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If you are a journalist, you either watched “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on Sunday, or by the time you got up Monday, everyone you worked with had sent you a tweet, text or email telling you that, “OMG, you have to watch John Oliver!”
And really, you did.
On Sunday night, in a place where the British-born heir to Jon Stewart’s political-pop culture skewering throne uses his HBO pulpit to point out problems with things as varied as the presidential race, soccer corruption, little-known facts about Puerto Rico or the cycle of medical debt, he turned his spotlight on journalism.
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A lot of it was downright epic if you are in the industry. Yes, in fact, people who write for newspapers are more than aware of the fact that the story we chip at for weeks is then picked up by an internet aggregator or a television station (or worse, a cable network) and our work becomes their huge story. Look it up online and it’s easy to become a third-page hit on Google for a story that you broke.
Also, yes, it’s true that we walk a weird obstacle course of telling people the things that they need to know and driving the traffic that keeps the lights on so we can keep telling people the things they need to know.
Oliver was absolutely right in saying that the best thing people can do to support better journalism is to appreciate and pay for the journalism you have now. “You get what you pay for” is true. Pay for a video of baby goats in pajamas over assessments of what’s happening with your taxes and it makes it really easy for more people to see if you’d also click on baby goats in birthday hats but less likely to see if you care about another municipal issue that might really matter.
But ideally, we want to give you both what you need and what you want.
What we don’t want to give you is a word that people use way too much: Clickbait. And the people who are overusing the word are not just readers. They are in our newsrooms, too.
You see, “clickbait” is awful, and we all know that. It’s that social media thing that sounds guilty-pleasure fantastic, like “The 21 Worst Celebrity Facelifts ... and Number 8 Will Shock You!”
And then, after you roll your eyes and know you are going to fall down a rabbit hole of self-loathing, you still click on it because you need to see that eighth one, but there are three clicks to each of the entries, so it’s 24 clicks before you realize you have no idea who this D-list wannabe even is.
That is not what happens here. Not ever. I swear. What we do is try to balance the local events and intrigues you can’t get from anyone but us with the state, national and world that you need, both in print and online.
We want you to have options. We want you to have choices. We want you to be entertained. More than anything, we want you to be informed.
Journalism is morphing around us all the time as technology — and how people use technology — changes at the speed of imagination. If pizza delivery changed as quickly as news delivery, you would order a pepperoni with extra cheese from your local shop, but when it arrived, it would be a freeze-dried pellet teleported from the moon.
On Monday, Vanity Fair crowed about Oliver’s piece, lauding him for “destroying clickbait.”
I don’t take issue with Oliver’s piece. He took an honest look at how all of us in news are reacting to the changes and gave us real cautions about what we have to take into account as we move forward.
What I do take issue with is news agencies and reporters who further the dialogue that the things we do, whether by offering stories people are interested in or by marketing stories in ways that help us navigate a changing business model, are clickbait. They aren’t. Pure and simple.
We need to remind people that you get what you pay for, and sometimes we aren’t asking for money. We’re asking you to pay with engagement. The coin of the realm is what makes you come to us to find out what is happening. And yes, when it comes to the website, that’s clicks, because the industry has evolved beyond boys standing on the street corner, shouting the headlines and asking for nickels.
We want to keep telling you what is happening at the courthouse, what is happening with your school board, what is up with the governor and the coming election and how a major thing that’s happening in the world can and should matter to you in your little corner. We just need your help to get it done.