It’s hard not to appreciate the irony that Donald Trump’s war against the media has resulted in one of the most sizable boosts to the news industry in over a decade.
In the wake of the 2016 election, millions of Americans, horrified by the level of misinformation and fake news that had proliferated online, began opening up their wallets and actually subscribing to newspapers. For the first time since the invention of the internet, consumers considered it their civic duty to pay for digital news, and this led to what many within the industry refer to as the “Trump Bump.”
According to ProPublica president Richard Tofel, the investigative nonprofit saw donations “running at about 10 times the rate that we’re used to” in the days following the election. National newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post experienced substantial jumps in subscriptions, with the Times reporting a 10-fold year-over-year increase. Publications ranging from The Atlantic to Mother Jones to the LA Times all claimed to see subscription boosts. Even smaller publications received a lift; Ben Cohen, the editor of a small progressive opinion site called The Daily Banter, told me that his membership program ticked up considerably after he wrote a post-election screed promising to hold Trump to account.
The Trump Bump didn’t just extend to paid subscriptions; it also led to a prolonged increase in traffic and ratings for political news content. In 2017, a non-election year that would typically see less interest in political news, analytics firm Parse.ly found that, “at the individual story level, readers are paying more attention to political news than any other topic, on average.” For the first time in MSNBC’s history, its prime time programming began beating Fox News in several key demos, with Rachel Maddow’s show touting its position as the №1 cable news program in the coveted 25–54 demo.
The Trump Bump was so substantial that, for the first time in decades, the news media as a whole saw an improvement to its favorability ratings. For about as long as I can remember, Americans have held an increasingly cynical view toward the “mainstream media,” with conservatives accusing it of liberal bias and progressives claiming that journalists, in an effort to play to “both sides,” are too susceptible to Republican spin. But Poynter’s 2018 Media Trust Survey found a five-point year-over-year increase for Americans who said they trust the media. Gallup also reported a similar lift; between 2016 and 2018, trust in media jumped from a paltry 32 percent of Americans to a respectable 45 percent.
But while the Trump Bump was a very real phenomenon, its positive effect on media revenue was limited, and in some respects it’s actually hurt news outlets, especially those that rely predominantly on programmatic advertising.
Let’s start with paid subscriptions. While Trump’s election spurred many to open up their wallets for the first time to pay for digital news, this enthusiasm was relatively short lived. In first quarter of 2017, The New York Times saw its subscriber numbers grow by more than 300,000, but by the very next quarter it dropped to a much smaller 100,000, and by the second quarter of 2018 it was down to just over 60,000. In fact, by mid-2017, most of the publishers that reported an initial Trump Bump admitted that the growth had pretty much leveled off.
What’s more, the vast majority of the subscription-reliant newspapers didn’t see any measurable spike at all. The Wall Street Journal performed a recent analysis that found that local and regional newspapers have struggled to convert their online readership into paying subscribers. While national outlets like the Times and WSJ were able to convert as much as 4 percent of their monthly visitors into subscribers, most local outlets saw conversion rates that were less than 1 percent. It appears news consumers’ sense of civic duty didn’t extend to their local newspapers.
What about the increased web traffic caused by the heightened interest in political news? Surely that’s delivering advertising revenue to publishers?
Not really. Brands have grown increasingly sensitive about where their ads appear, especially after activists started alerting them to programmatic ads that had been placed next to unsavory content. The Twitter account Sleeping Giants, for instance, regularly performs screen captures of programmatic ads on the far-right news site Breitbart and tweets those screen captures at the brands that appear on the site. As a result, thousands of companies have manually removed Breitbart from their ad buys.
But this increased awareness has had downstream effects, and brands have become more circumspect in where they place their ads. In 2017, Digiday reported that many agencies were now blocking certain Trump-related keywords from their buys, meaning that an article about, say, the administration’s immigration policies would attract fewer ad bidders, driving down the rates. In some cases, advertisers are taking extra precaution by excluding news content entirely from their ad buys. In a December 2017 survey of brand marketing executives, 76 percent told Digiday that “they explicitly avoid advertising next to Trump-related content.”
So while political news traffic is up, digital publishers are having a difficult time converting that traffic into advertising and subscription revenue. Hence why you’re seeing media conglomerates ditching their news titles while doubling down on lifestyle content. It’s also why news organizations are launching and building out consumer-focused ecommerce verticals. As it turns out, Donald Trump is good at spurring mass outrage, but channeling that outrage into actual revenue is another matter entirely.