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In the Age of Trump, Has Journalism Passed the Point of No Return?

Feb 6, 2018

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.

4 Comments

  1. “What happens when the media don’t have Trump to kick around anymore?” Simple: They’ll go back to writing about people and events that affect their daily lives, and that affect people around the world; things like poverty, lack of medical care, climate change, etc., etc., etc.. There hasn’t been any diminution of that news; it’s simply taken a back seat to whatever outrageous thing Trump or his supporters have done this day, this hour, this minute—and when he and they go away, or are diminished in power, that’s when important events take the fore.
    You wrote: “I as a journalist am sorry to report: Real news is when people agree with it and fake news is when they don’t.” If you actually were a journalist, you’d know that isn’t true. Facts continue to be facts, whether you or I agree with them or not. Simply calling something “fake news” doesn’t mean it is, much like calling something “real news” (or what we simply used to call “news”) doesn’t mean it isn’t.

  2. Fear not … El Trumpo is here to stay … I hear he plans to take over Puerto Rico as its dictator soon … he wants to take the island private and have the Isle of Trump …

  3. Your point is well taken: Real news is when people agree with it. Fake news is when they don’t. To answer one commenter’s criticism, you might have added the proviso: At least that is how the business is going as more and more people only hear what they want to hear – and read what confirms their biases. That means the middle ground of discussion is not as titillating and therefore as profitable for some news organizations. Result: further polarization.

  4. As a former journalist myself, I believe what we are seeing today is a transition rather than a train wreck. News media are trying to figure out how to adjust to major change and in some cases they are way off base. Their challenge is made more difficult by a long-term lack of vision and real leadership in a newspaper industry long made complacent by easy profits and market dominance.
    However, optimist that I am, I feel that the needs that made the media succeed–i.e., the need for credible, reliable information–are still very much in place and must eventually be met. The only question is how they are to be met. In my view, the answer is not to merely generate as many clicks as possible but to deliver substance after the clicks. Otherwise the audience will eventually wise up and quit clicking. Likewise, simply making up stories will fail too because in the final analysis those pseudo stories will be exposed for what they are and for what they are not. They will have no value and thus no audience. My point is that value is what will matter most. If the media have real value, they will have a real and sustainable role.
    I happen to think that most media today have real value. They help parents understand the schools to which they send their kids, they help politicians recognize and react to issues of public importance, they help executives keep up with business trends and sports fans follow their favorite teams. They help us decide how to vote, where to work, how to solve problems and a slew of other things that matter. They just have to figure out how to function on a sustained basis in a new world of media.
    Newspapers have made some bone-headed moves as they’ve attempted to adjust. They’ve begun providing less coverage for a higher price while giving away their most valuable asset, meaning content, to Internet competitors. They have jettisoned their most experienced, respected and popular journalists in a panicked effort to save money in the short run. They’ve catered to people who, face it, are never going to be serious news consumers. What they have too often ignored is their core constituency, meaning people who want and value good, credible, accurate and complete information. That group may not be as large in number as other media users but it is still a big, influential, well educated and affluent component of our society that advertisers want and need. Remember, ABC failed when it tried to combat Johnny Carson with Joey Bishop but if did fine when it showcased Ted Koppel to serve a more serious audience.
    Perhaps the silver lining in the dark cloud engulfing newspapers is the impending end of public ownership of newspapers. With any luck at all they will quit catering to Wall Street and start focusing on Main Street and perhaps even return to the days of local ownership by men and women who are interested in more than making a short-term profit. Journalists may work closer to the people for whom they write, which is long overdue. With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, newspapers will emerge stronger than ever as news “companies” complemented but not replaced by the new media of the Internet Age. After all, that is the usual pattern. New media almost never replace old media, they only complement them. Radio didn’t kill newspapers, television didn’t kill radio and home video didn’t kill movies.
    I am encouraged in my faith in newspapers by the fact that some of our most successful business leaders, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos, have bought newspapers in recent years and show no signs of regret. Newspapers, complete with ancillary components that use the Internet to expand their audiences, are still good businesses. It’s just that the people who run them have to be smarter and faster on their feet than was once the case. A newspaper publisher is no longer assured of a fat profit merely by turning on the lights each day. Forty-percent margins are no longer a certainty.
    Rance, in the decades I have known and worked with you I have always admired your optimism and especially your joyous enthusiasm. I hope you haven’t lost either. Keep in mind, if you will, that Donald Trump is a transitory creature in today’s chaotic times and he too shall pass as his words, ideas and accusations prove shallow and hollow. If a die-hard Republican such as you has found Trump’s substance lacking and his ideas vapid, others will reach similar conclusions. So don’t let him disillusion you to the point of no return. The fundamentals and principles in which you placed your trust for an entire highly successful career in journalism have not changed. To borrow the words of the late Adam Clayton Powell, keep the faith.

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