It may have felt like the presidential election completely dominated all the news coverage last year, but in retrospect, that seems almost like a golden age of media compared to what has happened since Donald Trump became President.
Over the past few weeks, it has felt as if Trump is the only story that matters, taking over every section of the media world, from style to sports. “Every journalist, no matter the beat, covers politics now,” Bloomberg tech reporter Sarah Frier tweeted. Her tweet resonated: So far, it has garnered more than 1,600 retweets and 5,000 likes.
Women’s magazines and web sites have been garnering praise for adding politics and opinion. A recent post on The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ post-Grantland sports, culture and tech site, argued that Trump’s presidency had brought an end of the era of sportswriters sticking to sports. That argument was borne out by the Super Bowl, where everything from the score to the commercials to Lady Gaga’s outfit during the halftime show were examined from a political angle and whether there were Trumpian undertones.
And the same can certainly be said of many media desks. Coverage of the media industry has, for many outlets, turned into coverage of the president’s antagonistic relationship with the press. At magazine conferences and during drinks with sources, the talk inevitably turns to Trump.
“If you look at many of the media stories, they are simultaneously about politics,” Politico media columnist Jack Shafer said. “The media angle gives entry to the conflicts and controversies that Trump is stimulating.”
Considering that the new Republican administration has cast the majority of the press in a starring role as “the opposition party” (to quote Trump consiglieri Stephen Bannon), and Trump has decided that the term “fake news” can be (falsely) used to describe any story he doesn’t like (while “alternative facts” can be used to create any story he wants), it’s perhaps no wonder that the relationship between the White House and the media has become a big story in its own right. Not since Watergate has public awareness of journalism seemed so high.
Social media feeds are overrun with news about Trump; people are more likely to share content that provokes an emotional response. And stories about Trump definitely seem to fall in that category. Reader engagement is high in this highly politically charged time, and the public seems to actually care about journalism once again.
Trump’s early morning tweets are, quite often, jabs at The Times or CNN or, more generally, the media he often labels “dishonest.” The daily White House briefings are now streamed live so viewers at their desks can watch reporters spar with the gum-swallowing press secretary. The rocky relationship between Spicer and the press corps has been such an area of interest that SNL recreated it, with Melissa McCarthy as the press secretary — reportedly to the chagrin of Trump.
In the process of reporting on all of this, many newsrooms have made Trump the focus of media reporting, rather than business stories about the future of the industry.
CNN’s Reliable Sources, for example, has really found its footing as a reliable source of news about Trump news. Host Brian Stelter’s monologues, which he calls “essays,” on pertinent issues affecting news consumption such as “fake news” have the serious tone of a Sunday sermon. CNN’s media desk is hiring a full-time reporter just to focus on the wave of “fake news.” BuzzFeed poached The Wall Street Journal media and advertising reporter Steven Perlberg for a newly created role focusing on the relationship between the media and Trump. Journalism nonprofit ProPublica has had such an influx of donations that it plans to hire between 15 and 25 journalists mostly to cover — what else? — aspects of the Trump administration.
In a memo outlining changes to the business section of The Times, editor Dean Murphy wrote that the paper will have “multiple beat reporters [contribute] to coverage of the Trump administration as we determine with the broader newsroom how that coverage will be directed and organized going forward.”
The Times recently revealed that the company was allocating an additional $5 million to Trump coverage — no small investment considering tightening budgets. But then, digital subscriptions are up at many publications, helped along by marketing campaigns and social media that use Trump’s antipathy towards the press as a motivating force to get readers to pay for news.
New Corp’s chief executive officer Robert Thomson noted, in a call with investors, that The Wall Street Journal has experienced a significant increase in digital subscriptions as a result of the election. And in a quarterly earnings call, Times ceo Mark Thompson mentioned Trump’s tweets about the paper. “President Trump was once again busy tweeting this weekend that our audiences and our subscribers were, to use his word, ‘dwindling,'” Thompson said. “Well, not so much, Mr. President.”
“It’s heartening to see that, despite continuing economic pressures on news, the biggest media organizations are bulking up substantially to cover Trump, including shifting reporters away from the White House to the agencies themselves, which is where a lot of the action is going to be,” Columbia Journalism Review editor in chief Kyle Pope told WWD. “Also heartening so far is the fact that the media response to White House coverage has been met by a corresponding increase in the size of the audience reading and watching it (including ours, by the way).”
To be sure, some publications that have media reporting, like the team at Politico and Huffington Post senior media reporter Michael Calderone, have long made the intersection of media and politics their primary focus. It should be noted that more financially focused publications, such as The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, have kept the bulk of their media coverage primarily centered on the business of media.
“The Journal has been covering the many angles of the ‘media in the Trump era’ story aggressively and will continue to do so,” a Journal representative said. Although the Journal has a newly formed business team in the D.C. bureau, the representative noted: “We are committed to our core coverage of the media business — it is as strong as ever.”
But for many newsrooms, still shedding staff despite recent subscriber gains, putting resources into Trump coverage has the potential to take away already scant resources from media coverage.
“There is a danger in allocating all these resources to covering the administration, though it’s only a tiny, marginal twist to what has been happening for years, which is that local and regional coverage has been struggling, while coverage of national politics seems to be getting more robust,” Erik Wemple, a media critic at The Washington Post, said.
Perhaps a better question is whether readers will really sustain this level of interest in Trump. The same news outlets that report on the president are offering advice for combating Trump news fatigue (stay off social media and read about other things seems to be the general suggestions).
“Absolutely nothing about the current situation is sustainable. Nothing,” Wemple said. “The Trump White House cannot keep up the pace with the executive orders and routine weekend madness; the White House press corps cannot keep up with it, and media reporters like myself cannot possibly continue exploring the requisite angles that emerge from all of this very quick change.”
Of course, this is only the first month.
Politico’s Shafer likened it to right after 9/11, when it seemed hard to imagine a time when stories about the terror attacks would ever not dominate news coverage. After a month, he recalled, they were off the front page.
Then again, everything else about Trump has been a departure from previously established norms. “This administration is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and the coverage needs to reflect that,” Columbia Journalism Review’s Pope said.
No matter what, in the coming weeks and months, media reporters will have to find a balance between covering Trump and covering the industry. And that may mean that Trump will remain a big part of the media section for the foreseeable future.