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John Oliver focused his main segment on Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight on the dire state of local journalism, even recruiting Jason Sudeikis, Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale to star in a fake movie trailer poking fun at how a focus on digital clickbait is hurting investigative efforts at print newspapers.
He began by arguing that journalists are the people audiences root for in movies like All the President’s Men, The Great Muppet Caper and last year’s best picture Oscar winner Spotlight, which was particularly powerful because of the current state of newspaper industry.
“Papers have been closing and downsizing for years and that affects all of us, even if you only get your news from Facebook, Google, Twitter or Arianna Huffington’s Blockquote Junction and Book Excerpt Clearinghouse,” Oliver said, the latter a reference to The Huffington Post.
Indeed, he argued that downsizing, layoffs and less local government reporting by print newspapers also hurts websites, TV news and his weekly HBO show, all of which regularly cite those sources.
“It’s pretty obvious without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” Oliver said, later adding, “The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.”
Last Week Tonight, in particular, relied heavily on the work of Oregonian reporter Harry Esteve in its report on state lotteries and now Esteve is among those who’ve left the paper as a quarter of its newsroom was laid off.
Oliver pointed out how digital demands have led to mistakes like The Boston Globe‘s widely mocked “investifarted” tweet after a 2015 Tennessee shooting and played a clip of Sam Zell telling an Orlando Sentinel reporter, “F— you,” after she argued that the paper should prioritize informing the community instead of just producing stories about puppies that their readers want.
Oliver joked that Zell just coined a new motto for the Sentinel’s masthead: “All the puppy news that’s fit to print and maybe some Iraq news, too, if we can afford it, f— you.”
The host also went after Tribune Publishing recently rebranding as “Tronc,” with Oliver likening the widely mocked new name to “the noise an ejaculating elephant makes or, more appropriately, the sound of a stack of print newspapers being thrown into a dumpster.”
Oliver ultimately argued that people used to getting content for free, like viewers watching his show on YouTube via free coffee shop Wi-Fi, are “a big part of the blame for the industry’s dire straits.”
“We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free. And the longer that we get something for free, the less willing that we are to pay for it,” he continued. “Sooner or later we are either going to have to pay for journalism, or we are all going to pay for it. If we don’t, not only will malfeasance run amok, but the journalism movies of the future are going to look a lot more like this.”
With that he introduced a fake trailer for a movie called Stoplight, in which a driven investigative newspaper reporter (Bobby Cannavale) is repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to get to the bottom of local corruption by colleagues more interested in click-friendly stories about a raccoon that looks like a cat or vice versa and tweets and other forms of social engagement. Jason Sudeikis plays the paper’s digital-first editor, while Rose Byrne plays a staffer who discovers the raccoon-cat (or cat-raccoon).
“Technically, you don’t work for a newspaper anymore. You work at a multiplatform, content generation distribution network now,” Sudeikis says, revealing that the publication, The Chronicle, has been rebranded as “Chorp.”
Dylan Baker and Mahershala Ali also appear in the fake trailer, which also features a version of the Zell speech and Last Week Tonight teases as “coming to a mid-size American newspaper near you.” Pullquotes from other newspapers call the film “depressingly accurate,” and reflect the harsh reality of cutbacks, with one proclaiming, “Actually we had to get rid of our full-time movie reviewer nine years ago, so we haven’t seen it yet.”
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The Fien Print
William Jackson Harper