The death of journalism?

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 25/08/2016
Comedian John Oliver’s takedown of the way the media is headed with their digital-first strategy is riotously funny and devastating,


John Oliver, host of HBO’s late night comedy show Last Week Tonight, is famous for his trenchant humour. His takedowns of politicians, celebrities and indeed, whoever he thinks is in urgent need of being taken down, are side-splitting stuff. On August 7, Oliver did an episode that focussed on the grim state of affairs in print journalism. It was hilarious all right, but if you were a journalist who had been witnessing the changes in the industry firsthand, it seemed a lot like black comedy.

Oliver starts by referring to films on famous stories of investigative journalism —All the President’s Men(1976), which is about the Watergate scandal, and last year’s Spotlight, which is based on The Boston Globe’s expose of child sex abuse in the American Catholic church. He makes the point that with more and more newspapers downsizing and shutting down in the US, the scope for similar journalistic exploits is vanishing fast. 

Needless to say, this has terrible consequences for media as a whole. For example, says Oliver, television news depends heavily on reports in the print media as do current affairs-based comedy shows such as Last Week Tonight.  “The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers,” he says. 

Newspapers in the West have witnessed layoffs and shutdowns owing to dwindling revenue from print ads without a corresponding rise in digital ad revenue. Oliver points out, for instance, that between 2004 and 2014, revenue from digital ads grew by about $2 billion in the US. But in that same period print ads lost $30 billion in revenue. “It’s like finding a lucky penny on the sidewalk on the same day your bank account has been drained by a 16-year-old Belgian hacker,” he jokes.

Desperate to find a way out of this revenue meltdown — and because everyone is sure that the future is in digital — newspapers are all trying to reinvent themselves as “digital-first”. The phrase comes in for a fair bit of lampooning by Oliver. But the bottom line is: such is the frenzy to hit digital with all you have (in the hope that it will magically start bringing in the moolah at some point) that journalists are now being called upon to not just report, write and edit, but also tweet, blog, shoot videos and so on. 

Oliver reveals that a few years ago The Oregonian asked its journos to do three blog posts a day plus post the first comment on any “post of substance”! The rule was severely criticised and eventually done away with. But the essential philosophy behind the move remains. Print journalists are now expected to become nimble multimedia multitaskers. “It’s a lot to ask,” admits Marty Baron, current editor of Washington Post and the man who edited The Boston Globe during its expose of paedophilia in the American clergy in 2002. 

Of course, newspapers do have to take into account the fact that more and more people are consuming their information online. And hence it’s a good idea to expand their digital footprint. However, the danger is that in the pressure to get hits, responsible journalism often gets short shrift. Oliver airs a devastating clip of billionaire Sam Zell, who in 2007 had taken over Tribune, the parent company of publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel. Zell addresses a gathering of the Sentinel’s staff and says, “My attitude to journalism is very simple. I want to make enough money so I can afford you.” And to that end, Zell says, journalists must strive to give the readers what they want. 

When a woman in his audience asks what if readers want puppy dogs, Zell ticks her off, dismissing her comment as classic “journalistic arrogance”. Journalists have no right to decide that puppies don’t count, he says angrily. “Hopefully we can get to the point when we can do puppies — and Iraq,” says Zell, and flings a “f**k you” at his interlocutor. 

A journalist who worries about journalistic responsibility? In today’s clickbait universe, you get an obscenity thrown at you for your pains.

The problem is, says Oliver, that no one seems to have a perfect plan to battle the crisis. One way out is to find a billionaire owner/benefactor who can afford to swallow the losses so journalists can stop worrying about revenue and concentrate on their jobs. But even this has its pitfalls. The worst case scenario is that the billionaire owner will meddle in editorial freedom. The best case is that they will impose their quirks on the paper. 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 and since then, says Oliver, “it has done some spectacular journalism and its reporters seem pretty happy.” But Bezos has his own ideas of sexing things up at the paper. He has introduced a game-like feature that allows readers to pay to remove the vowels in an article they didn’t like! “Which is just absurd,” exclaims Oliver. “Taking out all the vowels makes every word sound like the name of an app!” For example — and this is vintage Oliver — “Turkey is a nation in crisis, TRK is a dating service that lets you f**k long haul truckers!”

Oliver’s funny but stark exposition of journalism’s dog days (or should we say puppy days?) relates to the West, of course. But it resonates here in India as well. Thanks to the ever growing number of new literates in the population, Indian newspapers are not shutting down just yet. The bigger ones, such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times or The Hindu, continue to pull in handsome ad revenues. But for how long? Even Indian millennials, including the neo-literates, are mostly leapfrogging from print to digital. 

Everyone agrees that print is a sunset industry. Whether or not Indian media sink or swim in the future will depend on how efficiently they can leverage their digital presence. In fact, with a slew of online news portals showing the way, old media are already throwing themselves into the task of ratcheting up the hits for their digital properties. 

Earlier this month Vineet Jain, managing director of BCCL, which owns The Times of India, said, “We are moving from pure news toward entertainment, short-form content, and fun videos. The definition of news has changed completely…millennials want to consume content from wherever they are, especially on social media. They want to read what their friends are sharing, not what an editor chose to put on the front page.”

Jain's vision of the future of journalism outraged lots of old style denizens of old media. But this is exactly what Oliver talks about — journalism turning away from what’s “important” to embrace what’s popular and guaranteed to get the clicks. The utterly hilarious parody trailer of Spotlight at the end of the show drives home the point. The editor looks bored when a reporter wants to uncover corruption in the city hall. Instead, he cheerfully commissions a story on a racoon that looks like a cat. In this brave new world of journalism corruption loses out to mutant racoons and cat videos every time.

This is crushing satire -- and not far off the mark. 

Like it or not, India is getting there too. We better learn to deal with it.


Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha



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