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SPECIAL REPORT: Mainstream media continues losing visitors in post-Trump era

Three leading news agencies critical of Trump—the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN—have all faced a rapid decline in 2021 since the 45th president left office

Three leading news agencies critical of Trump have all faced a rapid decline in 2021
Three leading news agencies critical of Trump have all faced a rapid decline in 2021 | Shutterstock

January 5, 2022 5:39am

Updated: January 6, 2022 2:48am

Media popularity dropped dramatically in 2021 during the Biden presidency as compared to President Donald Trump's last year in office in 2020, which also saw a presidential election, emerging pandemic, and wave of protests across the country.

The decline in viewership is dramatic, as the 45th president’s exodus marks a significant decline in visitors and viewers to newspapers and broadcast networks.

According to a Dec. 27 Associated Press report, the number of unique visitors at the Washington Post dropped 44% in November compared to November 2020 and was similarly down 34% at The New York Times. Both publications were widely considered two leading sources for reporting and opining on the Trump presidency.

In 2021, the weekday prime-time audience dropped by 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News Channel and 25% at MSNBC, according to the Nielsen company, the gold standard of TV ratings. In terms of broadcast news, the drop in ratings was significant, compared to 2020, but not nearly as dramatic with the ABC and CBS evening news shows losing 12% of their audience, while NBC Nightly News lost 14%.

The drop in viewership was predictable, particularly with cable news networks, and happened almost immediately after President Joe Biden took office.

“They built a prime-time model almost entirely focused on political combat during the Trump years, which made it difficult for them to pivot to something different,’ Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland recently told the Associated Press. “You become, to some extent, a prisoner of the audience you built."

Other factors could also be responsible for diminishing interest in news content, including new emerging models of media and how people are accessing their news.

NBC News had a significant head-start over the other broadcast networks as its cable news arm, MSNBC, which had operated for nearly two decades as a cable news staple before CBS and ABC started their 24-hour live-streamed news, but without a cable presence to allow them to compete with NBC in that department. Another advantage for NBC is the familiarity of their news personalities such as Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell who are aired on both the broadcast and cable networks.

Fox News Channel has continued to dominate ratings over CNN and MSNBC, in both 2020 and 2021.

Some media analysts have suggested Fox's dominance is because CNN and MSNBC divide up the more liberal members of the audience, while the conservative audience flocked to one station.

That argument, however, is losing some ground since Fox News Channel is now considered by some Trump conservatives as just another mainstream media network amidst the rise of harder right agencies such as Newsmax TV, Blaze TV and One America News Network as well as rising web-based news organizations such as Real America’s Voice and Just the News.

In a Nov. 23, 2020 Los Angeles Times piece titled, ‘How will cable news thrive without Donald Trump in the White House?’ the California newspaper made the case that a turning point occurred around the time of the presidential election in that Fox News Channel angered many Trump supporters when it was the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night.

“The Trump campaign expressed its dismay over the call to Fox News brass and Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of its parent firm Fox Corp,” Times Staff Writer Stephen Battaglio wrote.

“The president himself turned on Fox News on social media and directed his followers to smaller conservative news channels — Newsmax and One America News — which he sees as more supportive of his message that the election was stolen from him despite data showing he lost.”

The mainstream media’s decline in readers and viewers has been a consistent hallmark with news networks focused on the Trump presidency. As early as March 17, Nielsen Media Research Data reported that CNN, one of Trump's most significant critics had lost 47%  of its target audience ages 25-54, according to Fox News.

CNN averaged 2.5 million primetime viewers between the day after the election — November 4, 2020 — and Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021. But after Biden took office, those numbers plummeted to an average of 1.6 million viewers tuning in during primetime hours between January 21 and March 15, Fox News reported.

Two months later on May 23, Nielsen Media Research Data reported that CNN lost as much as 67% of its viewers since Trump left office. The day prior, The Washington Post ran the headline, "'Trump predicted news ratings would 'tank if I'm not there.' He wasn't wrong."

"This is uncharted waters after the Trump bump," Ken Doctor, founder of California media startup, 'Lookout' told the London Financial Times on October 17 in an article titled, 'US TV network ratings dive after years of Trump and Trauma.' "It's highly unlikely we will see another bump like that over the next ten years," he told the British-based publication.

Some journalists who were critical of Trump have welcomed the decline despite the impact it has had on news industry profits. In a Sept. 1 opinion piece published by Politico, columnist Jack Shafer insisted that, "Now that Trump island has gone, news consumers have happily gone cold turkey," adding that the actual "causes behind the 'great media crash' are self-evident. Last year was a campaign year, which always causes news consumption to spike."

Shafer credited President Joe Biden "for relieving us of our 24/7 news duties," musing that, "Sometimes I Google 'the name of the President of the United States' just to remind me who occupies the White House.”

Mr. Battaglio from the Los Angeles Times summarized it differently, however. In his Nov. 23, 2020 piece, asserting that “It’s never pretty for a hit TV show when it loses its biggest star. Cable news networks are about to learn what it feels like when President Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20 to make way for former Vice President Joe Biden.”

This year has also seen the closure of 100 to 120 local newspapers, Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University told the Associated Press on Dec. 27. In that same report, the AP concluded, “Particularly for national news outlets, [University of Maryland journalism Professor Tom] Rosenstiel said 2021 may best be remembered as a transitional year away from the frenzied news pace of the Trump years.”

Timothy Franklin, another journalism professor at Northwestern told the AP, “What we’re seeing this year is kind of a watershed moment in the pivot from a print business model that is diminishing to a business model that is beginning to take shape,” citing newspapers such as the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star-Tribune as examples of success stories in the print industry. The report added that “Although usage of the [New York] Times’ digital site is down, the company passed eight million subscriptions and is on pace to grow further.”

On the brighter side, the report added that although newsrooms lost more jobs in 2020 than any other year since 2008, the Chicago based outplacement and research firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas predicted that, “…local news outlets are also expected to have the smallest number of job cuts in 14 years.”

Despite the challenges seen across the news industry, the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel has seen an increase in profits. 

In a Dec. 30 Variety report that ranked the most-watched television networks in 2021, Fox News Channel dominated MSNBC and CNN although all three channels lost significant viewership.

In an Oct. 4 third-quarter report, Forbes wrote that, “For the quarter, Fox News ranked first among all cable networks in primetime viewers (persons +2) with an average audience (live + same day) of 2.37 million viewers. MSNBC was second among cable networks averaging 1.28 million viewers. CNN ranked eighth in prime time (behind ESPN, HGTV, TLC, USA, and Hallmark) averaging 822,000 viewers.”

The report added that newer and smaller conservative networks such as Newsmax averaged 182,000 viewers in prime time and Nexstar’s News Nation averaged 31,000.

In a New York Times report updated October 31 from May 5 titled, “Fox News Profits Grow Even as Viewership Declines,” the newspaper said the cable news channel kept its parent company “flush in the first three months of the year” despite a drop in viewers, adding that the company “beat Wall Street expectations with a sevenfold increase in profit to $567 million and a 6.5% drop in revenue to $3.2 billion compared with the same year prior…”

The Times attributed the drop in viewers partially because fewer people tuned into the news channel, but also because it did not carry the Super Bowl this year. The report added that after that early earning report, Lachlan Murdoch, the Chief Executive of Fox Corporation and son of Rupert Murdoch declared victory for Fox News Channel in a call with investors.

“Fox News reclaimed its leadership position as America’s No. 1 cable news network and the most watched cable network in prime-time,” he said, then adding, “MSNBC lost more than one third of its audience and CNN lost half—over half.”

Several months later, end of the year ad revenue projections also proved to keep Fox News Channel in the lead with ad revenue. In an Oct. 12 Forbes report that used data tabulated by Kagan Research, the publication said, “Fox, of course, was far and away the leader on this front notching more than $1 billion in ad revenue in 2020, per Kagan’s data. This year, Fox is eclipsing the other two networks on the basis of ad revenue. Kagan expects Fox News to end the year with $884 million in ad sales, compared to $815 million for CNN and $574 million for MSNBC.”