Newsonomics: Post-Trump, 3 Truths, 4 Long Years, and An Existential Threat
In the mourning after, it’s not just the journalistic post-mortems about polling malpractice that should concern us. It is the very real question of the survival of American journalism as we have known it over the past six decades or more.
Donald Trump’s victory leaves a wobbling press in a wild careen. A confluence of factors today poses an existential threat to the U.S. print-based news media.
First published at POLITICO Media on Nov. 10, 2016
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Next, consider how “the media” has become even more of a punching bag through the campaign, its trust levels hitting an all-time low. This campaign now places much more as part of the fray than a reporter of it.
As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pointed out, the public may well have confused pollsters and journalists (given their increased marriage in this election cycle), and thus the lost believability of polling further diminishes news credibility.
Lawsuits and widening of libel laws add additional threats to the press’ freedom to tell the story of contemporary American politics. This is the age of Thiel and Trump. The Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel’s wildly successful Gawker lawsuit shows the press-antagonistic a new way to silence journalists. Donald Trump made his own pledge to widen libel laws in the campaign, and he will have a compliant single-party rule (the first time Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency since 1928, and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court) with which to do it.
Even in this year of magical digital audience numbers, the news media business is suffering deeply. The lack of real new digital journalism resources replacing dying print journalism jobs mirrors the pennies of digital revenue that are replacing print dollars. Within the last month, we’ve seen third-quarter reports that spell current — and 2017 — disaster. The New York Times reported print ad revenue down 18.5 percent, followed by McClatchy, down 16.9 percent, Gannett at 14.85 percent, and Tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) at 10.9 percent.
Then, there’s the macro picture. The great decline of the American press has coincided with the fourth-longest economic expansion of all time, now at 89 months. Economists now put a 60 percent number on the chances of the next recession by 2020. That’s pre-Trump. The VIX may be down for now, as markets rejoice in an unfettered Republican economic agenda, but a Trump administration is its own volatility indicator.
Add to all that one big intangible: a shaken self-confidence. As business fortunes have now turned down for about a decade and desks emptied, self-doubt has further eaten into the journalistic mission. Write shorter and quicker, many are told, even as the news companies’ missions to report deeply and analyze better have never been more needed.
So while self-flagellation rules the media today, I hope we can go beyond the kneejerk mea culpas. Is “media” really clueless about what’s happening west of the Hudson and outside the Beltway? Of course, that’s always true to a degree, and those of us who worked as editors in “flyover” America, as I did long ago in the Twin Cities, can attest to it.
But it’s too facile. Let’s delve deeper.
Consider three points:
1. It’s still the same country, more or less. With a one-point difference in returns, the media story today would be completely different. As Nate Silver soberly offered at 2:10 a.m., Wednesday morning: “Something to remember: Whatever your feelings about the state of the country right now, it’s fundamentally not that different a place whether the final call is that Clinton has narrowly won or narrowly lost. Add just 1 percent to Clinton’s vote share and take 1 percent away from Trump’s, and she would have won Florida and Pennsylvania, therefore would probably have been on her way to a narrow Electoral College victory.”
So let’s keep some perspective on what’s happened — and maybe what didn’t. The news media needs to serve the majority of the country — those that voted Democratic now in six of the past seven presidential elections — as it does newly rediscovered “minorities.”
2. Societal change, open vs. closed (as David Brooks elegantly put it in July) is the real story here. As journalist Dana Goldstein tweeted, “All due caveats about exit polls, but this is not looking like a revolt of the jobless. It’s about identity: race, nationality, gender.” Her tweet displays that, gloriously:
So, yes, understanding “the return of Reagan Democrats” and lost Rust Belt jobs is always useful, but that’s wholly insufficient to explain this vote — or absolve any journalistic wrong.
Let’s not think inward. Let’s think globally. What we now experience in the U.S. is the same witches’ brew of rightward-pushing, press-attacking behavior that has grown in the Western World. Consider, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Brexited Britain and, soon up, France, all societies that share in what we think too much of as an American phenomenon. The very notion of free and open societies, inclusive societies, is under near-universal attack.
3. We can directly link the growth of the local news desert expanding rapidly across the U.S. to Trump’s win. A point that still misses so many of the national observers as they examine their own navels: Across the United States, in all of the areas that jumped from bluer to redder, from Obama to who-knows-what (64% of those exit-polled say Trump is temperamentally unfit to put his finger close to the nuclear button), we’ve seen a slowly expanding news desert. That desert is hard to describe of course, because it’s a desert.
The gross number that stands out: about 28,000. That’s the number of journalists working in the U.S’s remaining 1375 (and dropping) daily newspapers. In 1990, when the country had but 248 million (as compared to 324 million today), we counted twice as many journalists, 56,900.
Yes, while it seems that everyone reads the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post, in reality, they don’t, and they never did. They relied on the local paper. It’s now shrunken in size, in content, in authority — and in confidence to address its community’s issues of the day.
Last week, I wrote about one microcosmic example of the effect of that shrinkage [“Newsonomics: Your Gannettenfreude will only take you so far”}. I cited This American Life’s search to explain how “immigration” had roiled this election and upended Republican Party conventional wisdom. In TAL’s 600th show, “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?,” Zoe Chace spent time in St. Cloud, Minnesota, talking to those of all sides of the immigration “issue.” Her discovery: misinformation and disinformation had divided a once-staid community, and vilified the Somali refugees who had settled there. One community resident repeatedly asserted the “fact” of Sharia law already being imposed in Dearborn, Michigan.
Journalists — and all of us — looking for answers to what happened on Tuesday need look no farther. In St. Cloud, fair and understandable fears were turned rabid. Political music men — ironically, the kind of classic outside agitators that Midwesterners have long despised — led the merry band of no-nothingism.
Today, I checked the election results for Benton and Stearns counties, the two counties that make up the 200,000 St. Cloud SMSA. They ran 5 points to 10 points redder in the presidential vote than in 2012. While Hillary Clinton won Minnesota, the same trends that we saw swing this election in neighboring Wisconsin, in Michigan and in Pennsylvania were at work.
Which brings us back to the local paper. The Gannett-owned St. Cloud Times now counts about 20 people in its newsroom, down from 36 just two years ago.
How well did the Times cover this divisive local immigration debate? A search of its site says not much, though it did offer a single editorial, against community division.
So, we’ve got to ask the fundamental questions: How much is the combination of deepening newsroom cuts, especially among veteran reporters, combined with publishers’ and editors’ own failure to engage with their communities, a factor in this election?
Are newspapers complicit in the dumbing down of America? We can at least say they’re an accessory, before and after, the event. Further, they increasingly suffer the worst fate of anyone in news media, or public service: irrelevance.
Let’s return, briefly for now, to national media, and what this election may mean to them.
As is often the case, it is Rupert Murdoch who may have the last laugh. Trump TV moves into the White House, aptly named for the first elected president to get an endorsement from the KKK in decades. The new spiffed-up Fox News can simulcast it, rubbing shoulders with, let’s recall, Breitbart’s alt-right propaganda machine now moved into the West Wing.
Who needs Megyn Kelly at $20 million a year when you’ve got Donald Trump for free?
A few blocks away, the New York Times saw itself energized in its pursuit of Donald Trump as it taught itself new says to deal with “lies” [“Dean Baquet on calling out lies”]. As the Times comes to grips with those print ad losses, and its own succession drama, how will the Times emerge into 2017? Trump will paint it as the enemy. It’s his perfect foil, as he’ll try to put a dunce’s cap on the Times, and maybe allude to its pointy noses as well.
Might it thrive — especially with its forlorn readers — as an “opposition” news company? Much as Fox built its standing first in the Clinton and then in the Obama years? It’s a journalistically uncomfortable mantle, but history may place it on the Times’ shoulders. Give NBC’s doughty Katie Tur, who had been serially bullied by Trump, credit for misdirecting a question from Brian Williams. Williams — acquitting himself not too well as a Mr. Business As Usual on Tuesday night — asked some throwaway question. She answered it with her forward-looking take on what a Trump Presidency would likely mean. She spun off her prepared bill of particulars, heavy on the issues obscured in the nonsense of the campaign, among them his unknown tax conflicts and his unwillingness to commit to a real blind trust for his assets. Will NBC, with uneven bursts of courage and complicity during the campaign, step up to what the country now demands more than ever?: fearless reporting.
Then, there’s that other durable medium, Saturday Night Live. The coming Trump cabinet may offer the entire SNL ensemble to showcase its mimicry. More immediately, will Alec Baldwin go all kissy-kissy with a smiling Trump soon? That’s the kind of post-election normalization we have long come to expect, and one barometer of how the culture takes in this stunning new reality.
This week, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton played their roles. But the press isn’t show biz nor even statesmanship. Given the vast lying, misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism that have been hallmarks of this campaign, the press’ response must be one of memory and of mission. Given all the factors making its survival more difficult, it’s not hyperbole to say that its mission — one of deeply informing the democracy — will likely be tested as never before in the next four years.