By Ali Fakharany

Let me get this out of the way first: I love John Oliver. His show is one that I find myself constantly gravitating towards on the rare evenings where I can give it 20 minutes of my undivided attention. His ability to address real and influential topics yet still maintain a sense of comedy and entertainment is a unique one, and it’s the reason he’s quickly becoming a cultural staple. This article by Time is a great refresher on the issues he’s tackled and the impact he’s had.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, his segment on journalism this week is one of the few instances where I believe he not only missed the wider point, but actually misdiagnosed the problem.

Skip to 14:45 and you see the exact quote that got me cringing:

“A big part of the blame for this industry’s (journalism) dire straights is us, and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce.”

So a quick recap of all the assumptions built into this statement:

  • Journalism is in dire straights
  • Consumers (or the viewing public) are the biggest reason
  • This is due to our unwillingness to pay for the work

At first, I couldn’t really tell what irked me most about this statement. But after a few days of thinking, I have a few comments on the overall segment, and how disappointing it was for me that Oliver chose to sign off with a call to consumers, a comment that not only fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of journalism, and the world we live in 2016, but which is a symptom of the space’s most misguided concepts.

The Internet vs. Journalism is the wrong paradigm, (or why distribution shouldn’t matter)

Growing up in a country with mild censorship and state control over TV, I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to be fed misinformation. On the day of the biggest protest in modern Egyptian history, state TV was rerunning comedic plays from the 80s and 90s.

Thankfully, this was 2011 where (despite the state’s best efforts) I had access to Internet. As a result, I was able to get my information quicker and more accurately than any previous human being in my position would have gotten historically.

Now I recognize that there is quite some tension between speed and accuracy. I can already hear my friends in this space complaining about “journalistic integrity” and how what you see on Twitter and Facebook isn’t “real news”. But while I do recognize this tension, I think most journalists’ approach (derision) is counterproductive for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, just so we can get this out of the way, more time spent on journalism doesn’t equal more accurate. In fact, social media by design is often times more accurate due to the fact that it’s decentralized and pools together different sources of information. Moreover, when all is said and done, social media’s effect on news will probably be net positive on accuracy just as a result of sheer transparency.

Secondly, this gives higher quality journalism (which often does take longer), a natural way to differentiate itself from the noise on social media. In this day and age, having a 100% accuracy record is difficult, but it’s also a brand-builder.

Lastly, and most importantly, the internet has fundamentally broken what for decades used to be journalism real money-maker: distribution. All the talk of how journalism is dying at the hands of the Internet fails to mention one crucial thing: if decentralized distribution is what has killed journalism and quality content, perhaps the content wasn’t all that good to begin with.

But framing the debate as the Internet vs. Journalism (or Consumers vs. Journalism, which I’ll get to later) is just a paradigm that has been created by an industry that is struggling to adjust to the new norm due to years of no competitive pressure. The Internet is the best thing that has happened to journalism, as long as journalism allows it to be.

Newspapers didn’t know what business they were in.

For too long, journalism and content have been protected by the moats of distribution, not needing to innovate, and not needing to open feedback loops with consumers. What we’re seeing is the natural confusion that had to happen when newspapers suddenly realized they’re no longer in the business of owning distribution. To make matters worse, they realized they’re no longer even in the business of selling content. Nowadays, consumers dictate the form they want to receive their content in (whether that be text, pictures, interactive visualizations, or videos).

As a result, centuries old businesses with deeply ingrained ideas of what their business used to be are struggling. And that’s normal. It’s not a bad thing. But journalists (and the organizations they work for) need to start focusing on their core competencies and running themselves like a proper business (i.e with stakeholders in mind and competitors on all sides)

The customer is always right, (or why John Oliver was wrong)

This leads us full circle to that quote by Oliver. Laying the blame with the customer in this scenario seems not only incorrect, but also counter-productive. The responsibility here is on the business to provide a service that satisfies the customer. And while it may be true that we are unaccustomed to paying for content and entertainment due to growing up in the dawn of the Internet (and the age of piracy), I believe the blame lies far more with the old, creaky institute of journalism than it does with consumer behavior.

Despite the fact that I believe there is more quality content today than perhaps ever, the customer experience is still not optimized. There are several different ways news organizations can leverage the current ecosystem to become more sustainable:

  • Advertising: is mostly outsourced by news organizations, leading to bad quality ads that are more in place in a 1970s newspaper than a 2016 smartphone screen
  • Windowing: leverage scarcity of time into premiums (paying premiums for faster content, behind the scenes, etc.)
  • Form: Innovation on content form needs to happen. Have a look at BleacherReport on Snapchat — amazing stuff
  • Crowdfunding: for more investigative type journalism
  • Unbundling: allowing people to pay for content/writers/topics they enjoy specifically. Content creators should be early adopter of digital payments just for this reason.

These are just some ideas. Marc Andreessen also has a couple here that are super interesting. His point on payments and bitcoin is a fascinating one, similar to the above point on unbundling.

And there is data to back up my claims: Millennials are far more likely to support content they like (first chart) and are far more frustrated about popup ads (bad quality advertising, second chart) than anything else. Moreover, 20% of millennials said they are “very likely” to pay $10/month to block ads; a clear sign that their pain point is not in unwillingness to pay (as Oliver claims) but in avoiding bad advertising that worsens their experience.

(All data taken from this great article)

The point being, the reason journalism has struggled recently is that the industry is at a point in it’s history where their biggest money-maker, distribution, suddenly vanished. And due to years and years of no competition, adjusting to the new world has not been easy on these organizations. But criticizing the consumer (and by extension the technology that decentralized distribution) not only misses the point, but encourages the kind of denial the news industry has been in for the last 10 years.

Journalism needs to evolve…

As funny as that clip Oliver showed about puppies and Iraq co-existing, it’s the owner who actually had a better grasp of the space than Oliver did. Markets need to defined and split up better, as access to the Internet has increased total news consumers by quite a bit, leading to space for both the cat videos and the Iraq coverage. Buzzfeed is a great example of this, with their long-form content actually displaying surprising depth.

Yes, we as consumers need to culturally accept that free content and entertainment isn’t our right. But right now, innovative and quality content is growing as journalism figures out its place in the new world. Technology has finally created competition for publishers, a phenomenon they weren’t used to. The adjustment period has been rough, but a lot of very smart people seem to have started to figure it out. A quick look around the space of content in general (as well as journalism) shows this. Bill Simmons and Grantland (now the Ringer) is doing cool stuff with culture, and different forms (podcasts). Vice and their documentaries are also a great example of innovation in this space.

Another great example, ironically, is John Oliver’s show. Sadly, Oliver himself doesn’t seem to understand the biggest impediment to modern journalism, focusing instead on the sort of ideas that have led to the demise of innovation in the space.