Given that we’re coming up on the end of the Trump era, it’s completely reasonable to wonder what effects the incoming administration might have on our newsrooms. To put it bluntly: what the hell is the press going to talk about once their favorite villain is gone?
Three years ago—three years ago to the day, in fact—O’Dwyer’s reported that the tumultuous Trump presidency appeared to be driving a comeback in paid news subscriptions. Pundits and columnists began referring to this phenomenon as the “Trump Bump”: Americans dismayed by the specter of a Trump White House were stricken with a newfound urgency to be informed and politically engaged, resulting in a surge in cable news network viewers, online news traffic and, notably, subscriptions at national broadsheet papers, particularly in the digital realm, reinvigorating readership at flagging publications we’d been told for years had one foot in the grave.
Fast-forward three years and this growth hasn’t ebbed. The New York Times in November reported that it now counts seven million subscribers, effectively double the number of paying readers the Gray Lady had when Trump assumed office. Six million of the Times’ subscribers are digital-only readers, meaning the publisher now brings in more revenue from its online offerings than from its print edition. The Washington Post now boasts almost three million digital subscribers, which accounts for a 50 percent year-over-year growth in the paper’s subscriptions business and more than three times the digital subscribers it had in 2016 (the Post’s site in November 2020 saw 113.9 million unique visitors, a 43 percent year-over-year increase). News Corp. flagship the Wall Street Journal, which underwent a digital reorganization shortly after Trump took office, topped two million digital subscribers at the beginning of the year and reported more than 2.35 million digital subscribers in November, more than double the 967,000 digital subscribers it claimed in pre-Trump 2016.
The conventional wisdom is that a Trump presidency is great for ratings. The press loves a disaster story—which is to say, we love a disaster story—and boy have the last four years provided plenty of material. CNN anchors fill entire newscasts grousing about him, but it isn’t a coincidence that the network also just witnessed the most-watched month in its 40 year history to become the number-one network in cable news for November as well as number-one in all of cable among the coveted 25-54 demo. The fact is, a President that supplies one crisis after another has been a boon for the news media.
But alas, all “good” things come to an end. Trump wasn’t wrong in Sept. when he tweeted that the “fake” media companies are “going to miss me, very badly!!!” Indeed, what are they going to talk about when the crisis casino shuts down? And most importantly, who’s going to listen?
Presumably, subscriptions will slow, clicks will disappear and ad budgets will wither. It’s not like the news media industry is in a great position anyway; the success stories above are exceptions to the rule. Newsrooms have been on shaky ground for years, lost in a sea of layoffs and buyouts as ad revenues continue to be siphoned by platforms like Google and Facebook. According to a June report by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, more than one in four of our nation’s newspapers—or about 2,155 publications—have disappeared since 2004. And simultaneously coinciding with Trump’s departure has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only hastened journalism’s demise, as companies in every sector financially impacted by the disaster scale back their advertising budgets. The fact is, newsrooms are shuttering at a faster rate than ever, even though the coronavirus crisis has, ironically, driven a spike in TV viewership and traffic to digital news websites. We’re consuming a lot of news. Many of us simply don’t want—or can’t afford—to pay for it.
So, what will the media do once Public Enemy No. 1 has left the building? How are they going to stave off the viewer fatigue that will inevitably set in once the networks start covering boring Joe Biden? Presumably, they’re going to have to find something else to talk about (lord knows they ignored plenty of worthwhile world events while covering Trump 24/7).
My guess is they’ll use their nonstop Trump coverage as a model to focus on other crises. Thankfully—for the media at least—the coronavirus provides a coverage springboard. Not only has COVID-19 been the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes, it’s also among the most covered news items in recent history. Arguably, the crisis presaged Trump’s downfall when, as O’Dwyer’s reported in March, COVID mentions in the news cycle surpassed Trump, a figure who’s consistently dominated media coverage since 2016.
My other guess is we’ll see a lot of action in the conservative media landscape, now that the political pendulum has swung the other way and conservative outlets effectively pick up the anti-establishment mantle that CNN has carried for the last four years. That opposition is going to be led by Fox News, of course, but it’s now joined by challenger alternative right-wing outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network, which have been building market share by surpassing Fox on the nutjob meter with a nonstop supply of conspiracy theories and pro-Trump content.
Finally, Trump isn’t going anywhere. He still wields enormous power online and is going to remain the central figure of the Republican party for the foreseeable future. There’s a good chance we’ll see a court case soon, given the legal battles that await Trump after he leaves the White House, which will inevitably be pitched as a Trial-of-the-Century event by the networks. And, of course, there’s the possibility of another Trump presidential run in 2024. So, I’m betting that Trump will be the gift that keeps on giving for at least the next several years. In the meantime, in other words, we can expect the same old story.