With Donald Trump’s presidency at hand, the news-media landscape is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
●Breitbart News, which championed Trump as it catered to its white-nationalist readers, is expanding into France and Germany, even as its former chairman, Steve Bannon, has the future president’s ear as his chief strategist.
●America’s newspapers are reeling from suddenly steeper declines in the print advertising that keeps them afloat. Journalistic talent is oozing out of newsroom doors as companies cut expenses.
●Cable TV, so important to Trump’s rise, seems torn between two personalities: one driven by ratings and profit, the other by its responsibility to inform the public.
●Traditional powerhouses including the New York Times and The Washington Post are beefing up their White House and government coverage, as if girding for battle, while one of the best of the digital investigative outfits, ProPublica, expands into the Midwest.
●Trump is still trashing the media, as he did throughout his campaign. And his hard-core supporters, whom he described recently as “vicious, violent, screaming,” see the mainstream media as villains.
What can we expect in the months ahead? As Marty Baron, The Post’s executive editor, aptly noted in a commencement speech last week, predictions are not journalists’ strong suit.
Nevertheless, with the help of some expert observers, here are a few.
1. Unprecedented conflict between the administration and the media.
Jay Rosen, a leading media thinker, sees big trouble ahead. Describing himself as “very gloomy,” he said he believes that not only will media rights be under siege but the end of our democracy is possible.
“Trump converts press coverage of his falsehoods into fuel in the culture war,” he said in an interview. “This casts the press in the role of Trump’s antagonist and encourages his supporters to shout down honest reporting.”
He forecast in a 20-part Twitter thread what might happen when a major journalistic investigation infuriates the new president: A leak investigation will follow and, in turn, journalists could find themselves prosecuted for the crime of reporting the news.
2. Journalism that follows the money — but may not hit home.
Carl Bernstein, the author and Watergate reporter, believes that news organizations will provide great journalism, zeroing in on Trump’s financial conflicts of interest and connections to Russia.
“If Hillary Clinton or Richard Nixon had had these kinds of conflicts, there would be a Congressional investigation starting on January 21,” Bernstein said. But Trump “has a perverse genius that keeps him eight steps away from every sheriff.”
Just as when he and fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward were doing their Watergate investigation in the 1970s, “follow the money” is still the key. Not with the intention of bringing down a president, he emphasized, but in order to give citizens and their elected representatives the information needed to make decisions.
There has been one crucial — and undeniable — change since the Watergate days, though: “Fewer and fewer people are open to the best obtainable version of the truth.”
3. The weakening of journalism in the heartland.
Money troubles are eating away at one of the few ties that bind us: regional and local newspapers. A few months ago, newspapers saw a sudden acceleration of losses in print advertising.
Warren Buffett, whose company Berkshire Hathaway owns dozens of newspapers (and who was once my boss), told me that those losses are closely correlated with unending circulation declines: “The trends are very clear.”
Nothing will reverse this, and digital ad revenue simply doesn’t pay for the heavy costs of newsgathering, production and distribution. Papers have long been looking for an Internet-age strategy, “but nobody has found it,” Buffett said. Meanwhile, papers cut costs by slashing staff in endless rounds of buyouts and layoffs.
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, the investigative journalism nonprofit, said that these shrunken papers are less able to carry out the core mission of accountability journalism.
“The biggest lie is that newsrooms can do more with less,” he said.
ProPublica is expanding into Illinois with a 10-person editorial team — laudable, to be sure, but it can’t begin to make up for vibrant local papers with dozens of beat reporters, statehouse bureaus and investigative teams. Journalism, more and more, is concentrated in New York City, Washington and California — the very places that many Trump supporters find so suspect.
4. More pressure than ever on dominant news organizations.
Some of the best watchdog reporting in recent months came from what Bernstein calls the “often-maligned, old-school press,” notably The Post and the New York Times, along with the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Politico.
It’s not surprising, then, that Trump blacklisted The Post and Politico during the campaign, and threatened to sue the Times. And BuzzFeed, which also did strong investigative work during the presidential campaign, also had its Trump media credentials revoked.
Rosen believes that news organizations must rebuild relationships of trust with citizens, including with Trump’s supporters.
“If people want serious, fact-based journalism, they are going to have to choose it,” he said. “They may come to realize what they value.”
Even the best watchdog journalism won’t preserve democracy as the Founders intended without engaged citizens and responsible elected officials, all living in the same truth-based reality.
At this strange moment, that seems like a high bar to clear — but clear it we must.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan