A year after the election, America has turned the news off

November 4, 2021
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2015/02/28: Turning on or turning off a television TV set using a control remote. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After a year of voracious consumption fueled by the election, post-election violence and pandemic coverage, Americans have turned off the news—on television, online and in print.

News outlets are used to declines following elections—with the exception of the 2016 election, a news spectacle which electrified one half of America, and petrified the other, focusing both on endless political clickbait headlines, palace intrigue, and the social media fallout of a divisive culture war Donald Trump stoked at every opportunity.

But, perhaps as a result of that bump, the current declines across the industry are unusually precipitous. On television, between October 2020 and October 2021, according to Nielsen data, CNN was down 73 percent, to 661,00 viewers. Over the same period, MSNBC was down 56 percent, to 1.2 million viewers, and Fox News was down 53 percent, to 2.3 million viewers.

CNN and Fox News representatives declined to comment on the numbers, but emphasized the cyclical nature of news coverage. MSNBC representatives could not be reached for comment.

Broadcast TV networks also saw declining figures for their evening newscasts. For the third quarter of 2021, ABC World News Tonight was down 10 percent, to 7.9 million viewers, compared with the same period last year. NBC Nightly News was down 12 percent, to 6.6 million viewers, and CBS Evening News was down 8 percent, to 4.9 million viewers.

Digital news consumption has fallen this year, too. According to Comscore, which measures digital news readership, traffic on—still the largest news website, with 136.4 million monthly unique visitors—was down six percent in September 2021, compared with September 2020.

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Over the same period, Vox Media, the second most popular site, was down 14 percent; the New York Times, in third, was down 12 percent; and the Washington Post, fifth, was down 20 percent. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who get their news through social media also declined, falling five percent over the previous year.

Donald Trump, of course, might attribute the entire decline to himself. In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, the media-obsessed president predicted that, without him, “ratings are going down the tubes.”

Following Trump’s election, Times subscriptions surged by 59 percent in the third quarter of 2017 versus the third quarter of 2016. Between the third quarters of 2020 and 2021, following the election of Joe Biden, digital subscriptions were up just 25 percent. And this time, they were largely strengthened by non-news subscription services like cooking and games, Times executives said.

Caleb Pershan is a CJR fellow.