Of all Donald Trump’s prophecies and predictions – that Mexico would pay for a border wall, that coronavirus would spontaneously disappear, that he would be easily reelected – at least one wasn’t entirely wrong.
“Newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there,” he augured in 2017, “because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.”
Barely two months into the post-Trump era, news outlets are indeed losing much of the audience and readership they gained during his chaotic presidency. In other words, journalism’s Trump bump may be giving way to a slump.
After a record-setting January, traffic to the nation’s most popular mainstream news sites, including The Washington Post, plummeted in February, according to the audience tracking firm ComScore. The top sites were also generally doing worse than in February of last year, when the pandemic became a major international news story.
The Post, for example, saw the number of unique visitors fall 26% from January to February, and 7% from a year ago. The New York Times lost 17% compared with January and 16% over last February.
The story is largely the same for cable and broadcast news. Audiences grew during the pandemic last spring and summer, remained high in the fall as Trump tried to fight his electoral defeat with false claims of voter fraud, and swelled in the first few weeks of 2021 when a mob attacked the Capitol and Trump became the first president in history to be impeached and acquitted twice.
Now that Joe Biden is in the White House and Trump has essentially disappeared from the news cycle, many of those viewers are drifting away.
The most deeply affected network is CNN. After surpassing rivals Fox News and MSNBC in January, the network has lost 45% of its prime-time audience in the past five weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research. MSNBC’s audience has dropped 26% in the same period. Fox News – the most Trump-friendly of the three networks in its prime-time opinion shows – has essentially regained its leading position by standing still; its ratings have fallen just 6% since the first weeks of the year. The cable networks declined to discuss their ratings outlook for this article.
It’s unlikely that media executives expected the furious demand for news in 2020 and early 2021 would last indefinitely. That period was one of the most momentous in living memory, encompassing the onset of a pandemic, the nearly instantaneous collapse of national and global economies, a wave of racial justice protests, and a U.S. presidential election that culminated in an insurrection and impeachment trial. All of it drove people to their TVs, laptops and phones in horror and fascination.
Since then, many economies have partially recovered, the rollout of coronavirus vaccines has raised hopes for an end to the pandemic, and Biden has governed in a more low-key fashion than his predecessor.
“The level of drama and tension throughout the country has dropped considerably,” said Howard Polskin, who tracks conservative and right-wing news sites through his website, TheRighting. He said he would be shocked if news consumption didn’t decline accordingly.
Yet news organizations plainly benefited from a “Trump effect” long before the pandemic set in.
In 2014, the year before Trump announced his candidacy, the three leading cable news networks collectively attracted an average of 2.8 million viewers a night during prime-time hours. By 2019, Trump’s third year in office, that number had nearly doubled to 5.3 million each night.
Trump’s rise was so closely linked to the news companies’ success that some accused the networks of enabling him – endlessly broadcasting his racism and sexism-tinged stump speeches in what amounted to free political advertising. CNN president Jeff Zucker expressed regrets late in the 2016 campaign about his network’s coverage but acknowledged later that it drew viewers. “We’ve seen that, anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away,” he said in 2018.
A handful of leading newspapers can likewise thank Trump, at least in part, for a sharp rise in digital subscriptions over the past five years. The New York Times began his term with 3 million such subscribers and ended it with 7.5 million. The Post tripled its subscriber base to more than 3 million during his administration.
Some smaller national news organizations benefited by enraging Trump, who routinely attacked the media as “the enemy of the people.” Vanity Fair picked up 13,000 new subscribers in 2016 after Trump tweeted an angry reaction to the magazine’s blistering review of his New York steakhouse. The Atlantic brought in a wave of new subscribers after Trump responded gleefully to layoffs at the magazine last May, and yet more subscribers in September after it reported that the president had called soldiers killed in combat “losers” and “suckers.”
The Trump bump mostly skipped regional news organizations and local newspapers, which continued to lose advertisers, audience and jobs during his presidency. Whatever growth they’ve experienced recently has come from providing sustained coverage of the coronavirus for their communities, said Rick Edmonds, media-business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education foundation.
But on the national scene, Trump’s various scandals and outbursts helped reporters build résumés, sell books, land lucrative commentary gigs and win awards. Journalists won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes for Trump-related stories between 2017 and 2020, including for investigations of Trump’s taxes, his campaign’s ties to Russia, his suspect charities, and his alleged hush-money payments to two women before the 2016 election.
The media’s obsession with all things Trump eventually developed a matryoshka doll quality. In 2018, Showtime released a four-part documentary “about the New York Times in the Trump era.” The Times had a TV critic review it.
The Times’s top editor, Dean Baquet, acknowledged in an interview that Trump has been good for the newspaper’s bottom line. But he said the Times produced blockbuster stories over the same period that had nothing to do with the president, such as a Pulitzer-winning investigation of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. And he portrayed the Trump bump as essentially healthy. “Our audiences grew in the last four years because people came to understand that independent and aggressive journalism is important to the democracy,” Baquet said. “And frankly the democracy was being challenged.”
There are still plenty of challenges (and plenty of news) in a post-Trump democracy, of course. But so far the Biden White House had not produced the daily Twitter outrages, hourly scoops and endless controversies that filled up newspaper columns and cable news panels until a few weeks go.
How to fill the void Trump left? Perhaps with more journalism, said Cameron Barr, The Post’s interim executive editor.
This newspaper is currently in the midst of the largest hiring spree in its history, with more than 1,000 journalists in its newsroom and plans to add 150 more employees. Barr said the expansion will generate more coverage of race and identity issues as well as business and international news, and that breaking-news hubs in Seoul and London will enable the newspaper to follow stories around-the-clock.
As for the White House: “We intend to cover this president as aggressively as we covered his predecessors,” Barr said.
Others would prefer that news organizations use the lull to reflect on their coverage during the Trump era – and learn from mistakes they may have made.
Andrew Tyndall, who has authored a newsletter tracking network news since 1987, said the last few years of constant news and massive audiences misled media companies into believing they could “appeal to everyone.” They could mix deep, thoughtful reporting with tabloid-style headlines about Trump’s latest eruption, and watch their numbers rise.
“Trump’s disappearance represents make-your-mind-up-time for the legacy media,” Tyndall said. “At heart, do they think of themselves as authoritative or tabloid? Joe Biden will not offer them the same get-out-of-jail-free card that allowed them to fudge the difference.”