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John Oliver isn’t responsible for saving journalism

The NAA’s response to Last Week Tonight’s latest segment betrays a serious lack of self-awareness and limited sense of humor among legacy media organizations

John Oliver touched on one of the most anxiety-inducing questions in journalism on Sunday in the latest installment of HBO’s Last Week Tonight: How do we pay for the news without compromising our journalistic ethics and obligations?

It’s a touchy subject for journalists and others in the media industry, especially those who have been struggling for nearly two decades to find a way forward in the face of plummeting ad revenues and rapidly-shifting media expectations. This is especially true for newspapers, which have lost an absurd amount of money and continue to lay off reporters at alarming rates.

Over the course of the segment, Oliver highlights and ridicules various attempts by a range of media companies to find answers to that pivotal question.

But the main focus of the piece was the Tribune Company’s latest attempt to create an automated digital content machine: Tronc. Tronc stands for TRibune ONline Content, which is basically another legacy media company’s attempt to adapt to the pressures and demands of the modern digital media industry. The name itself isn’t really that bad, nor is Tronc’s stated goal of creating articles and videos that can be syndicated across its various properties.

The way they announced it, however, is both hilarious and frightening for a number of reasons. Check out the video below and you’ll understand why:

It’s not hard to see why Last Week Tonight would jump at the opportunity to take Tronc down a peg.

Which is why it seems strange that the president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, David Chavern, felt the need to respond to Oliver’s comments with a short blog post on the NAA website. In his response, Chavern chastises Oliver for “making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out.” Regardless of how stupid you think the name Tronc sounds, Chavern complains, “at least they are trying new things and trying to figure out how to create great news journalism in the digital era. John Oliver doesn’t seem to have any better ideas.”

Chavern’s response speaks to one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for legacy media to transition out of the old media and journalism models: low self-awareness and a very limited sense of humor.

Everything in that video induces either cringe, crying, or ridicule — often some combination of the three. The relentless jargon, the dead-yet-somehow-painfully-enthusiastic look in their eyes, the abstract and essentially useless diagrams, and the number of times they use the word “content” in one sentence is enough to make anyone’s eyes roll.

It has every bit of the dead, corporate personality you might expect from a Veridian Dynamics commercial. But in case that doesn’t do it for you, Tronc also released this equally-depressing sizzle reel of B-roll footage and more meaningless jargon for your viewing displeasure:

If, after watching these videos, you still have no idea what the fuck they’re actually trying to do, you’re not alone. This is part of the reason why Chavern’s response sounds so ridiculous.

Another reason it’s hard to take Chavern’s blog post seriously is the fact that Oliver isn’t making fun of Tronc because they decided to try something new. He’s making fun of them because they’re overlooking one of the most valuable journalistic assets, a genuine relationship with your audience, in favor of “content funnels” and “a story portfolio of storytelling.”

Tronc really drives this point home toward the end of their first video when the android sitting on the right says, “We’re a content company – first, last, and always.” They’re not a journalism company, a public-interest company, or a company with an obligation to uphold democracy and promote the free exchange of ideas. They’re a content company.

John Oliver isn’t making fun of Tronc for “just trying to figure it out.” He’s making fun of them because they seem to have no idea how ridiculous they sound to anyone who doesn’t live inside the strange, corporate bubble that is a Tronc boardroom.

The saddest part of Chavern’s response — and the part that shows just how painfully unaware he seems to be — is the part where he calls out Last Week Tonight because, “John Oliver doesn’t seem to have any better ideas” when it comes to figuring out “how to create great news journalism in the digital era.”

The irony here is almost too much. Here we have the head of the Newspaper Association of America, which was recently forced to shut down and sell off its national ad sales affiliate, telling the most successful comedy news anchor since Jon Stewart that he doesn’t have any new ideas for creating great journalism.

Oliver, one of Stewart’s most beloved disciples, is not only pioneering new forms of investigative journalism disguised as comedy — and following in Stewart’s footsteps to become the most trusted man in America (blowing traditional anchors and journalists out of the water, I might add). He’s also doing it all behind a paywall. That’s right, people are actually paying money to consume his content. Those who don’t subscribe to HBO directly are still helping to bring in ad revenue via HBO’s monetized YouTube and other channels (the video discussed here already has more than 4 million views as of this writing, barely four days after it was first published).

I’m not saying that everyone should try to replicate Last Week Tonight’s model. Not everyone has the #investifartive chops to handle that level of research and reporting, and even fewer are able to walk the fine line between journalism and comedy. I’m also not saying that shaming people into paying for journalism is the right way to go. I’m not even saying that Tronc’s plan won’t work—although if it does, I doubt the journalists at Tronc will be the beneficiaries of that success.

What I am saying is that John Oliver is doing a great service to journalism and, either way, people like David Chavern should know better than to look to comedians for legitimate answers in the first place.

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