Business of News

Subscription surges and record audiences follow Trump’s election

December 6, 2016

When CBS Chairman Les Moonves said in February that the Donald Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he likely didn’t imagine his comment would apply to the entire news industry come December.

While many in the media have expressed concerns over the impact a Trump administration could have on press freedoms, the president-elect’s influence already is boosting news organizations’ bottom lines. The New York Times said it signed up 10,000 new subscribers per day several times since the election, and the past few weeks recorded a 10-fold increase in new subscriptions over the same period last year. “Often after an election you expect a lull,” Times president and CEO Mark Thompson said on Monday at the UBS Global Media & Communications conference in Manhattan. “We’re not seeing that, we’re seeing a surge.”

Thompson attributed the rise in subscriptions to “a dramatic increase in the willingness to pay for serious, independent journalism.” He also said reaching the Times’ goal of 10 million paid subscribers–up from 2.6 million today, about 1.5 million of which are digital-only–“is very possible for us.” Most of the new subscribers are digital, though some opted for the Times in print. The company noted the increases are net of cancellations.

As print advertising continues to fall, Thompson cited the Times’ digital revenue growth as a bright spot in shoring up the paper’s financial foundation. He said consumers are more willing to pay for online content, driven by an acceptance of monthly fees for services like Netflix.

While the Times holds a unique place in the media landscape, other major players across the industry have reported similar audience and subscription bounces. The LA Times saw a 60 percent increase in new digital subscriptions in the weeks following the election, a spokeswoman told CJR. For the month of November, the paper added more than four times as many new subscribers as it did during the same period in 2015. And the LA Times was not the only outlet in the publicly traded Tronc Inc. newspaper chain to report subscription increases; CNBC reported the chain saw an average gain in digital subscribers of 29 percent across its newspapers, which also include the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant

While the Washington Post hasn’t yet released specific numbers, a representative from the paper told CJR the Post has seen “a steady increase in subscriptions over the course of this year.” The Wall Street Journal in the days after the election reported a 300 percent spike in new subscriptions. (CJR has also felt the impact of Trump’s election, with record web traffic and new memberships for the month of November more than doubling the previous month.)

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Investors have cheered the new-found willingness among consumers to pay for news, bidding up the shares of publicly traded chains since Election Day, along with a broader market rally. Tronc has advanced about 16 percent; Gannett added about 22 percent; McClatchy gained 6 percent; and The New York Times Co. soared by about 16 percent.

The Trump effect is not limited to print; cable news has also seen a bump in viewership. Fox News clocked its highest-rated month in network history in its primetime audience in November, with 3.3 million nightly viewers. November was CNN’s highest rated month in eight years among adults in the coveted 25-54 demographic, with the news network reporting 1.5 million total viewers. CNN noted Election Night was the most-watched primetime night in its history.

While the Times’ Thompson said it was too early to draw precise conclusions about the exact causes of subscription increases, he ventured that “public anxiety to actually have politicians held to account, and having [a] professional, consistent, properly funded newsroom holding politicians to account, is probably bigger than all the other factors put together.”

Photo by Travis Ruse, via Wikimedia Commons

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.