Yes, Trump officials spied on reporters. But every president abuses the press.

Photo (cc) 2018 by Adam Fagen

The revelation last week that the Trump Justice Department had spied on three Washington Post reporters’ phone records barely caused a stir. But as much as I’d like to think that such behavior would shock the conscience, I can understand why the story failed to resonate. It was, after all, the sort of thing that all administrations do. To invoke a pandemic cliché, it was a sign that nature is healing.

Read the rest at GBH News.

The news about COVID is good and getting better. It’s time to celebrate.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Province of British Columbia

The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.

Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.

But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Why Jeff Bezos should rescue Tribune’s newspapers from Alden Global Capital

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

It’s going to take a miracle to save the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, New York’s Daily News and six other large-market dailies from the greedy clutches of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in the country.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Fun with numbers, media trust edition

Earlier this week, I wrote for GBH News about a study showing little support for the core principles of journalism. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab has done an exceptionally deep dive into the numbers and has concluded that they don’t say what the study’s authors claim.

Benton’s explanation is that the Media Insight Project took unambiguous support for certain journalistic verities and watered it down by pairing it with findings that showed a more dubious view of the press. Benton writes:

Its top-line finding — summarized by a [Washington] Post headline writer as “Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values” — is bogus. Or, at a minimum, unsupported by the methodology in use here. There is no reason to believe, based on this data, that Americans have somehow abandoned the basic values of democratic governance, or that we noble journalists are left to fight the lonely fight for accountability.

But Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, one of the organizations that sponsored the study, replies at the Columbia Journalism Review that Benton’s methodology is itself flawed:

Researchers caution against trying to draw conclusions from any one individual item without considering the full set.

We fear this is the mistake Josh has made.

My quick takeaway is that Benton gets the better of the dispute. But read both pieces and see what you think.

What the heck does the public want from journalism?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Neil Moralee

How can the news media attract an audience that’s skeptical of journalism’s most deeply ingrained principles? Well, consider two different treatments of the same story.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Tucker Carlson is a white supremacist. And he’s giving Fox viewers exactly what they want.

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

Not too long ago, Tucker Carlson would go on vacation — always long-planned, of course — whenever one of his rancid descents into racism and white supremacy made life momentarily uncomfortable for his overlords at Fox News. He’d disappear for a few days, come back once the heat had died down and resume his hate-mongering ways.

But that was before former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, before the insurrection of Jan. 6 and, most important, before Newsmax and One America News Network briefly put a scare into the Murdochs by showing that Fox’s audience, increasingly unmoored from reality, could no longer be taken for granted.

Thus we should have known that an uncontrite Carlson would be back at his perch Monday evening after enthusiastically endorsing “white replacement theory” the previous week. After all, Lachlan Murdoch, the heir to the throne, had defended Carlson earlier in the day in response to a letter from the Anti-Defamation League calling on Fox to fire its top-rated talk-show host.

“A full review of the guest interview indicates that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory,” Murdoch said in his letter to ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt. “As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: ‘White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.’”

This is how it works if you’re Tucker Carlson: You can express vile, unadorned racist views. And as long as you say the equivalent of “I’m not being racist,” you’re good to go. Or, rather, good to stay.

So what exactly happened last Thursday? Carlson popped up during the crossover from the 7 p.m. show to his own in order to banter with guest host Mark Steyn. Picking up on something Steyn had said earlier, Carlson excoriated Democrats for allowing immigrants into the country who would at some point be allowed to vote — thus diluting the votes of Americans who were already here.

“Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true,” Carlson said.

He then added the part that Lachlan Murdoch seems to think absolves him of racism: “Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no. This is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American guaranteed at birth is one man, one vote, and they are diluting it. No, they are not allowed to do it. Why are we putting up with this?”

This is, in fact, racism in its purest form: the belief that real Americans, defined by Carlson as people who were born here, have the right not to have to compete for political power with newcomers, and to be regarded as more worthy and more patriotic than those who immigrate here, become naturalized citizens and vote. Like, you know, Rupert Murdoch.

By the way, the aforementioned Steyn is a piece of work in his own right. A Canadian by way of the United Kingdom who once wrote dismissively of former Sen. Max Cleland’s devastating war injuries — the Georgia Democrat lost three limbs in Vietnam — Steyn came to Carlson’s defense in a post on his website.

Yet it wasn’t always sweetness and light between the two. In 2004, I wrote a profile of Steyn for The Boston Phoenix describing how he straddled the line between respectable conservatism and Ann Coulter-style gutter-dwelling. Steyn had criticized Carlson as a “conservative cutie” who had gone soft on the war in Iraq. So I called up Carlson, who had not yet begun his own descent into the intellectual abyss, and asked him what he thought.

“He’s kind of pompous,” Carlson said of Steyn. “He’s obviously smart, he can be quite witty. I mean, I agree with a lot of what he writes. But the problem with being a columnist for too long is that a) you tend to repeat yourself and b) you tend to forget that you need to marshal facts to support your opinions.”

But I digress. After all, this is about Carlson, who, no doubt charged up by Lachlan Murdoch’s endorsement, replayed his entire Thursday monologue to open his show on Monday and argued that he couldn’t possibly be racist because he believes the votes of Black people who were born in the U.S. are being diluted just as much as those of white people.

“Our leaders have no right to encourage foreigners to move to this country in order to change election results,” he said, and said this of Democrats: “Demographic replacement is their obsession because it’s their path to power.”

Not that any of this is new. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote about Carlson’s endorsement of white replacement theory back in 2018, after Carlson said that “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country.” That took place just a year after neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia — “very fine people,” as former President Donald Trump called them at the time — had chanted “Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!”

So what is to be done? Advertisers have, on occasion, pulled out of Carlson’s show and other Fox programs. But that has a limited effect, since Fox makes most of its money from fees paid by the cable companies. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On The Media,” “They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box.”

That, in turn, has led the progressive media-form group Free Press to propose that Congress pass a law mandating à la carte cable service so that customers wouldn’t be forced to subsidize Fox and its ilk. That sounds promising, and I certainly wouldn’t mind not having to pay for the various flavors of ESPN. But I’m sure that such a move would have unintended consequences. For instance, how many people would choose to pay for CNN? Flawed though it is, it’s indispensable when there’s breaking news.

As for Carlson, nothing will change until, suddenly, it does. He may be the most powerful right-wing figure in the country right now — an heir to Trump and a possible future presidential candidate. Yet he’s playing with explosives, stirring up the hatred and resentment of his viewers in a way that could lead to some extremely ugly consequences.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Beyond scale: Looking for hope amid the media’s ongoing meltdown

Recasting a media future. Photo (cc) 2007 by Goodwin Steel Castings.

Previously published at GBH News.

Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.

Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:

• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.

• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.

• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.

What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.

Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.

“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”

If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.

According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?

According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”

Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?

Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.

Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.

“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”

For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.

‘Atomic Cover-Up’ reveals a previously unseen story of human devastation

Previously published at GBH News.

The documentary “Atomic Cover-Up” begins on an oddly hopeful note. In December 1945, four months after the bombing of Nagasaki, Lt. Col. Daniel McGovern was leading a film crew through the rubble when he picked up the strains of “Silent Night.”

“I heard voices singing,” he says, adding that at first he thought he was imagining it. He wasn’t. He and the crew set up their equipment inside the cathedral where the voices were coming from and began filming. We see a priest and children singing.

“And I look out and see complete devastation,” McGovern says. “And hear the voices.” The singing continues as the camera pans across the ruins of a city that had been utterly destroyed by the second of two atomic bombs dropped by U.S. forces.

Written and directed by the journalist Greg Mitchell, the recently released “Atomic Cover-Up” is the culmination of a decades-long quest to release footage of the human suffering caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Mitchell himself put years into the effort, writing a book about it in 2011 whose subtitle refers to “the greatest movie never made.”

Well, now it’s been made, and the terrible images captured after the bombings — including color film seen for the first time — are a testament to the lives lost and ruined. It is the visual equivalent of John Hersey’s classic 1946 New Yorker article and book “Hiroshima.” (The 52-minute documentary can be seen online through Tuesday, March 30. Details are below.)

The story is told mainly by McGovern and Lt. Herbert Sussan, who died in 1985, possibly from exposure to radiation, and to whom the film is dedicated. They as well as Japanese filmmakers set about documenting the human suffering caused by the bombs only to have their work censored and suppressed.

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the leader of the American occupation, ordered the Japanese footage confiscated, the Japanese made a copy and hid it in a ceiling. “We knew that we risked a long sentence in a U.S. military prison,” says one of the filmmakers, Ito Sueo.

McGovern and Sussan, meanwhile, were blocked from releasing their footage because the U.S. military had classified it, preferring to show images that depicted the destruction of buildings but leaving out the price paid by the people on the ground — the overwhelming majority of them civilians, many of them women and children.

Sussan later worked for CBS and NBC, where he implored the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to help him get the footage released. He even tried to enlist the help of the president who ordered the bombings, Harry Truman. All of it was to no avail. Over time, though, the footage was declassified. In 1967, Japanese films seized by the U.S. were repatriated. And so began the long process of bringing these unsettling truths before the public.

For more than three-quarters of a century, we have debated whether it was necessary to use atomic weapons in order to bring about an end to the war in Japan. There’s crucial context that must be considered — atomic bombs had never been used before, so it was hard to imagine that the U.S. would hold back from unleashing a powerful new weapon in what was total war. The conventional bombing of Dresden, Germany, in February 1945 had claimed 25,000 lives. At the time, dropping atomic bombs on Japan must have seemed like just another ratcheting-up of the war effort.

Yet we soon knew better. More than 100,000 people were killed immediately in the two bombings, and nearly as many were injured. We learned about the horrors of radiation poisoning. And — let us hope — we learned that humankind can never use such weapons again.

Mitchell, who has long argued that the bombings were unnecessary, tells us toward the end of the film that U.S. military officials and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower himself believed that the Japanese would have surrendered in a matter of months even if atomic bombs hadn’t been used. Thus, in Mitchell’s view, we all bear moral responsibility for what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is much in “Atomic Cover-Up” that’s difficult to look at. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching scene is that of a teenage boy who is lying on his stomach, every bit of skin peeled off his back so that his muscles are fully exposed. We are told that he was kept alive in what was essentially a penicillin bath, and that doctors persisted with their efforts despite the boy’s pleas that he be allowed to die.

Yet that leads to a moment of grace as moving as the sounds of “Silent Night.” We later learn that the boy survived and, as an adult, became an anti-nuclear activist. There are very few moments in the film that transcend despair. As a viewer, I found myself holding on to such moments as a way to get through the rest of it.

Mitchell has brought to us a story that is both excruciating and of paramount importance. Everyone should see it. We have never come to terms with the horror of what was done in our name in August 1945. People of goodwill can differ over whether we did the right thing in order to bring a terrible war to its conclusion or if, instead, we committed unforgivable crimes against humanity.

What none of us can do is look away.

How to watch: “Atomic Cover-Up,” written and directed by Greg Mitchell, may be seen for two more days, today and on Tuesday, March 30, as part of the Cinejoy Virtual Film Festival, where it premiered on March 20. Click here to purchase tickets and view the film. Mitchell is working on plans for further distribution and asks that anyone interested send him an email; his contact information is here.

We’ve known for years that global warming could lead to a new ice age. Why is no one doing anything?

Photo (cc) 2015 by cheryl strahl

Previously published at WGBH News.

Call it a cascade of calamitous events.

According to scientists, a “cold blob” of water has formed south of Greenland. The blob’s origins can be traced to rapidly melting glaciers, which in turn is the consequence of global warming. The blob could impede the flow of the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water north. And if that happens, the temperature in Europe may drop steeply, hurricanes may become more intense, and sea levels on the East Coast of the United States may rise even more rapidly than they are already.

“We’re all wishing it’s not true,” Peter de Menocal, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The New York Times earlier this month. “Because if that happens, it’s just a monstrous change.”

A monstrous change indeed — and one that we’ve known about for decades. The possibility that climate change could flip and, in just a matter of years, plunge part of the world into a new ice age is something that has occasionally made its way into the media. Yet the world has done very little about it. Massive amounts of greenhouse gases are still being pumped into the atmosphere. The climate is getting warmer and weirder.

So let’s turn the wayback machine to January 1998. That’s when The Atlantic, known then as The Atlantic Monthly, published a cover story called “The Great Climate Flip-Flop” by William H. Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist based at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Calvin’s article made an indelible impression on me — so much so that I’ve been storing it somewhere in the back of my head for all these years. After the Times published its recent story on the cold blob, I dug up Calvin’s article from a library database so I could see how they compared. The match was chilling, so to speak.

“Of this much we’re sure: Global climate flip-flops have frequently happened in the past, and they’re likely to happen again,” Calvin wrote. “It’s also clear that sufficient global warming could trigger an abrupt cooling in at least two ways — by increasing high-latitude rainfall or by melting Greenland’s ice, both of which could put enough fresh water into the ocean surface to suppress flushing.” (“Flushing” is a reference to the process by which the Gulf Stream carries warm water to the north, sinks to the bottom of the ocean, and returns as cold water to the south.)

Calvin’s article is filled with frightening details, including evidence that natural global warming in millenia past triggered ice ages in exactly the same way he was warning us about. Of course, those previous warm spells were not accelerated by human activity. Calvin also suggested that the flip-flop would not be gradual; once under way, it could wreak its havoc in just a few years.

As for what would happen in the aftermath, Calvin foresaw starvation, a population crash, and powerful countries invading poorer ones in order to commandeer their food supplies. “The effects of an abrupt cold last for centuries,” he wrote. “They might not be the end of Homo sapiens — written knowledge and elementary education might well endure — but the world after such a population crash would certainly be full of despotic governments that hated their neighbors because of recent atrocities. Recovery would be very slow.”

Unfortunately, the effect Calvin’s article had on me did not extend to anyone with the power and influence to do something about it.

For instance, consider the reaction of the late Michael Kelly, who took over as The Atlantic’s editor about a year after Calvin’s story was published. Kelly threw a party at the magazine’s headquarters in Boston — can we agree that it never should have been moved to Washington? — and I brought up Calvin’s work, perhaps hoping that Kelly was as energized as I was by it and was planning to run some follow-ups.

“Interesting if true” is how I recall his semi-dismissive reaction. He was hardly alone, of course.

So now scientists are actually taking measurements of what’s happening with the Gulf Stream, and the Times is taking notice. Its story was accompanied by a vibrant multimedia treatment, but the message was muddled. Data show that Europe might actually get warmer rather than colder. Or maybe Europe will get colder, but that “might ultimately be muted or possibly canceled out by continued global heating.”

This is good, careful reporting, reflecting the work and words of scientists who are by nature cautious. And yet all of it seems insufficient given the cataclysmic events we may be facing.

The Times does manage to bring on the drama by quoting from a story it published in 1998, around the same time that Calvin’s article appeared in The Atlantic. That’s when the Times profiled Wallace S. Broecker, whom it described in its headline as the “Iconoclastic Guru Of The Climate Debate.”

“The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks,” Broecker said.

We should have listened to Broecker. We should have listened to Calvin. We now need to take drastic measures as quickly as possible. Let’s just hope that they don’t have to be quite as drastic as some of Calvin’s more extreme ideas, like bombing the fjords of Greenland to stop the flow of fresh water into the ocean.

Re-entering the Paris climate agreement is nice, and was a necessary first step. But it’s not going to do much to prevent a new ice age — or the unimaginable human suffering that would come with it.

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.