The Trump bump in the news media: commodifighting Trump

The commercial motives behind the media coverage of Trump remain unrevealed to the public. Business stimuli for the media to cover Trump’s every move contributed to a media environment favorable to Trumpism. Meantime, the media themselves became more and more politicized and contributed to the surge of polarization in society.

Everybody discusses how the media suffer. Let us discuss how they profit; at least some of them.

A lay witness might observe very confusing signals from the media market in recent years. On the one hand, the decline of newspapers and the general crisis of journalism are widely acknowledged. On the other hand, the role and the all-permeating presence of the media in social life seems to have grown exponentially, and the leading media likes to report strong readership and viewership figures.

The confusion is well-founded and reflects the real state of affairs. The industry is dying, but some media organizations are thriving. They are first and foremost the American mainstream media that found a way to capitalize on politics in 2016. They include not only leading TV news networks, such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, but even some newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, which have been showing outstanding results, too.

The success of the mainstream American media, that sent such mixed signals to the media industry, was linked to the Trump bump, the surge in readership numbers and viewership ratings based on the feverish interest of the public in Donald Trump that was spurred and exploited by the media.

***

Why have the media become so “obsessed with Trump”?[1]

The quick answer was given by Les Moonves, the chairman of CBS, at the beginning of the presidential campaign in February 2016, when he said that, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in…. This is fun”.[2]

Being preoccupied with the idea of exposing Trump, the media consciously afforded enormous exposure assets to him for free from the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign. In exchange, they received growth in audience attention and an increase in circulation and revenue. This is how and where the so-called Trump bump started in the media[3] (initially, ‘Trump bump’ was slang for the economic growth seen in some industries attributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory).

By March 2016, Trump had gained media coverage that was the equivalent of about $2 billion in advertising (Figure 1). By comparison, Hillary Clinton had earned about $746 million in free media at the time, and Bernie Sanders’ free media totaled about $321 million.[4]

Figure 1. Paid and earned media coverage of candidates at the beginning
of the election campaign (by March 2016).
Sources: mediaQuant, SMG Delta. By The New York Times.
[5]

Trump’s deeds and tweets were not only highly attractive but also sold very well. The period since the 2016 election has been extremely successful for the leading American media. Because of the Trump bump, the New Yorker, the Atlantic[6] and the Washington Post[7] doubled or tripled their subscriptions in the first year of Trump’s presidency.

In July 2018, the Washington Post’s vice-president of marketing, Miki Toliver King, presented a report showing a correlation between marketing efforts and subscription success (Figure 2). However, if we overlay the key events of Trump’s campaign and presidency onto the subscription growth curve, we will see another pattern of correlation, a more obvious one. It was not a ‘marketing bump’; it was the Trump bump.

Figure 2. Correlations between the growth of the Washington Post’s
digital subscriptions and marketing strategy or Trump-related events.
Source: World News Publishing Focus, WAN-IFRA[8]; Trump-related events are added.

The real symbol of the Trump bump is the New York Times. The Gray Lady made unprecedented progress during the first year of Trump’s presidency. At the beginning of the campaign, the New York Times had slightly over 1 million digital subscribers to its news products. The paper almost doubled this number by the time of Trump’s inauguration. As of December 2017, the New York Times had 2.2 million digital subscribers for its news product; by August 2020, this number had reached 4.4 million.[9] All these numbers set the world records for digital subscriptions to the news media product (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The New York Times: news product digital-only subscriptions (in thousands).
Source: The New York Times Company’s press releases[10]. It is also necessary
to take into account that marketing efforts, such as discounted offers, might have
impacted the dynamic of subscription, too.

Television benefited from the Trump bump as well. For CNN, 2016 was the most profitable year in the organization’s history.[11] Those shows and TV hosts that focused heavily on Trump received a ratings boost, among them Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow and Trevor Noah.[12] “Saturday Night Live” with Alec Baldwin as Trump increased its viewership 44% in the 2016–2017 season.[13] For political reporters, the daily White House press briefing has turned “into a career launching pad like it’s never been before.” As BuzzFeed News’ Steven Perlberg put it, “It’s a good time to be a reporter covering Trump if you like money and going on TV”.[14]

Donald Trump made the mainstream American media great again. An old saying among reporters goes ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ An appropriate contemporary version might be “If it’s Trump, it leads.” Columbia Journalism Review reported that even placing international stories in American outlets is getting harder – unless they directly involve Trump.[15]

The same goes for book publishing. In 2018, as noticed by Brian Stelter,[16] each book at the top of the New York Times best-seller list has had one thing in common: President Trump. Even children’s books fell to the Trump bump. Stephen Colbert’s children’s book Whose Boat Is This Boat?, which he made out of Trump’s post-Hurricane Florence comments, held №1 on the Amazon respective category for a while.[17]

The Trump bump also resulted in an admission surge[18] in journalism schools.[19] This fact particularly added to the illusion that the industry was on the ascent.

Few succeed, many fall

For many in the industry, the business reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post created an illusion that there is a magic recipe for digital transformation – you just need to find it. Many newspapers and online news outlets have been trying to introduce paywalls (frankly, they have not many other options left) in attempts to replicate the success of the New York Times, but all have been in vain.

The stark divide between the few successes and the majority failings quickly became evident. In December 2017, Mathew Ingram wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that, “A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats – some will be swamped.”[20] He explained this by stating that, “Just from a purely financial perspective, there are not going to be enough people who are willing to pay for subscriptions to multiple outlets.” The other reason proffered was that many local newspapers had lost “touch with their local markets after decades of chain ownership” and were not able to solicit support in the form of subscriptions from local communities.

It appeared that what the New York Times and other mainstream media were doing was a specific sort of business that could not be replicated in other conditions or at the local level.

***

In July 2019, Joshua Benton from NeimanLab attempted to analyze why digital subscription numbers for Los Angeles Times happened to be far below expectations despite the fact that the newspaper had “limitless” support from billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, LA’s richest resident who had bought Los Angeles Times in 2017.

Twenty years ago, in print, Los Angeles Times was a worthy rival to the east coast capitals’ papers. Benton drew up an interesting table which demonstrated that whilst the large metropolitan dailies were once comparably similar in terms of print circulation, their digital formats were drastically different: all bar the New York Times and the Washington Post, suffered dramatic falls. (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Source: Joshua Benton, NeimanLab[21]; Benton made a reservation
saying he was as generous as possible in interpreting some numbers, as they may include double-counted subscribers.

Benton tried to analyze Los Angeles Times’ marketing strategy to find an explanation for the disappointing numbers. But a glance at the table he posted suggests another answer for the metropolitan papers’ decline amid the New York Times and the Washington Post blossoming: too much local news, too little Trump. The chart best explains the correlation between business outcomes and engagement with the Trump bump. “A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats – some will be swamped”[22], indeed. As a matter of fact, only a few flagships have sailed mightily.

Media impact and impact on media

To those lucky few, the commodification of Trump appeared to be a game-changer. Historically, there have been no such political events quite so beneficial to the media, except for revolutions and wars. The value of this occurrence is particularly poignant because it is taking place amid the closing scenes of the media industry tragedy.

As Martin Gurri stated in The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, “Media people pumped the helium that elevated Donald Trump’s balloon, and they did so from naked self-interest” (Gurri, 2018, p. 361). Comedian Michelle Wolf made this point even more graphically at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 28, 2018, when she blamed the congregation:

He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.[23]

This did not all happen at once. In 2016, they covered Trump as a celebrity and political wonder, which made the election campaign saleable. After the shock of his victory, the mainstream media learned how to commodify the Trump scare.

This invention has had a global impact, as it showed the media that taking a political side can not only be moral but also profitable. Thus, the politicization of media business began. It was not controversial for the conservative media. The conservative media earned money from what they promoted. But the liberal media profited from what they fought against. For them, it might cause a conflict of interest. The liberal media profited from a phenomenon against which they stood. By the standards of good old capitalist corporate ethics, they would have been obliged to declare this conflict of interest to regulators, consumers and shareholders.

The commercial motives behind the media coverage of Trump remain unrevealed to the public. Meanwhile, such analysis allows the assumption that the mainstream media not only commodified public fears while profiting from them, but also created a new materiality for these fears to be reiterated, thereby increasing those fears and their profitability for the media, but in so doing set up a disastrous feedback loop for society.

Business stimuli for the media to cover Trump’s every move contributed to a media environment favorable to Trumpism. Meantime, the media themselves became more and more politicized and contributed to the surge of polarization in society. What used to be accepted as natural for Fox News became common for all the media, including those who had previously tried to display impartiality, a stance they abandoned to move to a political side. This happened literally over two-three years and in no small part because of business reasons.

Another byproduct of the commodification of Trump by the media relates to the screening effect of the Trump bump. Being ‘obsessed with Trump,’ the media paid much less attention to other circumstances that brought Trumpism into the world. It appears that the same effect of the media’s obsession that served Trump’s ascension is now preventing the public from understanding the real causes and forces behind Trumpism.

Andrey Mir

An excerpt from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”

_________________________

[1] LaFrance, Adrienne. (2016, September 1). “The media’s obsession with Donald Trump.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/trumps-media-saturation-quantified/498389/.

[2] Cornwell, Rupert. (2016, March 19). “Donald Trump might not be good news for America, but he’s great news for the TV networks.” Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-might-not-be-good-news-for-america-but-hes-great-news-for-the-tv-networks-a6941441.html.

[3] The Economist. (2017, February 16). “Traditional media firms are enjoying a Trump bump. Making America’s August news groups great again.” https://www.economist.com/news/business/21717107-making-americas-August-news-groups-great-again-traditional-media-firms-are-enjoying-trump-bump.

[4] Confessore, Nicholas, and Yourish, Karen. (2016, March 15). “$2 billion worth of free media for Donald Trump.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/upshot/measuring-donald-trumps-mammoth-advantage-in-free-media.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Doctor, Ken. (2017, March 3). “Trump bump grows into subscription surge – and not just for the New York Times.” The Street. https://www.thestreet.com/story/14024114/1/trump-bump-grows-into-subscription-surge.html.

[7] Stelter, Brian. (2017, September 26). “Washington Post digital subscriptions soar past 1 million mark.” CNN. http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/26/media/washington-post-digital-subscriptions.

[8] Veseling, Brian (2018), ‘Washington Post puts emphasis on creating paths to subscription’, World News Publishing Focus, WAN-IFRA, 30 July, https://blog.wan-ifra.org/2018/07/30/washington-post-puts-emphasis-on-creating-paths-to-subscription.

[9] The New York Times company reports 2020 second-quarter results. (2020, August 5). https://investors.nytco.com/news-and-events/press-releases/#data-item=The-New-York-Times-Company-Reports-2020-Second-Quarter-Results.

[10] The New York Times Company’s press releases. http://investors.nytco.com/press/press-releases/default.aspx.

[11] Mahler, Jonathan. (2017, April 4). “CNN had a problem. Donald Trump solved it.” The New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/magazine/cnn-had-a-problem-donald-trump-solved-it.html.

[12] Adalian, Josef. (2017, March 3). “8 TV Stars who have seen their ratings soar due to Donald Trump.” Vulture. http://www.vulture.com/2017/03/trump-bump-stephen-colbert-rachel-maddow-tucker-carlson.html.

[13] Littleton, Cynthia. (2017, October 1). “’Saturday Night Live’ season 43 opens strong but shy of last year’s turnout.” Variety. https://variety.com/2017/tv/news/snl-season-43-ratings-7-million-ryan-gosling-1202577326/.

[14] Perlberg, Steven. (2018, May 14). “It’s a good time to be a reporter covering trump if you like money and going on TV.” BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeed.com/stevenperlberg/white-house-reporters-tv.

[15] Schwartz, Yardena. (2018, January 30). “Freelancing abroad in a world obsessed with Trump.” Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/covering_trump/trump-impact-foreign-reporting.php.

[16] Stelter, Brian. (2018, April 16). “Every top New York Times best-seller this year has been about Trump.” CNN. http://money.cnn.com/2018/04/16/media/trump-new-york-times-best-selling-books/index.html

[17] Fischer, Sara. (2018, October 9). “The Trump political media frenzy is just getting started.” Axios Media Trends. https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-media-trends-86a9bc0e-6086-4964-be84-eb659fbfc36f.html

[18] Anderson, Nick. (2018, September 16). “A Trump effect at journalism schools? Colleges see a surge in admissions.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/a-trump-effect-at-journalism-schools-colleges-see-a-surge-in-admissions/2018/09/16/18497156-b2b2-11e8-a20b-5f4f84429666_story.html.

[19] Tullis, Matt. (2018, September 10). “How Trump Is Making Journalism School Great Again.” The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-trump-is-making-journalism-school-great-again

[20] Ingram, Mathew. (2017, December 27). “A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats – some will be swamped.” Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/analysis/trump-facebook-2017-publishers-social-media.php.

[21] Benton, Joshua. (2019, July 31). “The L.A. Times’ disappointing digital numbers show the game’s not just about drawing in subscribers – it’s about keeping them.” NeimanLab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/07/the-l-a-times-disappointing-digital-numbers-show-the-games-not-just-about-drawing-in-subscribers-its-about-keeping-them/

[22] Ingram, Mathew. (2017, December 27). “A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats – some will be swamped.” Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/analysis/trump-facebook-2017-publishers-social-media.php.

[23] Perlberg, Steven. (2018, May 14). “It’s a good time to be a reporter covering Trump if you like money and going on TV.” BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeed.com/stevenperlberg/white-house-reporters-tv.



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Future of news, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Trumpism and Fake news

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