On Feb. 16, a day before posting that, the US president held his first solo press conference—dubbed the ”stress conference” by late-night host Stephen Colbert—in which Donald Trump railed against critical coverage of his administration by news outlets like CNN and the New York Times.
Trump has been a vocal critic of the mainstream media for years. And, as president, he’s used his pulpit, among other things, to slam liberal-leaning publications and discredit news reports he claims are false with cries of ”fake news.” But there’s one byproduct of Trump’s war with the media that he likely didn’t count on.
The attention he’s paid the press has drawn droves of readers and viewers to the very media outlets he’s bashed.
Cable-TV news networks CNN and MSNBC posted 77% and 87% year-over-year growth, respectively, in total viewers for 2016—marking CNN’s most-watched year ever. January was also strong for those networks. And CNN CEO Jeff Zucker said that Trump’s remarks had not damaged the network’s brand, citing research commissioned by the company (paywall).
Online readership is up at news sites including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, according to data from industry tracker ComScore. (All those sites have a paywall.)
During the last quarter of 2016, the New York Times added 276,000 net digital-only subscribers—more than all the subscribers who signed up for the service the entire previous year. Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair set a single-day company-wide record after Trump tweeted that the publication’s circulation was “way down, big trouble, dead!” in December.
By pointing out that these outlets businesses are “failing,” which they are not, Trump also seems to have awakened in mainstream audiences a realization that they need to pay to support a free and independent press. (Though the Trump bump in digital wasn’t enough to cover the drop in print advertising revenue that the New York Times posted in the fourth quarter of 2016.)
It’s not just “the enemy” that’s getting a boost. Trump’s election has also been good for Fox News Channel, which Trump has commended on several occasions, and will appear on next week during one of his favorite morning shows, Fox and Friends. Fox News was the number one US cable-TV news network again in 2016 with a 36% jump in total viewers; its total day viewers grew 45% in January from the previous year.
The Government Executive, which went fully digital in 2015, also got a healthy hike. Its digital readership spiked an unprecedented 102% since October, Politico reported. It goes to show that average Americans aren’t the only ones looking for keen political coverage. There’s also an appetite for apt analysis among the government officials, business executives, and academic leaders who are known for reading the Government Executive. (Which, like Quartz, is owned by Atlantic Media.)
“Presidential transitions are always big moments for us, as a media brand, just because they can be the Super Bowl of our market,” Tim Hartman, CEO of the Government Executive Media Group, told Politico. “This one, in its intensity and dramatic pivot on key issues related to the public sector, we think it’s just going to continue to be a bigger transition than we’ve ever seen really.”
Openly conservative outlets like Breitbart News and the Daily Caller, and wholly progressive publications such as the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos, have similarly seen digital-audience growth year over year as readers on the fringes turn in greater frequencies to the partisan outlets they trust.
By pitting himself against the media, the US president has amassed a legion of loyal followers who take his word—usually delivered through his personal Twitter account or weekly YouTube address—as bond and dismiss news reports to the contrary as bias or “fake.”
But he’s also made his opponents, and everyone in between, more beholden to news organizations than ever as they grapple for credible coverage to make sense of the onslaught of information that comes from the Trump administration every day.
For news outlets that are still struggling with the shift to digital—and digital outlets that are coming to terms with their own limitations—this lift couldn’t come at a better time. The question is, how long will it last?