For all that the president savages the mainstream media — labeling the press “fake news” and “the enemy of the American People” — news outlets have been thriving in the age of Donald Trump. Constant drama and uncertainty, it turns out, is good for business. "Every time he tweets, it drives subscriptions wildly," New York Times editor Dean Baquet told CNN earlier this year.
The Times has monetized the heck out of that simple truth; it has turned its pro-wrestling-style feud with Trump into a business strategy. That’s shrewd for the paper’s growth now. But in the long-run, it risks polarizing the Grey Lady’s audience even more than it is already.
On Wednesday, the Times announced that it gained a record 308,000 digital news subscribers in the first three months of 2017, bringing its total to around 1.9 million. Thanks in large part to all the new subscribers, the newspaper’s revenues were up 5 percent compared to this time last year, and it made a $29 million operating profit.
Executives are clear-eyed about what’s driving all that financial good news. New York Times CEO Mark Thompson credited the “extraordinarily intense news cycle” and “the prominence of the New York Times in the news cycle” as the “single most important factor” in boosting the number of people signing up for subscriptions. In other words: Thanks, Trump.
The president has an unusually nasty public relationship with the Times, regularly describing the newspaper as “failing” and “dishonest.” The Times is happy to snipe back. Its communications department tweets fact-checks at the president whenever he insults the newspaper. And in February, the Times debuted an Oscars ad that seemed to take aim at Trump and his pattern of misstatements. The tagline: “The truth is hard.”
This is a great way to pile even more liberals onto the Times’ subscriber bandwagon. A Pew Research survey from 2014 found that 65 percent of the NYT’s audience leaned to the left, while only 12 percent leaned to the right. Those numbers are likely even more skewed today.
There’s nothing wrong with having a mostly-liberal audience, but it can make life tricky for a newspaper that prides itself on being fair and neutral. (It is also a challenge for digital-only sites, including Vox, that have seen a surge in readership under the Trump administration.)
Consider, for instance, the recent controversy over Bret Stephens, who was hired to be the latest conservative columnist for New York Times. Many liberals protested the newspaper’s choice to hire Stephens because he has a history of denying climate change. Stephens says he now accepts the scientific consensus on that issue, but in his debut column for the Times last week, he defended the public’s “right to be skeptical.”
There are many reasons why the column was disappointing, as my colleague David Roberts has explained, but for Stephens, this was a relatively tame climate take. Yet the Times readership panicked. “No subject since the election has come close to producing this kind of anger toward The Times,” New York Times public editor Liz Spayd noted. Many subscribers threatened to cancel their subscriptions.
This episode illustrates the risks when newspapers market to just one side or the other. Not only does it create a business incentive for the newsroom to drift in a certain direction, but it also changes the kind of feedback that editors get from their readers. Inside the resulting echo chamber, it becomes harder and harder to tell if readers hated a piece because it was poorly written, or because they didn’t like its point of view.
Unfortunately, this problem doesn’t seem like it will be easy to fix. According to a poll released Wednesday from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, one of the top reasons people pay for news is that they “feel good about contributing to the news organization.” This kind of do-gooder funding model has been popular among left-leaning magazines like Mother Jones and the Nation, which ask readers to donate to support journalism they morally believe in.
As print advertising revenues decline, mainstream newspapers are also leaning on their readership to fund newsroom operations. And they seem to be making similar, if slightly subtler appeals. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” doesn’t appear partisan on the face of it — but for a newspaper in 2017 it’s not hard to guess what “Darkness” it is referring to.
This is a risky survival strategy for publications that claim to represent the neutral center. As news organizations start to rely more and more on subscription revenue, they risk becoming polarized alongside their increasingly partisan audiences.
Americans are already quite divided in their news diets. For political coverage, conservatives overwhelmingly consult Fox News, while liberals turn to CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. The danger of living in a media bubble is that you forget what people on other side sound like. You forget that they have real concerns. You forget that they aren’t all irrational, or hypocritical, or hateful. Then an election happens, and you wonder whose reality you were living in all along.