The post-Trump media slump extends well beyond cable news

Donald Trump in 2016. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

As Donald Trump prepared to leave office last January, a lot of us wondered if the “Trump effect” — the boost in viewership and readership that accompanied his train wreck of a presidency — would disappear with it.

As I wrote for GBH News in January, “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.”

Now some early returns are available and it seems that, yes indeed, media consumption is down substantially, tracking with the decline in presidential outrages, COVID infection rates and economic uncertainty. According to Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, cable news viewership has tanked, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But so has everything else.

The double-flip in cable viewership is especially striking. During the post-election period — the endless lies and futile court battles, culminating in the violent insurrection of Jan. 6 — CNN pulled out to a substantial lead over its rivals, Fox News and MSNBC, representing the first time in many years that Fox had been anything other than No. 1. Now, Farhi reports, ratings at CNN and MSNBC have cratered, putting Fox back in the lead — not because it’s gaining viewers but because it’s lost fewer of them.

Farhi writes:

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.

As Farhi notes, the post-Trump slump has affected broadcast news and newspapers as well. The New York Times and The Washington Post were especially prosperous during the Trump era, yet traffic to their websites is down substantially since Inauguration Day.

Tom Jones of Poynter puts it this way:

After four years of the Trump Show, maybe boring is a welcome feeling for media consumers. Maybe it’s a good thing to go a day or two or three not knowing exactly what the president said or did that day. Maybe after four years of stress, some people are taking a break from the news.

I thought I would do a spot-check of how widespread the decline in news consumption is and whether it extends down to the regional level. In order to do that, I used SimilarWeb, an open platform that provides some approximation of web traffic. My list comprised The New York Times, The Washington Post and four regional papers of varying sizes: The Boston Globe, The Berkshire Eagle, the Portland Press Herald and, just to get outside of New England, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. All of them are independently owned.

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In every instance, SimilarWeb reported that the papers’ February numbers were their lowest in six months. The Times dropped from 705 million total visits in November to 366 million in February. The Post hit peaks of 297 million in November and 294 in January before slumping to 178 million in February. (“Total visits” is a different measure from the industry standard of unique visitors per month, which is not available from SimilarWeb unless you pay extra.) The regional figures tell the same story:

  • The Boston Globe: 11.6 million total visits in January; 8.5 million in February.
  • The Berkshire Eagle: 680,000 total visits in January; 510,000 in February.
  • The Portland Press Herald: 2.5 million total visits in November, followed by a steady decline to 1.35 million in February.
  • The Star Tribune: 14.7 million total visits in November, sliding to 11.4 million in February.

Is there any good news in these numbers? Maybe not — but there is an opportunity. News organizations are no longer as obsessed as they once were with gross traffic numbers, since drive-by visitors can’t be monetized. The main reason that newspapers want to attract a wide audience is so that some small percentage can be converted into paying customers. And all of these papers have had some measure of success in signing up paid digital subscribers, the Times and the Post spectacularly so.

Of course, let’s hope that there are no news developments that will start driving media consumption once again. After a long lull, probably related to the pandemic, we’ve had two mass shootings in two weeks. It would be terrible for all of us if a return to gun violence is what it takes to offset the Trump slump. A further caveat: Presidential elections always drive news consumption. Maybe when we look at these numbers again a few months from now, we’ll see that what’s happening now isn’t that unusual.

The way to sign up and retain subscribers is by offering quality, essential journalism, not by publishing clickbait that might bring in a large audience for one story. But to sound a further note of caution, a decline in paid subscriptions would be a trailing indicator — an overall drop in web traffic shows up immediately, while non-renewals play out over many months.

This is a time when we’ll see whether publishers who are truly committed to building their business can work on strategies to attract new paid subscribers and keep the ones they’ve already got. The optimist in me says that readers who’ve already handed over their credit-card information are exactly the ones who understand that news doesn’t begin and end with Donald J. Trump.