A report from Axios on the end of the Trump effect is getting a lot of attention. What I’m referring to is the enormous boost that the Trump presidency gave the national media, especially in 2020 and into January 2021, as we tried to absorb a presidential election ending in insurrection, a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a coming to terms with racial justice and police violence.
As I noted several months ago, news audiences were falling off as early as March. What’s notable about the Axios story is that the shrinkage has followed a pattern. Mainstream, relatively nonpartisan media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reuters experienced the lowest amount of deterioration, a relatively modest 18%. Liberal and progressive media such as Mother Jones and Raw Story were off by 27%. And right-wing media such as Newsmax and The Federalist dropped by 44%.
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There have been some complaints about methodology — especially the decision to label Mother Jones as “far left” but Fox News as merely “right-leaning.” Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, certainly has a legitimate complaint:
Still, the notion that quality news has suffered less than right-wing outlets promoting Trump’s Big Lie about his election defeat certainly has some merit. The mainstream media are far from perfect, but the journalism they practice is built to last.
Another point: What this really speaks to is the nationalization of the culture and the opportunity this moment might present. For the past five years, Donald Trump has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. This has coincided with the collapse of local news — a collapse that began around 2005, but that accelerated during the Trump years.
The decline of interest in national news documented by Axios ought to be seen as healthy. Quality local news outlets can take advantage of this moment to re-engage their communities. Of course, local newspapers owned by corporate chains will do no such thing. But the rising number of independent news projects are already finding ways of connecting with their audience.
What local news can offer is journalism that’s relevant to people’s everyday lives.