Your Weekend Reader for Feb. 24-25

by | Feb 24, 2024 | Weekend Reader | 1 comment

It’s the last weekend in February and the sun is shining, birds are singing, daffodils have bloomed — and pollen is in the air. OK, you can’t have everything. And am I the only one who views these unusually warm February days with a tiny twinge of foreboding, and a little bit of guilt? Discuss amongst yourselves. In the meantime, let’s see what’s in the news this week.

I’m interested in journalism, as I hope you have gathered reading the Weekend Reader over the last couple of years, but I also have more than a passing interest in comedy. So this new piece from Harvard’s Nieman Lab about the intersection of politics and comedy caught my eye; It’s an interview with one of the authors of a new academic paper from researchers in Belgium and Sweden who took a long look at three satirical news shows, including “Last Week Tonight,” which started its new season last weekend.

To quote the Nieman Lab’s story:

“Comedy in this case should not be seen as a pejorative obstacle to ‘real’ journalism, but as an expansion of journalistic role performances more in tune with contemporary interpretations of journalisms in the plural,” the study’s authors write.

“These findings empirically strengthen the claim that so-called ’infotainment’ genres are not a deterioration of journalistic quality, but that they play an effective role in ‘inform[ing] citizens about politics and eventually engaging them democratically,’” they add.

The study is particularly timely given the reaction to the return (even if it’s just once a week) of Jon Stewart as the host of “The Daily Show,” the motherlode where “Last Week Tonight” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” among others, were formed. As Stewart noted in his second show back last Monday, his return drew some nasty reviews (some from unexpected sources) — which he then turned into a masterful dissection of Tucker Carlson’s marshmallow interview with Vladimir Putin.

Tom Jones, the media writer for the Poynter Institute, wrote this week about Monday’s performance by Stewart, and you can watch Stewart in action ripping into Carlson here.

One other note about the intersection of journalism and comedy: Done properly, both require substantial rewriting and editing. To that end, here’s a fascinating piece by The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman in which he traces how Taylor Tomlinson reworked her closing bit for her latest Netfilx special, “Have It All.” It turns out that having the right word in exactly the right place makes a big difference, as Tomlinson — who appeared in Corvallis in 2019 on her rise to stardom — vividly demonstrates.

The Nieman Lab also has a piece arguing it’s probably incorrect to say that believers in conspiracy theories tumble down “rabbit holes” — more likely, researchers say, it’s a more gradual descent, more like a rabbit burrow. The implication, they say, is that it might be easier than first thought for people to change their minds about conspiracy theories — a potential nugget of good news.

In the meantime, all 25 of the largest U.S. newspapers suffered drops in their print circulation over the six months ending in September 2023, as Aisha Majid reports for the PressGazette. But, as Majid notes, several of those newspapers — most notably, perhaps, The New York Times, are figuring out ways to drive digital subscriptions. The only Lee Enterprises paper on the PressGazette list, The Buffalo News, had the largest percentage loss in print circulation of any of the top 25 papers, a dip of 32%. And another Lee paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, apparently has fallen out of the top 25 entirely, according to the PressGazette list. Unless that’s a mistake, that means that the print circulation of the Post-Dispatch has dropped by some 14,000 over the last two years. Lee, as you know, owns the papers in Albany and Corvallis.

Meanwhile, Gannett — which owns the papers in Salem and Eugene — announced this week that it lost nearly $23 million in its last quarter, but increased its digital revenue and hopes to break even by the end of next year. The company also says that it plans to invest heavily in “rebooting” its smallest newsrooms, which presumably might include Salem and Eugene. Many unionized workers at Gannett newspapers are skeptical of the company’s commitment to local journalism, and I think that’s warranted — the company will have to do a lot of “rebooting” to repair the damage its cost-cutting has done in Eugene, at one time one of the nation’s finest small newspapers.

It’s been a rough start for the new director of the embattled Oregon Health Authority: On Friday, Dr. Sejal Hathi was grilled by members of the state’s Task Force on Alcohol Pricing and Addiction Services. Task force members were justifiably curious about the agency’s failure in 2021 to publish a taxpayer-funded report concluding that an increase in the beer and wine tax would do little to reduce excessive drinking. At the time, the agency was working on a proposal to, well, raise the beer and wine tax to raise money for addiction services. That proposal apparently died in 2022, and the task force is due in September to issue recommendations about the funding of addiction treatment and prevention programs and whether to hike taxes on beer and wine. According to Ben Botkin’s account of the Friday hearing in the Oregon Capital Chronicle, Hathi — who’s only been in the job for a few weeks — acquitted herself reasonably well. The Oregonian/OregonLive first broke the story about the report.

Opponents of Donald Trump like to portray him as an agent of chaos — a candidate who will break the system, even if it means a miserable time for everyone (except, of course, rich people and corporations). But, as Derek Thompson explains in this new article in The Atlantic, an increasing number of American voters are embracing the need for chaos right now.

It occurs to me that this edition doesn’t have a lot of good news in it. So let me leave you with these two news nuggets:

Your Weekend Reader correctly predicted that the Oregon State women’s basketball team would crack the national top 10 after last week’s stunning victory over UCLA. The Beavers, now No. 9, took care of business with a win on the road Friday against Washington State — and if the rest of the pieces fall into place, next Thursday’s game at home against Stanford could be for first place in the Pac-12.

And the new baby black rhino at the Oregon Zoo — born on Dec. 4 — now has a name; “Tamu,” which means “sweet” in Swahili. Tamu weighed about 100 pounds at birth and now clocks in at about 250 pounds.

That’s it for this weekend. Let’s gather here next weekend to chat about the weather — the forecast says it should be rainy, maybe even with a touch of snow. That’s more like it.

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