In an afterword to the paperback edition of his highly profitable book “Fire and Fury,” author Michael Wolff snarked that prominent media organizations were profiting from President Trump. “When Donald Trump passes from the White House, and I feel sure that will be sooner rather than later, the media — cable, the New York Times and the Washington Post, social media — will fall into torpor and depression,” wrote Wolff. “Politico, BuzzFeed, Axios, out of business. The Times’s vaunted subscriber numbers in freefall.”
That’s the conventional wisdom about the “Trump bump,” if you will.
It’s an exaggeration, according to New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who chatted about business on Tuesday with Recode’s Peter Kafka at the ongoing Code conference. “I think the Trump bump stuff is real, but I think it’s also overblown. We saw signs of that really petering off fairly dramatically just months after Trump was sworn in,” said the publisher.
Perhaps a look at Web-traffic numbers for the New York Times can lend some insight on the matter. Here’s a chart showing unique visitors to nytimes.com from January 2016 through April 2019:
Caution: The numbers plot traffic to the entire New York Times website, meaning that the chart’s contours could be driven by booms and busts in multiple topic areas, political and nonpolitical.
That said, the trend appears to corroborate what Sulzberger said about the “Trump bump.” More from Sulzberger: “And quite frankly, since then we’ve seen all sorts of indications that people are really tired of reading about presidential politics and reading about politics of any kind right now,” he said. According to New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha, coverage of tech — particularly Uber — along with the Las Vegas mass shooting and the Islamic State were among the topics driving traffic bumps in the Trump-bump time period. “So we actually saw readership of political coverage decline ... on a relative basis compared to nonpolitical coverage,” Sulzberger told Kafka.
So people feel they have the luxury of disengaging from national politics while an unstable, narcissistic liar is at the switch? That’s news to the Erik Wemple Blog.
Another key metric for the New York Times is digital subscriptions, which have increasingly become the focus of the newspaper as the advertising dollars of yesteryear have gone poof. The subscription business has thrived in Trump times, as this chart shows:
And the company hastens to note that all the growth doesn’t hinge on politics:
Nearly four years ago, Donald Trump rode that escalator into the lobby of Trump Tower and announced his campaign for president. Every word of that announcement — particularly the one about Mexicans being rapists — and every subsequent utterance have been picked apart on cable news, in newspapers, on the radio and beyond. An unmistakable “bump” has resulted.
Yet the idea that Trump’s eventual exit will precipitate a media crisis, or some corresponding business-model bust, is also, to borrow Sulzberger’s formulation, overblown. Though future politicians might not lie the way Trump lies; might not insult the way Trump insults; might not embrace the topical ignorance that Trump embraces, they will still be working in a world in which Trump has proved that his way works, at least if you want to get to the White House.
There will be plenty of politics to cover.