A visit to America, like the one I am currently on, is always edifying for a marketer. The fact that marketing was and is an American invention makes every trip a brilliant update and an inspiring chance to see what is going on in the biggest market of them all. But the seismic changes taking place here at the moment make it an even more fascinating place to visit than usual.
I’m over in New York talking at the annual INMA conference. Not surprisingly the conference is awash with discussions about the digital duopoly, fake news and the continued plight of news media and, with it, modern journalism. Just like the UK, the US is beginning to appreciate the ‘double whammy’ taking place across news media.
The first whammy is the increasingly dominant role of social media as a source of news. The best estimates say around two thirds of the American population get their daily news from social media. That’s a dangerous statistic because, free from the classic editorial checks and balances of a free press, social media has become a perfect breeding ground for news that is either wrong, fake or skewed to a certain political or commercial ideology.
The second whammy comes as newspaper circulation decreases and print advertising disappears. Newspapers either close up shop or drastically reduce their operating costs. Less journalists means a weaker ‘fourth estate’ and that, in turn, means that there are fewer investigators to uncover the fake news that now breeds at such an alarming rate across social media.
Put more simply, the rise of social media has resulted in a dramatic surge in the societal infection that is fake news and reduced the amount of cultural bleach – in the form of an effective news media – that can be used to wipe it clean. And that double whammy is getting worse. More fake news, less journalism with each passing quarter.
The days of relying on advertising are over. It is subscription that will save the day, if the day is to be saved at all.
One might have expected, arriving into New York City on Sunday, that the Donald Trump era has exacerbated this situation. But, to my great surprise, this is certainly not how things are playing out. Despite the 45th President’s antipathy for the news media and well known predilection for generating stories that veer across the motorway of truth and into the shrubbery of bullshit that runs next to it, Trump may ultimately prove to be the man who saves newspapers.
Yes, the man who saves newspapers. I know, I know. Let me explain.
First up, Trump has simply made daily events more essential for everyday Americans. As MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow recently observed, it has become normal for most people to systematically check and re-check events each day just to keep abreast of the daily doings from the White House.
That kind of avid monitoring of major events fuels newspaper buying, either digitally or in print form, because in times of great crisis consumers still turn to their most trusted news source to help them comprehend and validate the major events before them. Some of the more recent headlines involving the President, Russia and a slew of admissions are so mind bogglingly insane the only viable response is to immediately check them on a valid news site, hence the increase in traffic.
That spike is crucial because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the only way newspapers will survive is with increases in paid subscription. Free-falling print advertising rates and the intransigent adoration of all things digital on the part of advertisers mean that the days of relying on advertising income as the main source of a newspaper’s revenues are over. It is subscription that will save the day, if the day is to be saved at all.
And across all the various studies of getting consumers to put their hand in their pocket and sign up for a newspaper subscription the single most predictive factor is the amount of news media that someone has read from a particular source. The more they read, the more likely they are to eventually sign up.
Trump boosting subscriptions
Handily, these big jaw dropping stories about Trump that are currently causing shockwaves through much of America are being generated by journalists. That might sound an obvious statement – ‘Exclusive: Latest news stories coming from newspapers’ – but when an increasing proportion of headlines are driven by a toxic cocktail of lobbyists, celebrities and Russian secret agents that means that suddenly American newspapers are driving the agenda again and getting people to pay for the privilege to access it.
Last week, for example, the Washington Post reported an exclusive story in which it revealed President Trump had revealed highly classified secrets to Russian diplomats during a meeting at the White House. It makes for the kind of headline that would have been unthinkable in any era other than the one currently being occupied by Trump.
Every week Trump seems to ratchet up the absurdity yet further and newspapers are the prime beneficiaries.
The scoop was widely reported, but to access the original story you had to visit the Washington Post, the legendary home of Woodward and Bernstein back in the Watergate era, and either start a free trial or, if that had been already exhausted with the previous Trump scoops, pay up to start your subscription.
“Who could resist?” asked James Stewart in a column for rival newspaper The New York Times. Stewart went on to describe signing up to the Post for the first time despite the rivalry between the two mastheads. And he was not alone. The Post reported later that day that the story had broken the newspaper’s own record (previously held by the 2016 report of Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments) for website visits.
This sudden surge of readers is by no means a one-off affair. Every week in America Trump seems able to ratchet up the absurdity and intensity of his shenanigans yet further and newspapers are the prime beneficiaries.
“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,” Kyle Pope, the long serving editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, recently declared.
“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.” It’s an interesting and unexpected chain of events. Trump drives stories, stories drive traffic, traffic drives subscription, and subscription might just save newspapers.
New York Times on the rise
Trump is helping news media in another way too. As his presidency divides opinion and stokes outrage more and more consumers are choosing sides and reflecting that choice in a commitment to subscribe to certain newspapers.
The New York Times has openly and consistently critiqued Trump from the outset of his political journey. In return, President Trump has attacked the Times via his Twitter account with unprecedented ferocity, even by his standards. His constant jibes about the “failing” nature of America’s most famous newspaper represent a clear attempt to get even with a title that operates with a barely concealed disdain for the President and his methods.
Trump’s attacks aren’t just proving inaccurate and unsuccessful, they may well be fuelling a dramatic and important renaissance at The New York Times. Subscriptions over the last 12 months are up, massively, and most explanations centre on the Times’ critical coverage of the White House and public desire to support a masthead clearly under attack by the President. Shares in the newspaper have risen more than 40% since Trump’s election victory and in a remarkable twist it recently announced quarterly profits that beat even the most bullish forecasts.
By taking an enemy in Trump the Times has strengthened its brand awareness and daily saliency while also bolstering its associations and attractiveness to readers. The only slight concern for the Times and other American newspapers is if they ultimately succeed in their hunt of the Trump. Impeachment or any other unsavoury dénouement would surely sell yet more papers and more subscriptions for a while, but it would also ultimately kill the golden-haired goose currently laying so many lovely eggs.
Whether it’s as a symbolic figure of hate that galvanises and motivates left-leaning subscribers, or more simply as a spectacularly fertile source for daily news fodder, Trump is proving to be a godsend for the news media. He may not be making America great again, but he’s doing a lot to help newspapers get back up there right now. If he eventually goes because of them, they will only have themselves to blame. The prospect of a stable, unifying 46th President and a return to business as usual should fill them with dread.