Signs of Hope for the Media Industry

Its problems didn't start with Trump, but he ironically may be helping to turn some of them around.
May 2019
Trashcan with news in it.
(Shutterstock)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

I vividly remember watching a rally during the 2016 presidential campaign in which Donald Trump delivered a speech to a hall jammed with supporters in red hats, proclaiming that the reporters in the press pool gathered right in front of him “are the lowest form of human life.” Then, moving his hands in small circles, he repeated the last five words again and again, as the crowd roared.

Even though I was not there, it was an uncomfortable moment, reminiscent of a situation I had experienced many years ago as a college student doing freelance work for the United Press bureau in Raleigh, N.C. My beat was civil rights demonstrations and Ku Klux Klan rallies in the area. I witnessed disturbing behavior at both. Occasionally the state’s grand Klan dragon would level caustic remarks at the small cluster of journalists in the raucous crowd; then, if the other Klansmen grew overly hostile, he would cleverly deflect them with a touch of humor.

Somehow, NBC News learned that I was covering the Klan and asked me to arrange a meeting between one of their well-known reporters and the Klan leadership. The culture contrast was astonishing. The reporter came down from Washington wearing a pinstriped suit and homburg hat to film an interview with the grand dragon from North Carolina and the imperial Klan wizard, the titular head of the whole organization, both clad in head-to-foot white robes. It seemed awkward at the time, but looking back today, I’m pleased with what happened that day because a national television network was able to interview two Klan leaders. Its viewers would get an idea of what the KKK stood for, and what it stood against. Reality poked through the layers of misunderstanding.

It’s hard to imagine that happening now. In the past 15 to 20 years, faith in journalists and the news media in general has seriously eroded. According to a 2016 Gallup report, before 2004 “it was common for a majority of Americans to profess at least some trust in the mass media, but since then less than half of Americans feel that way. Now, only about a third of the U.S. has any trust in the Fourth Estate, a stunning development for an institution designed to inform the public.”

Of course, it isn’t just faith in national media that’s waning. In the past two decades we’ve seen a near-collapse in the industry’s finances. Both print advertising revenues and paid circulation have plummeted. Employment at newspapers across the United States shrank from 424,000 in 2000 to 183,300 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- a drop of 57 percent.

The decline of the media industry is having an especially troubling impact on state and local government. The negative effect stretches well beyond the traditional role of the press in keeping politicians and their governments honest and above board. According to Bloomberg News, various studies have shown that “communities without quality local news coverage see lower rates of voter turnout. Cities where newspapers shut down have even seen their municipal bond costs rise, suggesting an increase in government expense due to a lack of transparency. More broadly, towns without serious local news coverage demonstrate less social cohesion, corroding any actual sense of community.”

So where has all that media revenue gone? You can start with the tech superstars -- Google, Facebook and Amazon. They deal with mountains of clicks and information, but make no claim to be journalistic ventures. Meanwhile a whole new breed of news websites has emerged to fill the vacuum: The Daily Beast, Buzzfeed, Axios, Vox, Vice, GeekWire, and Crooked Media. Their traffic, or what we used to call circulation, is impressive; the Daily Beast claimed that its website in 2014 attracted a record 21 million unique visitors. But more recently many of these sites have joined the newspaper industry on the stormy financial seas.

Perhaps there is hope, a very cautious hope, in the emerging group of media oligarchs. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, reported to be the wealthiest human on earth, is now the steward of The Washington Post. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, bought a majority share in The Atlantic magazine two years ago and has since declared that President Trump’s attacks on the media are “right out of the dictator’s playbook.”

Anti-Trump bias like that cannot be ignored in any analysis of today’s media landscape, yet the stunning irony is that the Trump presidency has been a key factor in the resurgence of traditional media icons, the heart of what the president calls the “fake news” establishment.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both were facing serious financial problems in the lingering wake of the Great Recession. But after Trump’s election victory, revenue from paying subscribers boomed, replacing much of what had been lost in advertising. The Times held on to about 1 million paid subscribers for the printed newspaper, but added 2.5 million digital-only customers. The trend at the Post is similar. It isn’t just newspapers. NPR’s hourly newscasts now have close to 30 million listeners via 947 broadcast stations -- a reprieve for a network that a short time ago seemed to be facing a potentially disastrous falloff of interest among millennials. What has become known as the “Trump Bump” seems to have changed that.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com