It’s a tough time to be in the media business – and not just because there’s no more “Succession” to binge.
News organizations across the industry have been announcing job losses at a rapid rate. Last week, the Washington Post said it would offer buyouts to about 10 percent of its staff. Others, including National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and Spotify, have made their own cuts in the last year. As of June, the number of media job losses in 2023 was evidently a record.
This pink-slip mania is a product of several factors. One is the inherently competitive nature of our modern media environment. Because consumers have so many choices, news outlets are in a relentless and costly fight for eyeballs; cutting staff helps the balance sheet. A second is recent uncertainty about the economy, which has led to a pullback in advertising, the lifeblood of most media outlets. A third is that social media platforms are sending less and less traffic to news sites.
Perhaps most notably, news subscriptions and web traffic have dropped off since the Trump administration ended. Between 2016 and 2021 – spanning the chaotic Trump presidency and the onset of the covid pandemic – news consumption boomed, goosing big profits for many media firms. In particular, the Post, for one, expected to maintain or increase its gains from that period, projections that interim CEO Patty Stonesifer said last week were “overly optimistic” in retrospect. Instead, the Post has lost half a million subscribers in the last three years.
Why did the Trump bump turn into a slump? Political science research suggests several possibilities.
When distressed, people seek out more news
The first is that the Trump presidency and the pandemic brought a swirl of emotions for many Americans. In a 2022 study, the political scientist Kevin Smith found that politics-induced stress may have increased during Trump’s first three years in office, a development that was “quite likely exacerbated” by the 2020 election.
When people are worried or upset, one response is to consume news. A large body of work suggests that anxiety turns on a psychological “surveillance system” that can boost attention to political information. In one experimental study, Bethany Albertson and Shana Gadarian found that people asked to list what worried them about immigration – thereby inducing anxiety – subsequently read more (and more threatening) immigration stories than people who had simply been asked to think about the issue. Likewise, anger can also increase news consumption, and may do so even more consistently than anxiety, according to a recent meta-analysis by Amy Funck and Richard Lau.
To the extent that Trump’s exit and the waning of the pandemic calmed Americans down, a reduction in news consumption would have been a predictable consequence. A greater sense of normalcy may be good for people’s mental health, but not news profits.
Those who supported the winner consume less news
Another reason for the Trump slump may be more explicitly partisan. Research by Allison Archer finds that consumer demand for news following a presidential election tends to decrease among the winning party’s supporters. Using data on newspaper circulation from 1932 through 2004, Archer showed that newspapers endorsing the winning candidate did worse after the election than newspapers backing the loser. Since a newspaper’s endorsement may be a proxy for its readers’ political leanings, Archer concludes that having been reassured by a victory, “advantaged partisans sometimes check out of politics.” Archer and Joshua Darr found a similar pattern after gubernatorial elections in a more recent paper.
Since many mainstream media outlets have left-leaning audiences, Joe Biden’s victory likely contributed to a decline in news interest among their core base of consumers. Indeed, the percentage of Democrats saying they were following the news “very closely” fell from 51 to 40 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to Gallup data. Republicans, however, saw no such decline.
With fewer Trump attacks on the news media, fewer people subscribe as a gesture of support
Finally, a change in the political climate around the media has contributed to the news industry’s recent problems. When Trump was attacking the press as the “enemy of the American people,” mainstream news outlets saw surges in subscriptions from consumers who wanted to support a vital democratic institution. But after leaving the White House, Trump’s attacks, while no less frequent, have become less newsworthy – and thus less visible, translating into fewer new subscriptions than in the early days of his presidency.
In addition, having a Democratic president means more grumbling about the media’s unfairness from liberals. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, has repeatedly criticized the media for its portrayal of the economy during Biden’s term. Elite rhetoric like that tends to drive down trust in the news media, as research by Jonathan Ladd has shown. Although Democrats’ faith in the media remains much higher than Republicans’, it has declined some since Biden took office.
This all suggests that there is no silver bullet solution to the media’s current woes (and the Post’s challenges are no doubt compounded by the loss of The Monkey Cage 😉). But it is a good reminder that just as a politician’s fortunes can rise and fall on the backs of the media, the reverse is sometimes also true.