Lucas Graves and Joy Jenkins
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Some leading US news outlets have benefited from a year in which the relevance of the press has never been more apparent. Across the industry, however, traditional and digital-born media alike continue to struggle for audience attention and advertiser dollars.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump continues to send shockwaves through the US media. For journalists, the theme of the Trump era has been the relentless and frenetic pace of the news cycle, from neo-Nazi rallies, nuclear brinksmanship, and the #MeToo revelations, to multiple lawsuits alleging affairs and sexual harassment by Trump and the ongoing Special Counsel investigation. Meanwhile, the president’s sharp attacks on the news media continue.
Against that backdrop, the so-called ‘Trump Bump’ for news publishers has not faded as quickly as predicted. The share of Americans willing to pay for online news held steady this year at its new high of 16%, after almost doubling in last year’s survey. Quality national newspapers especially appear to benefit from the combination of high-profile investigative reports and a ‘digital first’ strategy. The New York Times saw digital subscription revenues rise by a fifth over 2016, itself a record year, while the Washington Post broke 1 million digital subscribers for the first time in 2017.
National magazines and websites focused on political coverage, such as Slate, Vox, and Mother Jones, have likewise benefited from elevated interest even as the dramatic post-election surge in support tapered off. Investigative non-profit ProPublica is boosting its 2018 budget 50% over last year’s on the strength of contributions from small donors. In contrast, this year’s survey shows that partisan sites such as Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and Occupy Democrats, despite high profiles during the election, have a fairly limited weekly reach.
But audience fatigue may be setting in. Mirroring reports of declining US news traffic from audience-trackers such as comScore, our survey shows a sizeable drop in the share of Americans who report using various news outlets on a weekly basis. Notably, the same pattern appears online and off: Local newspapers, local TV news, and the major broadcast networks are all down several percentage points from last year, as are major online news aggregators like Yahoo! News and HuffPost. Other digital-born media were also not immune, with BuzzFeed and Vice seeing revenue losses.
The future of local news remains a crucial question, with consolidation and downsizing affecting outlets across the country. Alternative newsweeklies took a particularly hard hit last year — the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly saw large newsroom cuts, while The Baltimore City Paper closed outright. Additionally, local TV news — a source of high media usage and trust — became the subject of a controversy in April when CNN revealed that Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns nearly 200 stations nationwide, told its anchors to read a script about ‘the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country’.
Some new initiatives are responding to the local-news deficit. ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network supports a full-time investigative reporter in seven newsrooms in cities with populations below 1 million, while Report for America is a Teach for America-style programme connecting emerging journalists with local newsrooms. Facebook announced that, despite an overall decrease in news on users’ feeds, it planned to prioritise news from local publishers, starting in the US and expanding in 2018.
Collaboration remains an important trend in US newsrooms, supported by a growing variety of conferences, funding sources, and collaborative reporting tools. US outlets such as the New York Times, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Univision, and the Columbia Journalism School contributed to the Paradise Papers report, and ProPublica launched the ‘Documenting Hate’ project with hyperlocal, regional, and national print and broadcast partners, among many others.
The magazine industry also saw a major shift, with Iowa-based media company Meredith Corp. completing its purchase of Time Inc. for $1.8 billion in January 2018. Meredith, known for lifestyle magazines, announced in March that it planned to sell several of Time’s flagship titles, including Time, Fortune, Money, and Sports Illustrated.
Finally, platforms have continued to stoke controversy. In March 2017, hundreds of companies pulled ads from YouTube after they were placed next to extremist content; the site came under fire again months later for videos depicting children in disturbing situations. Reports also surfaced that the UK firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of up to 87m Facebook users and may have used it on behalf of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, compounding the social network’s troubles in the ‘fake news’ era.
Consumption of news has fallen significantly across TV, online, print, and social media from a high point last year, which coincided with the Trump inauguration. TV news has been worst affected but social media are also down 9 points. More people access news via smartphone than by a computer or laptop for the first time, leading to US publishers pursuing mobile first and mobile friendly formats.
Attacks on the ‘fake news’ media by Donald Trump have spurred continued debates about the role and value of journalism. New revelations about the use of Facebook data in the 2016 elections raised further concerns about the role of social platforms in spreading misinformation. All of this may contribute to the slight decrease in trust in news overall (34%) and a rock bottom 13% trust in news on social media.