In an interview with the New York Times’ incoming publisher A.G. Sulzberger, New Yorker editor David Remnick says that he has it on good authority that the Washington Post is studying what would happen, in business terms, if the “Trump bump” is reversible. “Will there be a slackening of audience when the anxiety level lowers?” Mr. Remnick asks.
Mr. Sulzberger replied that Trump is “front-of-mind to many people. But Trump is actually part of a broader story, which is the rise of global populism.” I get the impression that he believes those kinds of stories, including the paper’s blockbusters on sexual harassment, will take up the slack. He will have his work cut out for him.
Under the headline “Sell the New York Times. Now.,” Politico’s Jack Shafer opines that “A.G. needs to worry about those digital subscribers evaporating when Trump moves out of the White House. Either that or find a way to engineer his 2020 re-election!”
The irony is that while journalism has never ranked lower in people’s esteem, readership and viewership are at record levels. That’s because people don’t seem to care whether what they read and view is accurate and unbiased as long as it supports their love or hate of our president. Mass hysteria is the rule of the day, and the media are gleefully and profitably feeding it.
What’s missing are the vast array of opinions and options in between. That’s what journalism has traditionally done — explain and dissect all the nuances of an issue so readers and viewers can make a more informed choice. But there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite these days for this quaint idea.
So here’s the state of journalism today, I as a journalist am sorry to report: Real news is when people agree with it and fake news is when they don’t. People want to consume anything and everything that supports their views.
And the system is rigged to support that objective. The more people click on something the more money the websites make, and nobody is better at giving people what they want than Google and Facebook. The more outrageous the information, the more people with similar views turn to them.
But what the Washington Post editors are rightly concerned about is when they don’t have Trump to send people into fits of apoplexy or ecstasy. Readership and viewership will fall dramatically, and the media’s credibility for pandering to these excesses might never recover.
Right now the media are riding high. The Washington Post, under the new ownership of Jeff Bezos, had its second profitable year in a row and doubled its digital subscriptions. And at the “failing” (Trump’s words, not mine) New York Times, digital subs are 2.5 million against a total circulation of 3.5 million. The Times company said it was on track to reach its goal of doubling its total digital revenue to $800 million by 2020, up from half that number in 2014.
And CNN posted its highest ratings on record, both in the key news demo of 25-54 and in total viewers. CNN closed out 2017 ranking No. 7 among all cable networks in total viewers — the first time it has ranked in the top 10 since 1995, the network said. On the other side of the spectrum, Fox News finished the year as the most watched basic cable network in both prime time (2.424 million viewers) and total day (1.500 million) for a second consecutive year. In total viewers, 2017 was FNC’s most watched year in its history.
Stephen Colbert has been lighting up late-night ratings with his anti-Trump jokes, and he cleared the way for the other late-nighters to follow suit. Colbert has now claimed the overall ratings lead, and the perennial ratings leader, Jimmy Fallon, has seen his ratings sink by 20%, although he still leads among the 25-54 set, the group that advertisers most crave.
What’s different about the current media landscape is that the traditional division between church and state has largely disappeared. In the old days, the editorial side and the business side clashed when news or feature stories maligned an important advertiser, causing a major loss of revenue.
But nowadays print media continue to lose advertisers at a steady pace, so there are far fewer advertisers to alienate. With subscription revenue, especially on the digital side, dominating, both editorial and ad sales are on the same page, united in their quest to attract as many paying readers and viewers as possible. And Trump has been the godsend the media so desperately needs to shore up revenues.
So what happens when the media don’t have Trump to kick around anymore? With nobody on the scene to infuriate and enthrall them, readers and viewers will be even more dependent on Google and Facebook to titillate their prejudices — or will the media encourage their own reporters to fulfill those fantasies in other even more harmful ways?
Rance Crain is the former president of Crain Communicatons and former editor-in-chief of both Advertising Age and Crain’s New York Business. In 1982 he created Electronic Media, a trade magazine that, in 2003, he renamed TVWeek. In 2015 TVWeek was sold to Dexter Canfield Media Inc. In July 2017, Mr. Crain sold his interest in Crain Communications to his brother, Keith Crain. The company had been started by their father in 1916.