News media will have to work harder

For all his many faults, Donald Trump sold lots of newspapers. Joe Biden will probably sell fewer…

By James Evelegh

News media will have to work harder
Photograph: Manny Becerra on Unsplash.

As Dickon Ross points out in his recent article, President Trump was good for circulation. The daily spew of convention-busting announcements, firings, insults and threats made riveting content and readers couldn’t get enough of it.

Moreover, the endless lies – the Washington Post calculated that Trump made 30,573 false or misleading statements during his time in office – accentuated the value of professionally produced journalism, which could be relied on to make sense of the maelstrom of misinformation.

Here in the UK, it’s often said that right-leaning newspapers sell more copies under a Labour government and left-leaning ones more under a Conservative government.

In the modern media world, the divide is not so much between left and right but between mainstream and the rest.

Trump was mainstream news media’s greatest salesman. Perhaps an epithet he would unwittingly approve of.

The far-from-failing New York Times, the Washington Post and others enjoyed significant circulation gains over the last four years, all thanks to the Trump Bump.

Trump was the gift that kept giving for the American late night comedy circuit too. The monologues with which the hosts always start their shows will have virtually written themselves these past four years. They have talked about little else. With Trump now out of the White House and in Twitter purdah to boot, they will have to be more creative.

Those newspapers and comedians will have to work harder under the Biden presidency to hold onto their readers and viewers. A moderate centrist in the White House might be a breath of fresh air, and definitely what the world needs right now, but is dull by comparison with what went before.

There are a number of other media implications of the new administration’s approach:

  • More accountable government: The return of the formal White House press briefing signals a welcome return to greater transparency and accountability. When Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, gave her first briefing, it was like something from a different era. They had virtually dried up under Trump. Indeed, one of his press secretaries, Stephanie Grisham, never gave one!
  • The US will be a safer place for journalists: with no more “enemy of the people” diatribes, American journalists will be able to sleep that bit easier at night. In 2016, the US was #41 in the World Press Freedom Index. By 2020, it had slipped to #45. By 2024, hopefully the US will have climbed into the 30s…
  • Greater pressure on dictators: Erdo?an, Xi Jinping, Duterte and Putin will no longer be able to rely on the White House for cover for their own egregious attacks on journalists and we can expect better coordination of international press-freedom initiatives and more prompt and forthright condemnation of abuses.

Trump might have been good for circulation, but his presidency was an affront to the cause of independent journalism.

Trump was mainstream news media’s greatest salesman. Perhaps an epithet he would unwittingly approve of.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.