CEO Column: The Business of News in a Trump Presidency

I am often asked what it’s like to represent the news media business in the age of President Trump.  On the one hand, the President would be hard pressed to be more disdainful of the press and the role it plays in our society.  He routinely calls us liars and manipulators – and Trump and his senior strategy adviser have even branded us as “the opposition party.”

On the other hand, President Trump is also clearly obsessed by what the news media has to say and, in effect, constantly reemphasizes its central importance to our public life.  After all, if the news media really didn’t matter, then he wouldn’t talk about us at all.

There is, though, one particularly pernicious untruth that he and his advisers tout about the news media that needs to be addressed directly – and that is the idea that the industry is “failing.”  He has said this numerous times about the New York Times and Washington Post.  Note this tweet, by way of example:

Somebody with aptitude and conviction should buy the FAKE NEWS and failing @nytimes and either run it correctly or let it fold with dignity!

Kelley Anne Conway said this recently: “If the mainstream media were a thriving private sector business that actually turned a profit, which is not true of many newspapers, 20% of the people would be gone. They embarrassed, they failed to protect their shareholders and the board members and their colleagues.” (This is a particularly strange argument since it implies that if news organizations made more money, they would fire more people.)

In short, aside from complaints about bias and supposed inaccuracies; this line of argument suggests that the news media shouldn’t be listened to because it is failing as business.  “Don’t listen to them because they aren’t making enough money!”

That is logically misguided – but also factually wrong. Yes, the print and digital newspaper business isn’t what it used to be, financially. The internet has done a number on a lot of bottom lines across many industries, and the news business is going through a difficult transition to new business models.

But in no event does that mean that the industry is “failing.”  The public has an insatiable demand for (now more than ever), and we have huge, engaged – and growing – audiences. Plus, 74 percent of respondents say they mostly or always trust print newspapers. This is higher than any other news distributor, including Twitter.

Many news properties are actually doing fine, thank you very much. The Post is adding 60 new jobs, an astounding number. CEO Fred Ryan sent a memo that they were profitable and growing. With the new jobs, the newsroom will number more than 750 journalists.

The Times surged to 2.5 million subscribers, accredited largely to the “Trump Bump.” In Q4, they saw 276,000 net growth in digital subscriptions. This could add at least $30 million a year to the company.

In a conference call, Times CEO Mark Thompson said, “President Trump was once again busy tweeting this weekend that our audiences and our subscribers were, to use his word, ‘dwindling.’ Well, not so much, Mr. President.”

There was no post-election lull in numbers, either. Thompson reported strong growth continuing into the New Year.

And that doesn’t even count the thousands of local newspapers that are profitable because they produce content about communities that no one else does. They are also still uniquely able to connect local advertisers to their local consumers in ways that larger news properties can’t.

The bottom line is that it may come as a disappointment to President Trump, but the print and digital news business isn’t failing at all. It is, in fact, going to be around long after the Administration: holding the powerful to account, and being the eyes, ears and voice that the public wants and demands.


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