John Oliver scratches the surface on challenges journalism — and democracy with it — face

This John Oliver piece on journalism is perhaps the best summation of what many in the industry have felt for a long time: reporting is in deep trouble.

Over 17 years, I spent nearly as much time working on content as I did on the business side. As a student of the industry, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the future of reporting for a number of reasons — some Oliver touches on, and a few he does not.

Because the vast majority of reportorial work comes from organizations owned by public companies, they are relentlessly focused on the metrics that drive Wall Street: primarily growth in revenue. This collides with recent decreases in the dollars each digital pageview brings in.

Where’s Waldo — news content edition

Many news sites have tried to fight the trend by stuffing pages with ads — lots and lots of ads. This has destroyed user experience and driven away audience. The short-term, Wall Street-driven strategy of adding additional ad units has cost the long-term need for strong audience.

The other tactic being employed is to push video. Monetization rates for a :15 or :30 prerroll are, for now, far above that of a textual pageview — which is why you are seeing so many autoplay videos on news stories. If a news organization can get that video commercial in front of your eyeballs, they are going to make far more cash than if you just read the text.

But there’s another major issue for local journalism that I think has gone mostly unnoticed: local sales staffs aren’t selling the news product being created in their own buildings nearly as much anymore.

All major media organizations with a local presence have been leveraging the advantage of having a sales staff with strong reputations in local markets to sell a bundle of services: website creation, paid search, Facebook ads, social media management, targeted display ads, email lists and more. The vision is to make these local media organizations into ad agencies — with one-stop shopping for small and medium sized businesses.

While that local website or mobile app is one tool in the toolkit — it is often not the best. Selling a Facebook ad campaign, with its superior technology, can often outperform the ‘legacy’ website. The end result for advertisers is better performance for the dollar — and in most cases, digital sellers will lead their customers to the place with the best bang for the buck.

That spells very bad news for journalists. With sales staffs moving dollars from the product they work so hard to create to third-party offerings from Facebook, Google and the like — corporations are forced to find other ways to make a buck from the “core” digital news product. This, in turn, has lead to the proliferation in ad units, popovers, autoplay video, pushdowns and the like. Because local staffs are not monetizing the product at the same high level, revenue on the core product is slumping, driving the clutter. It has also led those news organizations to demand more content output from its journalists to offset the revenue declines. Instead of creating one or two stories a day that makes $100 (for instance), the company would need two-to-four stories per journalist per day if the cash they make per pageviews drops in half.

But like jamming more ads on to the page, squeezing journalists for more content often leads to diminished return (as illustrated by Oliver’s “#investifarted” example).

1996 logo for Tronc. Oh wait, sorry. That’s the 2016 logo.

While “tronc” has gotten a lot of flack in the industry for its moves, it is likely only because it has been so brazen (or hapless, depending on your perspective) about trumpeting them. Many of Tronc’s peers are doing some or all of the same things… they just didn’t take the silly step of renaming themselves… TRONC.

As Oliver points out, without the foundation of local journalism from newspapers and television stations — our democracy suffers. In many markets, the quantity and quality of journalism has dipped. In smaller markets, the journalists are fewer and are often seeing smaller paychecks (especially when adjusted for cost-of-living) than ten or 20 years. A small corps of underpaid and overworked journalists aren’t going to be able to keep pace with important stories.

Add in the power that Facebook wields in referring traffic (and changing the rules), you have a very problematic formula for local journalism:

Declining value of pages - change in sales staff focus - increased ad load -underpaid/not enough journalists - changes in social traffic = big problems for reporting quality.

Layer on politicians who show disdain for journalists — either through actions like Obama… or rhetoric, like Trump and you have a very challenging period ahead for journalism — and potentially, our free society.

-Don Day is a National Murrow-winning former journalist who worked for a variety of news organizations in content and sales/marketing until earlier this year and now runs an independent digital agency. View his portfolio.

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