Donald Trump’s contentious term has been one of the most divisive times in modern American political history, but not everyone suffered. For media publishers ranging from The New York Times to The Boston Globe, it was a complex time of record-breaking plenty.
The Street called it “a baby digital subscription boom, and its parents are that odd couple of our times, Donald J. Trump and John W. Oliver….[where Trump] has become the greatest source of lead generation the American press has ever seen, his campaign and then election inspiring hundreds of thousands of Americans to rush to buy digital news subscriptions and memberships.”
But it was more than the oppressive and outlandish fodder coming almost daily from the White House–or, more specifically, the president’s Twitter feed–that fostered this dynamic. The trend was also enlivened by an ongoing feud between president and publishers.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Reuters suggested for local papers and international organizations alike, “The Trump administration’s combative view of traditional news media as the “opposition party” and “fake news” is turning out to be the best hope in 2017 for newspapers struggling to attract more digital readers and advertisers.” Overall, it worked on both fronts, but as presidential power changes hands, some publishers are left wondering if news media can avoid suffering after the end of the ‘Trump Bump?’
New administration ushers in altered media ecosystem
Where Trump brought to the White House a sensationalized president, the Biden administration offers a stark opposite–and with him comes varied potential consequences for the media industry. “What would go away is the bad guy in the story. There’s no antagonist. So what are we tuning in for?” said Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN” in a late 2020 Digiday commentary.
Even for outlets predisposed to position Trump outside of that antagonist archetype, a more tepid personality and political brand in President Biden still presents the challenge of feeding a charged news cycle the way digital audiences and advertisers have grown to expect–and some even enjoy. Will readers of all political biases be motivated to stick around without the emotional and psychological jolt that has commanded their attention headline after headline over the last 4 years?
Even the tone and tendencies of coverage changed dramatically during Trump’s term, altering industry history in the process. Nieman Labs argues that the ways journalists covered the Trump administration over the last 4 years uprooted six decades of political journalism tradition, leaving the future of news media (especially digital news media) at a crossroads:
“For the past 60 years — the occasional well-publicized in-depth investigation aside — most political reporting in the United States has tended to set the boundaries of the possible somewhere in between the positions of both political major parties…In essence, political journalism in the United States has been largely driven by elites, written by elites, and consumed by elites…American journalism will have to decide whether it learned a liberal lesson from the past four years or a radical lesson…
If journalism has learned a radical lesson…it will have learned that it should always be opposed to political elites, whether Republican or Democrat, and that this oppositional stance also needs to embrace the marginalized and the historically left-out: women, Black and Latinx communities, LGBT and trans people. It would engage in what Wesley Lowrey has called a true “reckoning with objectivity.”
This challenge to journalistic tradition and the rise of new media marketing opportunities agitated by the Trump administration drove growth in digital reader and advertiser relationships in ways that have redefined the entire industry beyond content. The business structure of the industry itself was changed.
For example, The New York Times hadn’t launched a branding campaign for ten years prior to Trump’s election, but then seized on the Trump moment to reintroduce itself with a 2017 ‘truth campaign’. The re-branding catapulted The New York Times into global digital news media leadership, sparking record growth in their digital subscriptions that have since also fed strong advertising relationships for the organization and served the entire industry with a new model for financial success. But outside of the context of the ‘Trump Bump,’ how relevant or effective will readers and advertisers find these kinds of strategies? What can media companies do to adapt to a changed media ecosystem?
Embrace all the lessons of the Trump era to move forward
For as many ways as the Trump term drove digital readership and boosted ratings, his presidency also cut to a deeper issue that spells danger for the media industry moving forward. The duel between the president and publishers was not mere political theatrics, but a demagogue’s challenge to a foundational component of a strong democracy: the trustworthiness of a free press.
Yes, the Trump presidency ushered in an era of digital media frenzy to the short-term benefit of most bottom lines, but it also gave rise to the “fake news” era, in which a threat to journalistic credibility is also an existential threat to media brands and democracy long-term. Over 4 years, the dynamic increased news avoidance, reader fatigue, gaps in voter education, and dissatisfaction with historically trusted news brands. A Gallup study in fall 2020 reported that “the percentage [of Americans] with no [media] trust at all is a record high, up five points since 2019.”
This presidential transfer of power presents a moment for media companies to step back and take stock of their immediate and long-term direction. For media publishers, the lessons of the Trump presidency must not be counted solely by the benefit to digital media growth, but also by the detriment to the trusting relationship between a free press and democratic society.
Lesson 1: Listen to readers to identify coverage gaps and drive both subscriptions and credibility
Some industry-wide benefits of the ‘Trump Bump’ are not dependent on the threatening presence of a demagogue or sensationalized president to feed the success of media brands at the expense of media credibility. Some successes found during Trump’s term can still be leveraged to both maintain organizational momentum and rebuild public trust.
For example, what was at the root of The New York Times’ re-branding success–ultimately driving growth in both reader and advertiser relationships and media credibility for the company? A clear, consistent, and relevant message that connected deeply with audiences.
Executive creative director, Tim Gordon, was hired with ad agency Droga5 by The New York Times for the re-branding campaign, and he said of its success, “There’s a bombardment of information and so many things grasping for your attention. We wanted to provide a very clear and impactful message…I think the real testament has been the longevity of [the truth campaign].’ The campaign has been replicated in popular culture, including on T-shirts from designer Sacai (worn by musician Frank Ocean) and spoofs by “The Late Show…The original posters were used as protest signs. People were hanging them on their wall. It’s a message you can return to.”
That insight should not be taken lightly: such powerful, connected messaging drove the largest subscription growth of any media publisher in the world. While the contextual timing of a president who stood in complete contrast to the NYT’s new brand message certainly helped, connecting a clear, consistent, and relevant message with readerships is not dependent on the ‘Trump Bump.’
Ask deeper questions to build quality reader relationships
To drive digital subscriptions and the relationships with ad buyers that may soon follow, media publishers can ask deeper questions about what is relevant and timely for their audiences now. Over the past 4 years, audiences have increasingly demonstrated a need to be heard, and that doesn’t change with a presidential transition. If anything–under a new administration with less news cycle whiplash and challenge to journalistic integrity–now is a time for media brands to focus on the quality of their relationships with readers, not just the quantity.
From fair reporting on rural Black and Indigenous communities to representation that does justice for Generation Z, news media organizations have opportunities to strengthen relationships with readerships who desire to be heard and reflected justly in coverage: “The digital environment is now a key component in how Americans learn about local events and issues in the news. Today, almost as many U.S. adults say they prefer to get their local news through the internet as prefer to do so through the television set…While Americans largely agree on the importance of the local media’s connection to their community, there is less sense that journalists meet this standard.” (The Pew Research Center, 2019)
The New York Times demonstrated that careful attention to the needs of readers in order to identify coverage gaps and connective messages that most accurately reflect the lived-experiences of their reader communities can be effective, ethical, long-term ways to drive subscriptions and ad-buys. But it also builds credibility that pushes back against fake news accusations or the critique that journalism fails to challenge elitism. This lesson is not dependent on the Trump phenomenon, but can be carried forward and refined over the next 4 years, and it will be to the benefit of readers, profit margins, and media integrity alike.
Lesson 2: Content based on short-term psychological arousal tactics is a long-term losing strategy
Sensationalized or highly emotional content endlessly agitated by the White House over the last 4 years may have had the immediate effect of driving readers to the news, but the short-term benefits are not worth replicating over the next 4 years. In fact, the benefits gained during the ‘Trump Bump’ are already starting to reverse, as human psychology is not wired to sustain that kind of emotional charge long-term.
In early 2020, The Pew Research Center reported that seven of ten Americans are experiencing news fatigue–numbers which have remained fairly consistent over the past 2 years and in many cases advances to new avoidance altogether. While the reasons for these dynamics are certainly complex, such an outcome ultimately harms readers, publishers, democratic processes, and even journalists.
The emotional impact of news is not the only factor contributing to this shift, but it is certainly one publishers should consider for their ability to make tone and content decisions in this area during the next administration. Internet marketing professionals at Epic Presence suggest:
“Twenty years ago media experts were already warning that working at high speeds encourages journalists to ‘fall back on well-worn themes and observations — interpretive clichés,’” Matt Norman at National Geographic writes. “In today’s world of digital media, this effect has been compounded.”
Today’s news environment is wearing on journalists, says Sally Pook, a former journalist who now works as a psychotherapist. The need to monitor news constantly is leading to anxiety, exhaustion and burnout in news rooms. It’s also wearing on readers, who are increasingly avoiding the news in order to manage their own feelings of burnout or helplessness.
When it comes to news, more speed and more content is no longer better. A return to slow journalism may offer a solution….The goal is to engage readers with quality rather than quantity.”
Publishers can pivot away from tactics used in the Trump era that may contribute to this, and it may have practical benefits for ad buyers, such as keeping a reader on a page longer, reducing subscription churn, and creating opportunity to build a more trusted brand relationship to the benefit of first party data collection. When content, quantity, and tone choices are no longer something readers want to avoid, it seems likely readers will find greater relevance and value in publishing brands.
Combat reader fatigue and news avoidance
The ‘Trump Bump’ empowered short-lived psychological tactics that stormed across digital news media platforms, but these approaches counter the sustained growth objectives news organizations ultimately have.
Sensationalized content that relies on short-term psychological arousal responses in exchange for impressions and clicks wears down on the credibility of publishing brands, advertiser brands, and news media integrity–as well as the resilience of journalists and interest of readers over time.
Entrepreneur and tech investor, Thomas Pasquet, offers ways advertisers can fight digital fatigue, and the lessons are applicable to publishers too: “…combatting digital fatigue starts and ends with generating fresh interest in your advertising. That can be the result of top-notch creativity in your messaging, which is easier said than done. More likely, you will stimulate the end user with some sort of choice in what they are exposed to…Finally, believe that less can be more. Frequency can be your enemy in the era of digital fatigue…This is no time to be broad or wide-ranging in your marketing…. ”
His advice boils down to a simple principle: counter digital fatigue by being clear about the value brands offer to readers. Readers will pick up on a lack of value, tire of psychological ploys, and go the route dreaded by publishers and ad buyers alike–churn! Whether clarifying the value of brand messages and content, choice options, or frequency, publishers who understand and deepen the value they offer to readers can make a significant difference in maintaining an ongoing relationship with subscribers and ad-buyers interested in their focused audiences.
María Sánchez Díez of Nieman Labs suggests this lesson from the ‘Trump Bump’ will actually be transformative to news media in the long run, saying it will bring brands back to their readers in deeper ways. “If/when numbers go down, panic will surely follow. There’ll be meetings and brainstorms about “counterprogramming.” This will be a good thing: It’ll force our newsrooms to diversify, reevaluate their ethos, and interrogate themselves about their specific mission and value proposition for the public and the communities they serve…None of this will be possible without a humbling and radical exercise of empathy towards readers….We’ll need to incorporate the act of listening to audiences to our workflows and assignment processes.”
Clarifying the value offerings for brand readerships is not dependent on the Trump phenomenon. Rather, this approach more strategically analyzes ways the ‘Trump Bump’ served digital journalism in appearance based on psychological short cuts, but not for sustained success. Publishers who look deeper than the initial digital benefits of the Trump era will be positioned to maintain brand quality, digital experience and reader relationships during the Biden administration.
The future is quality, not quantity
News media companies that embrace the lessons of the last 4 years to shape their strategies for the next will be prepared to take advantage of whatever changes occur politically. By listening more deeply to their readers for coverage gaps and messages that connect–and by stepping beyond psychological shortcuts to ensure brand value during a time of digital news avoidance–publishers can focus their attention on greater journalistic and brand quality for their path forward, not just quantity.
Quality readerships are lucrative for advertisers as digital privacy laws change and will raise the value of news brands in more than one way. Shifting to this focus at the end of the ‘Trump Bump’ will benefit readers, journalists, ad buyers, news media organizations, and recovering democracies.