The New York Times and Washington Post, forged by their obsessive coverage of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, is seeing surging digital readership. But that will be short-lived. The newspaper industry, as we forecast, is quietly but quickly fading.
The Russia-collusion media storm is driven in large part by an endless stream of leaks fed to The Times and Post. They swap “we-got-it-first” bragging rights on these “breaking news” stories, and then have their reporters blab them up across cable news networks in what has become a single-topic nearly-24/7 media circus.
Indeed, Russia has been good for The Post and Times. The Times, for example, added 308,000 digital subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017. That brought its digital subscriptions to above 2 million. And while Washington Post subscription numbers are tougher to discern, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that earlier this year the newspaper surpassed the 300,000 mark for the first time.
Industry “experts” and insiders read the new “great newspaper wars” as a powerful catalyst to resurrect Watergate-era investigative reporting and, thus, revitalize the traditional role of newspapers to expose the bad guys and set the agenda for public discourse.
Kyle Pope, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, was quoted in his own publication: “This is the great newspaper war of my career. I mean, I have not seen this level of intensity with stories of this magnitude and this kind of frequency since I’ve been in this business. As a reader, it’s amazing, and I think as a journalist, it’s amazing. I’ve said before that I think this is probably the most exciting time to be in journalism that most of us have ever lived through.”
As we forecast in one of our Top Trends for 2017, RIP: Fourth Estate, the daily newspaper is on its deathbed. While the Times and Post ride a significant wave of digital-readership growth, the increase is almost singlehandedly driven by the Russia-collusion hysteria. That also is benefitting MSNBC’s and CNN’s ratings which, through their media partnerships with the Post and Times, extend the audience reach of these stories and artificially prolong the news cycle for each “scoop.” Fox News, suffering through the departure of Bill O’Reilly and other hosts, is beginning to bleed ratings as competitors soar.
But beneath the smoke from the Russia-collusion story, total advertising revenues, the primary source of income for both newspapers, continues to decline by 15 to 20 percent year over year. The dominant trend line of news cuts deepening for newspaper companies is strong. Gannett, GateHouse, Tribune and other major newspaper companies are quietly reducing newsroom staff. And in poll after poll, credibility rates for mainstream media fall below 10 percent.
As we forecast (Trends Monthly, December 2016): “…Metro newspapers, as well as smaller newspapers, will aggressively cut space for news to save costs. Print-publication frequency will reduce. The daily newspaper – as we know it today as something you hold in your hand and page through – will fade.”
Indeed, Gannett announced in March that a handful of its papers in Louisiana and Mississippi would reduce print-publication frequency to just three days a week. GateHouse, Civitas and other media outlets also are reducing publication days to save costs. They’re continuing to slash what feeble newsroom resources are left to cut.
On the local level, there are, indeed, virtually no feet left on the beat. As we wrote last in December’s Trends Monthly: “Today, information fragments – whether sound bites on broadcast news or Twitter firestorms between news sources and media – now pass as news. ‘The masses,’ as Gerald Celente says, are headline-strong and knowledge-empty.”
TRENDPOST: For more than a decade, the newspaper industry has attempted to develop a digital content and advertising model that can grow revenue and begin to restore what has been a dramatic decline in reporting and editing resources. But there is no emerging business model to reverse what has been a clear trend. RIP: Fourth Estate.