August 8, 2016 Last Updated 8:37 am

John Oliver skewers tronc in segment on the need for a healthy newspaper industry

The publishing philosophy being espoused by the new ownership of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and other daily newspapers, ends up being the biggest source of laughs

It used to be the one of the scariest words a businessman or politician could hear is someone saying “there’s some guy outside from 60 Minutes who wants to talk to you.”

I imagine that if Tribune Publishing chairman Michael Ferro heard last week that his company would be at the center of a segment on journalism on the show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver he might have felt the same way. In fact, he probably could guess that one of the things his company would have been ridiculed for is its name change – it is now called tronc. The jokes were going to be too easy.


John Oliver did not disappoint.

After lamenting the problems at today’s metro newspapers, and then pointing out the absurd “digital-first” clichés being used by newspaper executives to cover-up the fact that their strategy is simply to downsize staffs and reduce home delivery costs, Oliver got around to talking about Tribune Publishing. He started with the company’s former older, Sam Zell, a man who had no clue what he was doing, but after driving the company into bankruptcy finally sold out.

But it was the change of name to tronc and its promotional video that got the most laughs.

In the end, however, the segment on journalism was not exactly satisfying. Starting with the premise that society needs newspapers, that many other media outlets, and John Oliver’s show itself, often quoted news that originated at a newspaper, the segment moved on to show how many newspapers are compromised by conflicts of interest due to ownership, or just plain crazy ownership.

Of course, that is actually the state of the industry today. Too few newspapers are profitable, and too many newspapers are being managed in ways that can provide plenty of material for comedians.

Here is the segment from Sunday’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver:

Here is what some others had to say about the segment:

The Coverage:

The Wrap, Brian Flood:

Oliver noted that the digital-first strategy of many modern newspaper companies has led to clickbait-style news and slipped in a few jabs at Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson, now the owner of Vegas’ largest newspaper, as well as to Tribune Publishing’s new name, Tronc.

“Tronc. They have chosen to call themselves tronc,” Oliver said. “The sound of a stack of print newspapers being thrown into a dumpster.”

The Boston Globe, Matthew Gilbert:

In a rich spoof on the “Spotlight” movie, Oliver gives us a newsroom featuring Jason Sudeikis, Bobby Cannavale, and Rose Byrne. Cannavale wants to break a story about corruption at City Hall, but the editors aren’t excited.

“Yeah, I’m just not sure what kind of clicks we’re gonna get on that,” Sudeikis says.

The story behind the ‘Spotlight’ movie

“I’ve got a thing about a cat that looks like a raccoon, or it could be a raccoon that looks like a cat,” Byrne says.

“Now we’re talking,” Sudeikis says. “That’s great.”

Fortune, Tom Huddleston, Jr.:

Oliver noted that “stupid shows like ours lean heavily on local papers. In fact, whenever this show is mistakenly called ‘journalism,’ it is a slap in the face to the actual journalists whose work we rely on.” The comedian pointed specifically to a popular segment Last Week Tonight ran two years ago on state lotteries, which relied heavily on the work of The Oregonian newspaper reporter Harry Esteve. Oliver eventually pointed out that The Oregonian‘s publisher, Advance Publications, later put the newspaper through a major reorganization aimed at making it “a digital-first” publication, while cutting roughly 22% of the newsroom staff, including Esteve…

…At some point, Oliver went on, people will need to be willing to pay for the news in order to get quality journalism that performs the democratic duty of holding accountable those who are in power—from politicians to CEOs. Otherwise, Oliver continued, future movies about journalism will look less like Spotlight and more like a trailer Last Week Tonight aired for a fake movie in which actor Bobby Cannavale plays a disheveled and disheartened newspaper reporter who is blocked from investigating local political corruption by editors (played by actors Jason Sudeikis and Brian Doyle Murray) who are so hungry for web traffic that they prefer fluffy click-bait—like “a raccoon that looks like a cat”—over substantial journalism.

Newspaper Association of America, David Chavern:

Last night John Oliver decided to take on local newspaper journalism. I actually loved how the piece starts. In particular, he strongly emphasized the point that “media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.” He also really makes the case for the power and importance of local journalism to everyone.

However, other than encouraging people to “pay for” more news, he doesn’t offer any answers. More particularly, he spends most of the piece making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out. Whatever you think of the name “tronc” and that company’s announced growth strategy, 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.

The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan:

He (David Chavern) wrote that Oliver’s “making fun of experiments and pining away for days when classified ads and near-monopolistic positions in local ad markets funded journalism is pointless and ultimately harmful.”

Actually, no. What Oliver did was precisely nail everything that’s been happening in the industry that Chavern represents: The shrinking staffs, the abandonment of important beats, the love of click bait over substance, the deadly loss of ad revenue, the truly bad ideas that have come to the surface out of desperation, the persistent failures to serve the reading public.

Oliver — who is, after all, in the comedy business — did indeed make fun of Tronc, the renamed Tribune Co., whose incomprehensible corporate jargon thoroughly deserves the drubbing it’s been getting in recent months. And he took some well-deserved shots at media’s addiction to content that generates digital traffic, particularly ever-weirder stories about cats. And Oliver’s final sequence was a brilliant send-up of the movie “Spotlight” as it would be in the new newspaper environment.

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