Haley Nahman: I know John Oliver’s journalism monologue on Last Week Tonight has been out for a while now, but over the past weekend three people brought it up to me, presumably because I work in media, to ask me what I thought about it. Is it just me or is everyone suddenly talking about it? Have you guys seen it? What did you think? I finally watched it and have some thoughts.
Amelia Diamond: It was really funny. He reminded me of my journalism school teachers…
Leandra Medine: I’m watching it for a second time right now! Hi guys!
Haley: Hi! Okay here is how I interpreted his POV: The invention of online media has shifted the focus of journalism away from breaking important and curated stories that people are paying to read (via paper subscription) and towards making money through ad revenue, which is measure via clicks. And now, these older institutions are losing readership and money and this could spell trouble. He worries that when clicks drive news, we’ll be fed what’s clickable instead of what’s important.
Is that fair?
Leandra Medine: A couple things — the conversations about paid-for media vs. a model that relies on clicks is one thing. A conversation about print vs. digital is another and John Oliver brings that up, too. Good, hard-hitting journalism hasn’t actually ceased to exist though, right? But the way we consume it definitely has, and I understand and empathize with the allure of reading a longform piece on paper and frankly can’t commit to reading one online, much less from my iPhone (until Apple figures out how to make my phone screen look like a Kindle when I’m reading). BUT digital replacing print shouldn’t actually kill print.It’s more like figuring out acclimation, right? So that’s one.
The problem, I think, with digital, is that it’s happening in real time. There’s no proof of concept, it’s like an emotional pay-as-you-go platform, so we’re all figuring out what works and what doesn’t. That means that the current model will have no CHOICE but to change. And its starting! Facebook is deprioritizing clickbait headlines and advertisers are looking at “time on site” instead of just how many people land on a page, which means they care more about engagement than they ever have.
Amelia asked a really smart question offline, which was whose responsibility is it to see to it that we actually read the news: the outlets or us? I think the question was in response to how much shit is thrown at us and why we would ever choose to read a breaking news headline about a devastating death toll as opposed to an adjacent slideshow of, and I quote, “Cats in Kitten Heels,” but I’ll let her take it away.
Amelia Diamond: It seems like a big argument with online news is not the news itself, but the way in which it’s consumed. John Oliver acknowledges that there is real reporting happening (and there is: there are so many brilliant online journalists dedicated to real, honest reporting and online publishers who don’t just aggregate aggregated news for the sake of being like, “Us too!”) but it’s being trampled by puppy videos and kittens being crazy.
I know that firsthand, as someone who visits NY Mag, a site that I love and respect. I will see a headline that is important to read, then be immediately distracted by some stupid thing on the right about 111 hot dogs that look like Danny Bonaduce. Human nature / wandering eye / whatever.
But we still can’t rely on Facebook algorithms to show us what we should be reading. Or we can, but we shouldn’t expect that it’s the best news, the best source, the best reporting. I really think it’s our responsibility as consumers to seek out what we need to know, to support publications that have integrity. Because if print folds, those great journalists will go somewhere online. They will exist. They won’t stop writing. But people WILL sit around and go: “Well, there goes the news! I’m screwed! Puppy videos it is because that’s all I’m seeing on this digital box!”
That’s so lazy! I just don’t know if I’m being idealistic…and so my question stands as to whose responsibility it is: ours to seek news or publishers to show us the best stuff for the sake of educated civilians? I want to say it’s somewhere in the middle.
Leandra: I think the Internet is starting to realize that we can’t rely on Facebook algorithms to show us what to read. And I agree that we should be held responsible to get our news. That was also true when we had to pay for it, right? Because we were paying to get it. But it’s OK to want to take a break. We don’t need to be nose first in breaking news all day but don’t then also blame Facebook for your ignorance. If there is any blame going around that is.
John Oliver made a strong point, which is that for as long as readers are consuming news for free, and the companies are relying on their ad models to keep the lights on, if the way in which “success” is measured doesn’t change, we DO run the risk of being forced to publish what is trending. But I don’t see a profound future where advertisers even care about empty eyeballs. That’s certainly true at Man Repeller (though we’re more of a creative journal than a news outlet).
Oh and one last thing: DIGITAL ISN’T KILLING PRINT. Print has an opportunity to become digital. Digital is still print, just not in print. Does that make sense to anyone but me?!
Amelia: No, that last bit is a great point.
Haley: It totally makes sense! But maybe what John Oliver meant by print was… payment for trustworthy curation? Like Amelia said — it’s a little harder to get a curation you trust online simply because of the way it’s set up on our screens or because of the revenue models that need them clicks! Also our short attention spans online in general.
I don’t personally use Facebook for news, which is maybe why I relate less to this concern around algorithms. What I do connect with, for sure, is the web being toooooooooo big. I think we’ll become increasingly reliant, as consumers, on services we trust to get us the important stuff. I think those already exist though (The Skimm, for instance, and everything similar) and will get better and better if and when this problem gets words. I guess that’s why I felt Oliver was being a little nostalgic. Print wasn’t necessarily the answer either: people still had to decide what to read (or WHETHER to read it at all). Overall I’d say people are more informed (on important stuff) today than 20 years ago.
Leandra: Do you think that’s true of people who are marginally younger than we are, who are more native to “the information age?”
Haley: Yes! I do. I’m so impressed by how informed young people are today, compared to where I was at 12, 15, 17. Maybe I’m overly optimistic. I think I’m a little wary of nostalgia or any form of glorification of the past. I reject it.
Amelia: I’m the opposite. I like that he’s nostalgic about print!
Haley: Why? (Not that that surprises me!)
Amelia: Because these hooligans need to get off my old man lawn, I don’t know! Because there’s a level of respect for the written word that is often lost in writing for the web and consuming what’s written for it. NOT universally.
Leandra: Quick point, maybe we’re putting borders on our scope of understanding of reality. If the young’uns never know what print was (impossible), they will develop their own psychological value systems for the digital world.
Amelia: Totally, but nostalgia for print is not a bad thing within that. Nostalgia is only dangerous when it prohibits positive change or innovation. But no one’s hindsight is that powerful. John Oliver’s is not. In fact, it’s largely used here for a punchline, so it’s fine.
Wait, but so, Haley, in watching this: what was your gut reaction to him? That you agree or disagree or think he’s being truthful but also sensationalist / dramatic?
Haley: Amelia, what you said about nostalgia being dangerous when it prohibits positive change or innovation is exactly what I was about to say! Because nostalgia can sometimes be confused with criticism of the status quo and I’m not sure I totally believe Oliver was doing the latter. I think it got muddled at points. This idea of saving the papers and protecting an old guard or old way of doing news put a slightly bad taste in my mouth. I’m biased against that kind of language though, so I might have closed my ears for a minute, admittedly. BUT THEY OPENED AGAIN I PROMISE.
I guess I just have more faith in people. I believe that we’ll continue to innovate past the new challenges presented by online media. I don’t believe that, without guidance, we will all become drooling invalids who only care about bunnies.
Leandra: Would you guys pay for content that you previously got for free? Like, Amelia, if NY Mag started charging you to read The Cut, would you still read it?
Amelia: I wouldn’t pay if I could get it elsewhere, just as good. I would pay if I felt that it was the only source. And like, Napster proved years ago that there will always be a way to get what you want for free. But I pay for cable and therefore the news channels that come with cable.
Haley: Re: Napster. But look at what Spotify did. They dismantled the old guard — gave people what they wanted. And people are now willing to pay. We used to download because the way we were expected to consume music was so outdated. I personally have stopped downloading like I did in high school now that these services are doing it really well.
Amelia: I don’t think he’s pitting old guard v. new guard, totally. He is, a little, bit for a punchline, but not really. I do think he’s cautionary toward the frivolous manner in which a lot of online journalism is treated in 2016. I think he’s cautionary of processes and practices: A.K.A. pressure to perform for clicks which means bunny videos taking precedence. He’s not cautionary of websites themselves.
And I am, too! The thing is that people WILL READ bad stuff and assume it’s good. I think he’s worried about that too?
Verena: Wait, sorry guys! I don’t mean to interrupt but I’m actually in the process of editing this post and I think there are a few points we missed. I think the biggest one that we didn’t address and that Oliver touches on is what it costs to produce the type of content “print” is known for. It’s very rare that content of that magnitude, scope, quality, time, and editorial lift is being produced online. Because it costs too much!
Take, for example, the New York Times Magazine’s single-story issue from a couple weeks ago, Fractured Lands. Like, there isn’t a digital media company in existence that would pay for that story to be reported. And it’s a hugely, hugely important (and insanely compelling! Have you read it?! Read it!) story.
And, Haley, your point about Spotify is a tricky one. Because Spotify is basically beneficial to two groups: the listener. And Spotify. But as a model, it hasn’t proven to be at all lucrative for artists themselves. Which is to say: it’s not actually that much better than downloading or ripping music for free. Other than being, well, legal. An ideal model there, and I think what John Oliver is getting at, is one where people actually pay something that reflects the value (and the cost!) of the work they are consuming—whether that’s content or music or whatever.
OK, LAST THING I SWEAR and then I’ll get out of here. You guys touched on this a little, and I think Oliver actually talked about this a lot, but the nut of the issue is that the internet has made us think that everything should be free. But to make Leandra’s favorite Louis C.K. reference again: we’re kind of in like, elementary school or junior high of the internet now. And I think (I hope?!) there’s going to be an adjustment towards paying for things. A la Amazon and Netflix, you know? Like five years ago, I would have never paid $2.99 to watch an episode of TV. But they made it worth it by making content that is as good as, or often even better, than what is on TV. I don’t think digital media is there yet, not because they’re not capable of it, but because the resources still aren’t quite there yet in the same way. (And this goes back to the advertising dollars thing, which, ok, I’m really going to get out of here now.) BYE!
Leandra: I also believe that we might not give ourselves enough credit sometimes. Businesses in 2016 are highly reactive, right? We know this to be true because of the way MR is modeled with so much focus on our community and fostering what their interests are. The way digital media is set up right now is a response to the user behavior of, well, us. So at a certain point what happens is: the brainless stuff loses its shine, we call bluff, those views tank and the companies that cannot sustain themselves on real honest and authentic sentiment go away. But we also have to be a little patient. Which is hard because it’s 2016 and we can have donuts from Queens delivered to our doorsteps in 30 minutes (that’s a wink at Postmates, not that I did that last week).
So, why would we ever want to wait for change to take place? But you can’t rush science! And one thing I know for sure is that gerbils running on hamster wheels aren’t strong. They’re entertaining today, yes, but they will not carry us through the next decade.
Haley: I think you guys both made such great points. Amelia, you’re right. It’s not about old guard versus new in this instance. I totally concede your point that pithy headlines will sometimes beat the more important ones (even if they are both about the same thing!), and that’s something to watch and brace ourselves against. In that sense, having this conversation (the one John Oliver started) is important. And, Leandra, I agree that this transformation will take time and that we’ll evolve past this hamster wheel. I think authenticity wins as long as we all keep paying attention.
Feature illustration by Lily Ross.