Can Publishers Turn ‘Trump Bump’ Into Lasting Revenue?

May 02, 2017

Awhile back, I quipped that the best thing that can happen to a print news publication these days is for President Donald Trump to call it out by name in a Twitter tirade. It wasn’t an original thought. The “Trump Bump” was a phenomenon many media watchers already noticed.

It seems to have started with Vanity Fair. The magazine quickly realized the opportunity it had after a bad restaurant review sent the then president-elect ranting on Twitter about its “poor numbers” and declared it, “Way down, big trouble, dead!” The marketing staffers seized the moment and started running ads using quotes from the tweets to encourage anti-Trump readers to subscribe. Other news outlets have caught on, stressing the new president’s disdain for the press as a reason to support good journalism. Personally, I ended up with a Mother Jones subscription.

But Trump’s relationship with the media is complicated. Even before magazines and newspapers started raking in the dough from new subscription revenue, it was reported that CNN made an extra $100 million over its normal election-year revenue. This was driven, in part, by campaign trail antics and the interest they generated. This good news wasn’t shared among many local TV stations. Political ad spending—a huge source of income for local affiliates—was down. Nonetheless, you might say President Trump is creating jobs—just not in the expected sectors.

Those of us who have been fretting over dwindling ad revenues—and the public’s unwillingness to support journalism—are quite heartened by the whole thing. Not only are the American people putting their money where their values are when it comes to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, but they are waking up and realizing the importance of a free press.

At the end of January, I received an email from The Atlantic with more good news. After President Trump announced his executive order now known as “the Muslim Ban,” The Atlantic saw record audiences, with more than 3.3 million unique website visitors on both the following Sunday and Monday. It suspected that, by the end of the month, it would have reached more than 32 million monthly unique visitors—a feat the site had only accomplished once before, in November 2016 (not coincidentally, that was election month).

The Washington Post announced it is adding new jobs in its newsroom (not something we’re used to hearing these days). Expanding its staff by 60 journalists is no small investment, but it also revealed it would be creating a rapid-response investigative team.

All of this is exciting news for journalists, who have not only been wondering if there is a future for their chosen career, but are used to being maligned. The 2017 “Edelman Trust Barometer” found that only 43% of respondents trust the media, but 52% trust businesses. (Only 41% trust the government.) At the same time, the American government—or whatever you want to call Steve Bannon—is insisting that the media is “the opposition party.” That doesn’t even make sense, but it tells us a lot about what the administration thinks of a free press. We’re at an interesting place in the history of media, when trust seems to be at an all-time low, but good journalism is needed now more than ever.

It’s a good time to be a muckraker. If you’re an investigative journalist with dreams of winning a Pulitzer, there are plenty of stories out there. The current challenge for these companies is to earn the trust—and therefore the dollars—of audiences by relentlessly exposing the truth. But if you work in the business office at one of these papers or magazines, the future challenge will be to figure out how to turn this current burst of goodwill into lasting gains. When and if the news cycle goes back to normal and is no longer an endless string of five-alarm policy fires, how will your organization keep readers coming back—and forking over their hard-earned dollars for your reporting?

That question may ultimately be more difficult to answer than it is to win a Pulitzer.   

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