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The media’s “Trump bump” wasn’t as big as you might think

Trump was good for business, but not that good, according to the publisher of the New York Times.

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger says the Trump bump was overblown.
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The so-called “Trump bump” was real for the New York Times — but it didn’t last long, and it was overblown in the first place, according to the newspaper’s publisher.

In an interview with Recode’s Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Tuesday, A.G. Sulzberger, who became publisher of the Times in January 2018, acknowledged that the public’s interest in all things Donald Trump was good for business. But only for a while. After Trump was sworn into the presidency, readers’ appetite for news about him “petered off” pretty quickly, Sulzberger said, and people have become tired of reading about presidential politics and politics in general.

“We actually saw readership of political coverage decline … on a relative basis compared to our non-political coverage,” Sulzberger said, though he clarified that subscriptions overall have increased for the Times.

Trump has an odd dynamic with the Times. He consistently complains about the Times’ coverage and often derides it as fake news. The paper has provided some of the most in-depth reporting on Trump to date, including breaking blockbuster stories on the Trump family’s tax practices, the president’s tax returns, and the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in 2017.

But Trump, a native New Yorker, also clearly cares about the Times’ approval. In a sit-down interview with Trump earlier this year, Sulzberger pressed Trump about his attacks on the media, and Trump told him he just wanted one nice story written about him.

“I came up from Jamaica, Queens, Jamaica Estates, and I became president of the United States,” Trump said. “I’m sort of entitled to a great story from my — just one — from my newspaper.”

Kafka on Tuesday asked Sulzberger what he believes the president’s real feelings about the Times are. Does he really think the paper is creating fake news and is out to get him, or does he admire it and desperately want its approval?

“He’s obviously a loyal reader,” Sulzberger joked, to laughter. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that we’ll have a story online all day and then the next morning when it hits print at 5:30 am, pretty much when it lands on the White House doorstep, it’s when he’s tweeting about it.”

But on a more serious note, Sulzberger said Trump’s true attitude doesn’t matter, because in deriding the Times and journalism in general for years, he has eroded independent journalism in the United States and around the globe. Domestically, he has contributed to growing distrust and increased polarization in the media, Sulzberger said. And abroad, Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened dictators and authoritarian leaders to crack down on the press and has created an “incredibly dangerous climate.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists around the globe were imprisoned in 2018, and more than 50 were killed, more than in 2017 and 2016. Trump, of course, can’t be directly blamed for all of that, but his anti-press rhetoric is certainly not helping the situation.

“What [Trump] did was he increased his attacks on journalism in a way that has these profound consequences around the globe,” Sulzberger said. “And to me, it’s so dangerous and so short-sighted.”

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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