Last Friday, The New York Times published the sort of story we’ve become quite familiar with — a blockbuster about Donald Trump. Times reporter Katie Benner revealed that, during Trump’s final days as president, he’d considered removing the acting attorney general as part of a plot to overturn the election results in Georgia.
For the past five years, such reporting has been very, very good for national news organizations. Trump outrage has provided elite newspapers, cable news stations and other prominent outlets with a jolt they hadn’t seen since the internet began eating away at their audience and revenue several decades earlier. But now it’s coming to an end.
The question is whether the Trump-era boost can outlast Trump.
In an interview with the public radio program “On The Media” over the weekend, co-host Brooke Gladstone asked McKay Coppins of The Atlantic — a news organization that has done especially well during the Trump years — if “Trump was good for the journalism business or bad?”
Coppins’ answer: “Well, from a bottom-line perspective, almost certainly good.”
The numbers tell quite a story. Consider The Times and The Washington Post, the two national newspapers that became most closely associated with covering the chaos and corruption of the Trump presidency. Between early 2017 and November 2020, The Times’ digital circulation grew from about 2 million to more than 7 million; 4.7 million are paying for the core news product, with the rest signed up for cheaper extras such as the crossword puzzle and the cooking app.
Growth has been equally impressive at The Post — from perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016, according to an estimate by the newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor, to 1 million at the end of 2017, to 3 million in November 2020, Axios reported.
Or consider cable news, which has experienced an enormous upsurge in audience throughout the Trump years. Figures compiled by Heidi Legg, a journalist and a research fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, show that the combined prime-time audience of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News rose from about 3.1 million in 2015 to nearly 7.2 million in 2020, with the Trump-friendly Fox far ahead of the pack for most of that period.
In a similar vein, it’s instructive to look at what happened last February after NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly conducted a contentious interview with Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who falsely claimed that Kelly had broken ground rules and angrily brought the proceedings to an abrupt end. The Post’s Erik Wemple reported that donations to NPR and member stations soared immediately afterward, though no numbers were available.
With Trump giving way to President Joe Biden, a far more low-key and disciplined politician, many journalists are breathing a massive sigh of relief as they contemplate returning to something like a normal life. But will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?
There are reasons for hope. Following the November election, CNN — the highest quality of the three cable outlets, flawed though it is by the same talk-show mentality as its competitors — moved solidly into first place following years of ratings dominance by Fox News. And there are signs that it may stay there.
As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter, only a portion of the Fox audience has gravitated to the even Trumpier outlets Newsmax and OANN. More have given up on cable news altogether, most likely shifting to entertainment programming. If a larger share of the viewing public is watching CNN and its liberal counterpart, MSNBC, then that’s a boost for factual information.
Moreover, when Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016, the public was still getting used to the idea that everything on the internet wasn’t free. Five years later, we are becoming accustomed to paying not just for news but for video services like Netflix and music apps like Spotify. Even with Biden slowing down the metabolism of the news cycle, media habits developed during the Trump years may be ingrained at this point. And it’s not as though there’s a shortage of crises to stay informed about, from COVID-19 and the economy to racial justice and the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Trumpist insurrection.
One last point: The Trump era may have been good for the business of journalism, at least on the national level (the local news crisis grows worse and worse). But it may not have been so good for the practice of journalism. In his interview with Brooke Gladstone, McKay Coppins spoke ruefully about how easy it was for reporters like him to gain a national following simply by trashing Trump.
“How do we move forward when you don’t have a president who’s shattering norms and breaking precedent and doing outlandish things every day?,” he asked, adding: “It’s really important that we not have our business models depend on that being the case. Because if they are, all of us are going to be pushed to insert artificial drama into every story we do, and that’s not good for anyone.”
The real story in Washington is dramatic enough. A Democratic president with razor-thin margins in Congress will attempt to govern while many of the most prominent members of the Republican opposition appear to favor authoritarianism over democracy — and who, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continue to spout lies about election fraud. Trump aside, we may be moving through the country’s most dangerous moment since the Civil War.
That ought to be enough to hold anyone’s interest — and to keep the revenues flowing so that we can pay for the journalism that we need.