people's government? The "official" local media were pretty ticked off, because it was making them look bad, like as if they maybe weren't doing, you know, their jobs. Though it was heady stuff for a while, of course it couldn't last. While the owner of the paper might have used this as the centerpiece of a major circulation- and perhaps even advertising-building effort, that isn't how these things usually work out. Too many locally influential people had too substantial a stake in the local status quo.
So it's not as if the present system has called a halt to political corruption, as witness the oratory of the Republican presidential candidate. But the knowledge that reporters might be around to get a whiff of unsavory goings on provides at least some check on the worst behavior. It looks like we can look forward to forgetting about that.
As I've pointed out each time we've returned to this subject, the doomsday clock ticking on daily journalism, I can't offer any solutions because nobody else has come up with any either. Even newspapers that have swallowed hard and accepted the shift to digital can't begin to figure out any kind of viable new business model to replace the now-bygone one of large-scale local print advertising.
Part of the problem, John notes pointedly in the report, is that we Internet folk are sticking stubbornly to the view that content is "free," and we're damned if we're going to pay for such reporting as newspapers may continue to undertake for their online portals. The problem is that if no one's prepared to pay to get actual reporting done, actual reporting isn't going to get done. And if you can remain optimistic about the world we're going to be left with after watching the LWT report, what we might call Sam Zell's world, plI'd love to know how you managed it.