President Trump knows that bad press can actually help him. Criticism from the so-called mainstream media seems to make him all the more appealing to voters who are prone to reject whatever they read in the New York Times and watch on CNN (or, perhaps more accurately, whatever they are told is in the New York Times and on CNN).
Some news organizations apparently think the principle can work in reverse too — that Trump’s accusations of “fake news” could make the president’s skeptics more likely to purchase subscriptions. Visit the website of a newspaper with a paywall these days, and there is a decent chance you will be greeted by a sales pitch that explicitly or implicitly centers on the publication's promise to hold Trump accountable.
"I'm intrigued by how oppositional many of these outlets have chosen to be," said Rick Edmonds, the Poynter Institute's media business analyst. "On the [New York Times] site last Monday afternoon, I counted nine homepage stories basically critical of the administration and six opinion columns. But one could argue that the administration is simply doing a lot that merits critical reporting and opining."
Here's one example from an ad on the New York Times's website:
"Know fact from fiction" for less than a dollar, offers the Orlando Sentinel. "We're committed to bringing you truth in journalism because as times change, the need for quality reporting doesn't."
The business strategy is not limited to U.S. newspapers. The Australian, for example, makes the following pitch, under a photograph of Trump: "You've read all the fake news. Now read the real news."
In the immediate aftermath of the election, several publications reported subscription bounces. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike on the day after Trump's victory. The Times added about 132,000 subscribers in a three-week period.
When Trump slammed Vanity Fair in a tweet in December, the magazine set a single-day company record for new subscriptions.
Edmonds noted that the Trump boost does not appear to be helping everyone.
"My impression is that the effect tapers off as we get to smaller papers — even good sized metros — that do not do D.C. reporting," he said. "We may learn more when Gannett and McClatchy report results this Thursday."
Edmonds also noted that in many cases, the current advertising campaigns offer trial subscriptions at steep discounts. While new signups are encouraging, he said, the real test will be whether readers keep their subscriptions when the trial periods end and the prices go up.