September 29, 2016

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

John Oliver and the future of newspapers

John Oliver and the future of newspapers

Earlier this month, John Oliver highlighted the plight of newspapers in a 19-minute soliloquy that focused on how important newspapers are—and he also made some fun of the industry’s attempts to address declining subscription rates.

Oliver has emerged as an interesting voice for journalism; he has produced several pieces that dig deep into practices that have been largely ignored by national mainstream media outlets. In doing so, he has been credited with essentially doing the kind of investigative journalism that used to be done back when budgets were perhaps not flush, but not as constrained as they are now.

As he noted on his show, even though he’s getting the credit for the work, the ideas for the pieces came from local news sources. He was able to build on their initial investigations and bring the pieces to a wider audience through his show—and its funding. He also made a point of showing how reliant other forms of media are on newspapers by compiling clips of cable news outlets reporting on stories that credited the newspapers that did the original reporting. Oliver boiled it down to this telling statement: “Media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.”

Oliver did poke fun at some of the industry’s attempts to address the precipitous drop in advertising revenue, mainly by issuing directives to give readers what they want–even if that means just writing stories about puppies. Paul Gillin, who recently spoke with Chip on the Media Bullseye Roundtable called this strategy into question saying:

“Newspapers have never given readers exactly what they want…[they’ve] given them the information that they need. With the rise of clickbait spurred by social sharing [and] the catering of media companies to the audience to share their content, the risk is that we trivialize and we just downscale everything so we’re just giving people the lowest common denominator. We’re not telling them what they need to know.”

Industry Reacts

One would think that the newspaper industry would welcome the attention being brought to the very real crisis facing the newspaper industry…but, no. Instead, the Newspaper Association of America chose to focus on John Oliver making fun of the industry’s efforts to address the situation, saying that “he doesn’t offer any answers,” and on the subject of making fun of tronc (relevant note: Oliver is a comedian) they said “John Oliver doesn’t seem to have any better ideas.” The blog post critiquing Oliver’s show does give him minor props for “encouraging people to ‘pay for’ more news.”

How did we get to this point?

Paying for more news is precisely the point. People have become accustomed to getting news for free online, and we are at an inflection point where the industry must figure out how to get people to pay for what they are providing, or the structure is going to collapse.

People used to purchase newspaper subscriptions because papers were:

  • the best way to access a wide range of news that included local, national, and international stories;
  • with local jobs and other classified information, which was an additional revenue stream for the paper;
  • conveniently delivered to the door;
  • all at a reasonable price

The internet changed ALL of these factors. You could now access local, national, and international news, classified information and jobs, all from your home computer for the price of your internet connection. That last bit: “for the price of your internet connection”—is important here, because it represents a shift in household spending. Buying a newspaper subscription is now an added expense.

Perceived value is key

People are now also accustomed to seeing news from a variety of sources—their allegiance is no longer tied to their local paper. This factor—the realization that different papers have different strengths—is part of what has prevented me from purchasing digital subscriptions. It’s not in the budget for me to purchase subscriptions to all of the publications I believe are worthy, and I’m unwilling to commit to just one paper because my interests are varied.

What I would pay for is a monthly or annual pass card, or a newspaper-type PayPal account that allows me to purchase articles from a range of newspapers, and then have the revenue directed to the publications I accessed. One month might be heavy on the New York Times; another month might see me visiting the Washington Post or the Houston Chronicle more often. I’m happy to pay for content—but I’m unwilling to commit to just one publication, and can’t afford to buy subscriptions to all of them. And I don’t want to have to plug in a credit card number to pay $0.30 for an article on every site I visit—just deduct it from the total. Make it easy for me to pay.

John Oliver is right that losing media watchdogs presents a real threat. We DO need to figure out a way to stop the bleeding in the newspaper industry—and not just because as PR pros we depend on the intrinsic value of earned media. It’s important because as a free society, we depend on a free press.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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