Changes were coming in the American news media long before the emergence of Donald Trump. But if nothing else, he accelerated them. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs, himself a longtime journalist, is sad to see the changes, but he also sees a slim piece of silver lining.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the near-disappearance of Donald Trump from our daily lives— gone from Twitter, gone from Facebook, gone from the White House lawn— has diminished the public’s interest in news. Not that everything Trump ever said or did actually qualified as news, not by its traditional definition anyway, but when a man is President of the United States, everything that emits from his mouth short of a burp arguably has news value. For that matter, even a burp would get reported somewhere.
For Trump, not so anymore.
True, sometimes he really did make news by creating a ruckus, like when he bullied everyone from political opponents to international allies to journalists to the American public, or like when he lied about everything from the pandemic to the presidential election. Now he still bullies everyone he dislikes, and he still lies without shame, and the right-wing media amplify it all as best they can. But it doesn’t get headlines across the board because he no longer commands that bully pulpit. Good riddance.
But the news website Axios just issued a report and its bottom line is that good riddance to Trump is not so good for the news media— mainstream media and advocacy media alike— because their bottom line since Trump’s near-disappearance is suffering as people are dropping out. Which means America is suffering because its population is less informed. That’s no good for any of us.
What’s behind this? I asked Lee Kamlet, the former dean of Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications and a veteran network television news producer. “I think that Americans, regardless of their political leanings, are just plain exhausted after the deluge of news during the Trump years. It’s like drinking out of the proverbial fire hose. There’s only so much you can take in before you drown.”
Axios came to its conclusions about declining public interest in news after surveying the full spectrum of media outlets— from what it describes as far-right to leaning-right to mainstream to leaning-left to far-left. What it found is that the decline is happening everywhere, but as its report points out, “publishers that rely on partisan, ideological warfare have taken an especially big hit.”
Right and Left alike.
The numbers in a nutshell: “Far-right outlets, including Newsmax and The Federalist, saw aggregate traffic drop 44% from February through May compared to the previous six months. Lefty outlets including Mother Jones and Raw Story saw a 27% drop. Mainstream publishers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Reuters dropped 18%.”
Even some of the most popular online apps— from right-leaning Fox News to left-leaning The Atlantic— lost between 25% and 30% of their readers.
Longtime producer and reporter Mary Jo Brooks from the PBS NewsHour told me she’s not surprised. “One friend in particular mentioned that it’s so nice not to wake up and have to check headlines to see what political disaster had occurred while she was asleep.”
Greg Moore was the editor of The Denver Post for a decade-and-a-half and managing editor of The Boston Globe before that, and now he’s editor of Deke Digital, which helps newsrooms keep reporting with ever-fewer resources. “These numbers show just how exhausted the public is from the last four years— not just from Trump but from the hypercharged media.” He even told me, although a lifelong newsman, “I needed a break myself. My screen time is down about 25%.”
Axios itself gives it all a name: “Boring news cycle.” And here’s how it explains it: “Outlets most dependent on controversy to stir up resentments have struggled to find a foothold in the Biden era.”
Rodney Benson, chair of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, analyzes Biden’s dampening effect on the news cycle this way: “He’s not giving the opposition a lot to attack. This could suppress the audience for pro-Trump media, at least in the short-term.” As Axios puts it, “personality-based controversy has largely been absent.”
Lee Kamlet explains it this way. “The media outlets that thrived on (Trump’s) every word are suddenly struggling for the content that was their lifeblood. When there is less red meat for them to offer to their audience, the audience will turn elsewhere to spend their time and attention.”
But Mary Jo Brooks sees a big downside: “Our nation still faces so many challenges that it’s disconcerting to think that people are not paying attention.” Greg Moore has his fingers crossed for a solution: “I hope American media get back to the basics of covering the news and winning audience that way.”
Interestingly, none less than two of the Supreme Court’s most conservative justices cited these problems in a dissent in a libel case early this month, Neil Gorsuch writing about the days when the media was denominated by outlets “employing legions of investigative reporters, editors, and fact checkers.” But now, he laments, those days are gone. “Large numbers of newspapers and periodicals have failed… network news has lost most of its viewers. With their fall has come the rise of 24-hour cable news and online media platforms that ‘monetize anything that garners clicks’.” His bottom line? “The publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable.”
Will the worrisome declining trend lines for everything from mainstream to extremist news outlets continue for much longer? NYU’s Benson doesn’t think so. Because 2022 is coming. “The midterm elections will keep heating up and audiences will be seeking news and insights about the various races.”
But that might be a mixed bag. Mary Jo Brooks says, “I wish that ‘governing’ would garner as much attention as ‘campaigning.’ It feels like so many Americans only get engaged when there’s a campaign but they lose interest immediately after election night when the real work begins of implementing policy.”
There are reasons for the decline of interest that go far beyond the near-disappearance of Donald Trump. One of them is the polarization of political America. Another is the performance of the news media itself. I bemoan the revelations of the Axios report and the causes behind it, but it’s hard to be totally discouraged if the dimming presence of Donald Trump is a part of it.