The WaPo’s Paul Farhi: “Trump predicted news ratings would tank. He wasn’t wrong.”

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “Trump predicted news ratings would ‘tank if I’m not there.’ He wasn’t wrong.”:

Of all Donald Trump’s prophecies and predictions — that Mexico would pay for a border wall, that coronavirus would spontaneously disappear, that he would be easily reelected — at least one wasn’t entirely wrong.

“Newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there,” he augured in 2017, “because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.”

Barely two months into the post-Trump era, news outlets are indeed losing much of the audience and readership they gained during his chaotic presidency. In other words, journalism’s Trump bump may be giving way to a slump.

After a record-setting January, traffic to the nation’s most popular mainstream news sites, including The Washington Post, plummeted in February….

The Post, for example, saw the number of unique visitors fall 26 percent from January to February, and 7 percent from a year ago. The New York Times lost 17 percent compared with January and 16 percent over last February.

The story is largely the same for cable and broadcast news. Audiences grew during the pandemic last spring and summer, remained high in the fall as Trump tried to fight his electoral defeat with false claims of voter fraud, and swelled in the first few weeks of 2021 when a mob attacked the Capitol and Trump became the first president in history to be impeached and acquitted twice.

Now that Joe Biden is in the White House and Trump has essentially disappeared from the news cycle, many of those viewers are drifting away.

The most deeply affected network is CNN. After surpassing rivals Fox News and MSNBC in January, the network has lost 45 percent of its prime-time audience in the past five weeks….MSNBC’s audience has dropped 26 percent in the same period. Fox News — the most Trump-friendly of the three networks in its prime-time opinion shows — has essentially regained its leading position by standing still….

In 2014, the year before Trump announced his candidacy, the three leading cable news networks collectively attracted an average of 2.8 million viewers a night during prime-time hours. By 2019, Trump’s third year in office, that number had nearly doubled to 5.3 million each night.

Trump’s rise was so closely linked to the news companies’ success that some accused the networks of enabling him — endlessly broadcasting his racism and sexism-tinged stump speeches in what amounted to free political advertising. CNN president Jeff Zucker expressed regrets late in the 2016 campaign about his network’s coverage but acknowledged later that it drew viewers….

A handful of leading newspapers can likewise thank Trump, at least in part, for a sharp rise in digital subscriptions over the past five years. The New York Times began his term with 3 million such subscribers and ended it with 7.5 million. The Post tripled its subscriber base to more than 3 million during his administration….

The Atlantic brought in a wave of new subscribers after Trump responded gleefully to layoffs at the magazine last May, and yet more subscribers in September after it reported that the president had called soldiers killed in combat “losers” and “suckers.”

The Trump bump mostly skipped regional news organizations and local newspapers, which continued to lose advertisers, audience and jobs during his presidency. Whatever growth they’ve experienced recently has come from providing sustained coverage of the coronavirus for their communities….

But on the national scene, Trump’s various scandals and outbursts helped reporters build résumés, sell books, land lucrative commentary gigs and win awards. Journalists won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes for Trump-related stories between 2017 and 2020, including for investigations of Trump’s taxes, his campaign’s ties to Russia, his suspect charities, and his alleged hush-money payments to two women before the 2016 election.

The media’s obsession with all things Trump eventually developed a matryoshka doll quality. In 2018, Showtime released a four-part documentary “about the New York Times in the Trump era.” The Times had a TV critic review it.

The Times’s top editor, Dean Baquet, acknowledged in an interview that Trump has been good for the newspaper’s bottom line….And he portrayed the Trump bump as essentially healthy. “Our audiences grew in the last four years because people came to understand that independent and aggressive journalism is important to the democracy,” Baquet said. “And frankly the democracy was being challenged.”

There are still plenty of challenges (and plenty of news) in a post-Trump democracy, of course. But so far the Biden White House had not produced the daily Twitter outrages, hourly scoops and endless controversies that filled up newspaper columns and cable news panels until a few weeks go….

Andrew Tyndall, who has authored a newsletter tracking network news since 1987, said the last few years of constant news and massive audiences misled media companies into believing they could “appeal to everyone.” They could mix deep, thoughtful reporting with tabloid-style headlines about Trump’s latest eruption, and watch their numbers rise.

“Trump’s disappearance represents make-your-mind-up-time for the legacy media,” Tyndall said. “At heart, do they think of themselves as authoritative or tabloid? Joe Biden will not offer them the same get-out-of-jail-free card that allowed them to fudge the difference.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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