As Marine One lifted off from the South Lawn of the White House last Wednesday morning—carrying President Trump away for the final time—I let escape an involuntary sigh of relief.
At long last, Trump’s nativist leanings wouldn’t be in position to guide the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. What’s more, I relished the prospect of retiring the obligatory slides within strategy decks that address how clients should respond in case of a presidential tweetstorm. Goodbye to all that, I thought.
But a sense of foreboding loomed. The Trump Administration coincided with a welcome renaissance for many of America’s most venerable news organizations. At the same time, Americans became more engaged and more aware of current events. Civics went from relic to buzzword. More people voted in the 2020 election than ever before, including strong turnout from first-time voters—thanks to easier voting procedures for sure—but also driven by heightened awareness via blanket media coverage.
All of this civic engagement was—and is—extremely positive. What’s more, I believe these trends afforded members of our industry the opportunity to shine and be truly indispensable.
I question, however, how enduring these shifts really are. Were they overly dependent on the daily drumbeat of bombast and braggadocio that emanated from the West Wing under President Trump? I’m concerned that our progress rests on a flimsy foundation.
It’s nearly impossible to overlook how sharp of a turn the media landscape took after Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. At that time, many of the most storied media organizations had fallen on hard times as they grappled with the loss of ad dollars and sought to evolve their products and business models. Some of my first and most lasting professional memories happened to come from those tough times. Namely, in 2009, I landed a summer internship in editorial at Conde Nast Portfolio—a business monthly with a star-studded masthead—only for the magazine to shut down just prior to my joining, which changed my path.
Digitally native publications, meanwhile, were having a moment, awash in venture capital funding and fragmenting the landscape while repeatedly poaching star journalists from established publications. It all felt like economic upheaval at the time—some might even say “creative destruction”—and I certainly worried about the future of the PR industry as part of this.
Then, Trump’s first Republican primary debate broke all previous ratings records for debates, ranking at the time as the ninth-most viewed cable program ever. A “Trump Bump” occurred within news media. Subscriptions to top outlets boomed and the New York Times even wrote, “[t]here is little doubt that Donald J. Trump’s presidency has helped lift The Times’s subscription business”.
Similar uplift occurred in TV as cable news ratings skyrocketed despite cord-cutting, and new entrants such as Newsmax TV and One America News Network established a foothold on the right side of the aisle that previously was the exclusive domain of Fox News. At the same time, top talent followed media consumption trends by flocking back to legacy outlets.
Trump’s significance to the media business is also difficult to overstate. The New York Times’ concession that the Trump Administration helped drive subscriptions is troubling given how central subscriptions have become to the company. Today, the New York Times earns between double and triple from readers what it earns from advertisers. You heard that right – it’s from their latest earnings release. Columbia Journalism Review also reported that in 2018, “Trump” was the fourth most-commonly used word in the New York Times for the entire year and lamented the “campaign-level attention on Trump for four years straight now.”
Given the doubling down on subscriptions happening broadly in media, and the role of Trump in subscription growth, it’s easy to worry that his departure could have more serious business implications today than it would have in the more ad supported days of 2015. Twitter, for example, had previously struggled to continue its early growth trajectory, but it then became President Trump’s preferred platform. One estimate suggested at the time that Trump was worth $2 billion to Twitter as it suddenly righted its financial path. Recently, the company lost $5 billion from its market cap when it banned Trump permanently.
Finally, Trump’s own media worldview had an effect that swung toward legacy outlets during his presidency. His open hostility toward the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and even The Atlantic undoubtedly served as a form of advertising for them.
As we thankfully move on from the chaos that characterized the news cycle over the past five years—when the president’s name would inevitably surface multiple times on corporate earnings calls—I can’t help but wonder if the positive forces at play today are too closely hitched to Trump. Could less frequent “must-read” or “must-watch” stories lead to less consumption of news? Could less consumption of news mean less engagement, and less voting? I tend to believe the answer to these questions is “yes,” and that headwinds in media could carry over to the PR industry.
A colleague remarked to me that for the first time in a very long time, she had to scroll on most sites to find “Trump.” She was not being wistful. Still, I hope that as rage-reading (and viewing) wanes, there’s a thoughtful plan in place for the Fourth Estate to continue to prosper and draw subscriptions after the collective Trump caffeine high wears off.
Thankfully, given all the talent that entered top news organizations in recent years, I do think the media is well-positioned—especially relative to its position in 2015—to fortify the foundation of progress now that Trump has lost the ability to drive the entire country to the TV with a single tweet. But the model might again have to evolve significantly, and no matter how things play out, it seems like a safe bet that 2021 will bring a new kind of post-Trump reckoning to the media landscape.
Roger Sauerhaft is a senior vice president at Sloane & Company, focusing on corporate communications and issues management.