A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats—some will be swamped

Photo: Michael Abshear/flickr

In my year-end prediction for 2016, I wrote about the continuing pressure that Facebook was exerting on the media industry, both from a financial perspective and a cultural one, and how this was forcing many publishers into a kind of devil’s bargain: Benefit from Facebook’s reach, but only at the cost of handing over all of your content, as well as control over your future.

Over the past year, this pressure has intensified—not just because Facebook continues to grow, but because it and Google are vacuuming up the lion’s share of the digital advertising market. According to one recent estimate, the two will account for 186 percent of the growth in the digital ad market this year, meaning many existing players will have to shrink.

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Some publishers have been able to hedge this reliance on Facebook by expanding their subscription offerings. The New York Times is the most obvious success story—it has almost doubled the number of subscribers in the past year. Other outlets have also seen success, including The Washington Post, and The Guardian has managed to sign up 800,000 readers for its membership program.

In many cases, the rise of Donald Trump and his almost-daily attacks on the press appear to have been a big part of driving more people to these kinds of subscription and membership plans, causing what some have called a “Trump bump.”

This is good news, of course. Anything that helps media companies survive and challenge the powerful should be celebrated, even if it only comes because the country has been pitched into a never-ending vortex of fear and hypocrisy by the president of the United States. But there are downsides to this as well, and I think those will become obvious over the coming year.

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One of the obvious downsides is that while fear and/or dissatisfaction with Trump may be boosting the fortunes of some media outlets, it is also boosting the fortunes of many publications on the “alt-right” side of the spectrum, not to mention outright racists and trolls of every stripe.

For these kinds of outlets, political and social polarization is the name of the game, and misinformation is the weapon of choice. And no matter how much fact-checking and verification happens, there will be those who prefer to listen to such messages because they confirm their worst suspicions. The market for hate is almost unlimited.

No matter how much fact-checking happens, there will be those who prefer to listen to such messages because they confirm their worst suspicions. The market for hate is almost unlimited.

Another downside is that the rising tide of interest in media subscriptions cannot possibly lift all boats. Just from a purely financial perspective, there are not going to be enough people who are willing to pay for subscriptions to multiple outlets.

In other words, while the internet has made the supply of information virtually limitless, the supply of money with which to pay for it remains painfully finite. And that means every new subscription to The New York Times or The Washington Post makes it less likely that other outlets will get a new subscriber.

In the end, some media outlets simply aren’t going to be able to get enough subscription revenue to survive, at least not without shrinking their cost base radically—something that arguably needs to happen anyway, since that cost structure was designed for a very different time, when geographic monopolies were essentially a license to print money.

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It’s not just a question of subscriptions to high-profile entities like The New York Times making it harder for the smaller outlets to get subscribers. Some newspapers may find it difficult to get enough traction with their paywalls because they have lost touch with their local markets after decades of chain ownership.

If you want to convince large numbers of people to donate or subscribe, you either have to have a large and powerful brand, or you have to be small and targeted enough that a significant part of your market believes you are worth supporting.

So if your paper spent the last decade or so running a lot of wire stories, or filler from columnists who couldn’t locate your town on a map, or if you supplemented your online presence with Outbrain and Taboola and a bunch of clickbait content because you couldn’t come up with a real strategy, don’t expect readers to beat down your door volunteering to pay you.

You may protest that your journalism is valuable and necessary, and therefore readers should support you. But if you can’t prove that it is valuable and necessary, then by definition it isn’t.

The “Trump bump” may have provided a short-term boost, but the reality is that no matter who you are, you have to provide some net tangible benefit for your readers if you expect them to part with a monthly fee in return for your content. And that means you have to give them something unique—either a perspective on a topic or a geographic location, or both.

You may protest that your journalism is valuable and necessary, and therefore readers should support you. But if you can’t prove that it is valuable and necessary, then by definition it isn’t.

This is going to require significant reorientation for some publishers, many of whom are still behaving as though they are the only game in town. It is going to take some soul-searching about what role they need to play, or can play, and how to maximize the benefit to the largest number of people. And it’s going to mean actually listening to readers, something the media isn’t very good at.

Those who can’t offer something unique will find themselves taking on water in both directions: Their ad revenue will continue to decline at an ever-increasing pace thanks to Google and Facebook, and their subscription revenue won’t be enough to make up the gap. And eventually the waves will break over the gunwales and there will be little or nothing they can do about it.

Related: Trump Twitter spreadsheet tracks “a perpetual campaign against the press”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.