Joy Jenkins and Lucas Graves
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
The climate of heightened hostility toward the US press under Donald Trump shows no signs of abating as attention turns to the 2020 election. The relentless attacks appear to be exacerbating already low levels of media trust — especially on the right.
Over the last year, major US news outlets have reaped both audience attention and near-constant derision for their coverage of President Trump, and especially of the federal inquiry, headed by Robert Mueller, into whether his campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. That inquiry yielded dozens of criminal indictments, but when it wrapped up in March without firmly establishing collusion, Trump and his supporters declared victory and called for retribution against CNN, MSNBC, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets they said misled the American public.
Warning against overcorrection, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan defended aggressive reporting on the Russia story from the Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, ProPublica, and others. Recent revelations included a trove of documents showing that plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow continued through the 2016 race — a major investigative coup for BuzzFeed. Meanwhile, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer exposed deepening ties between the White House and Fox News, including the charge that before the election the broadcaster buried a story on Trump’s payoffs to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
These controversies have unfolded in a news environment in which audiences remain deeply polarised, much more so than most other countries covered in this report. Concerns about Trump’s continued antagonising of the press as ‘the enemy of the people’ were reinforced in the wake of a shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018, that left five staff members dead.
News outlets are navigating this complex political environment in the face of persistent economic pressure. Job cuts have affected a variety of publications, from the venerable Cleveland Plain-Dealer to digital-born First Look Media. Most notably, in January 2019, BuzzFeed laid off 15% of its worldwide workforce (220 positions) the same week that Verizon Media Group, which owns HuffPost, announced a 7% reduction across its media properties, totalling about 800 positions. Gannett, the largest news publisher in the US, also recently announced layoffs at local newspapers in regions around the country, stoking continued concerns about the future of local news.
Although viewership of local television news has held steady, a recent report finds that about 1,800 metro and community newspapers in the US have closed or merged since 2004, and more than 1,300 US communities have lost news coverage completely.1 New efforts to address these deficits include an expansion of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network; a reporting collaborative, sponsored by the Solutions Journalism Network, among local newsrooms and institutions in Charlotte, North Carolina; and a $20m fund from the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute to ‘strengthen local journalism for the digital age’.
Significant growth in digital revenues remains elusive for all but a few large US news outlets. The New York Times announced in February that it had surpassed $709m in digital revenues in 2018 and was on track to grow its digital subscriptions to more than 10m by 2025. Some digital-born organisations aimed to diversify revenue streams by introducing membership models, including BuzzFeed and Quartz. Meanwhile De Correspondent, the digital-born ‘slow news’ operation in the Netherlands whose membership model has made it a darling of many commentators and pundits, announced plans for an English-language site in November. Enthusiasm quickly soured when CEO Ernst Pfauth revealed in March that De Correspondent would close its New York campaign headquarters and operate the English-language edition from Amsterdam.
The US continues to lead the world in podcast listening and has seen a wave of daily news-focused offerings. The New York Times’ The Daily, which started in 2017 and now averages 1.75m daily downloads, has been joined by the Washington Post’s Post Reports, Vox’s Today, Explained, Slate’s What Next, ABC News’ Start Here, and others. Another notable development saw VICE News partner with Spotify to produce the bilingual podcast series Chapo.
Platforms continue to invest in new initiatives to bolster the news industry. Google recently launched a boot camp for eight publishers in the US and Canada to develop new digital subscription strategies, while Facebook announced in January that it would dedicate $300m to programmes focused on developing local newsrooms and content globally.
Despite such steps, there have been new calls to regulate platforms both from the left, led by presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up tech giants, and from the right, with prominent Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz accusing Google and Facebook of bias against conservative views.
The bump in news consumption is clearly visible in 2017 after the election of Donald Trump but since then TV, print, and social media news use is significantly down. Meanwhile the smartphone (57%) has overtaken the computer (53%) in terms of weekly news, with tablet usage flat.
Already low, overall levels of trust in news declined only slightly since last year, but this masks a deeper divide. Under Trump, trust in news has risen among audiences on the left while falling sharply on the right – from 17% to 9% in the last year alone.
- www.usnewsdeserts.com/reports/expanding-news-desert ↩