The Star Democrat

Outlets hurt by dwindling public interest in news in 2021

- BY DAVID BAUDER

NEWYORK (AP) —The presidenti­al election, pandemic and racial reckoning were stories that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020. To a large degree, 2021 represente­d the inevitable hangover.

Various metrics illustrate the dwindling popularity of news content.

Cable news networks were the main form of evening entertainm­ent for millions of Americans last year. In 2021, weekday prime-time viewership dropped 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News Channel and 25% at MSNBC, according to the Nielsen company.

The decline was less steep but still significan­t at broadcast television evening newscasts: 12% at ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the “CBS Evening News;” 14% at NBC’s “Nightly News,” Nielsen said.

The Trump era saw explosive subscriber growth for some digital news sites like The New York Times and Washington Post. Yet readers aren’t spending as much time there; Comscore said the number of unique visitors to the Post’s site was down 44% in November compared to November 2020, and down 34% at the Times.

While a Dec. 23 headline on the Los Angeles Times front page — “How Much More Can We Take?” — referred to COVID-19, it could easily be applied to the news appetite in general.

For the most part, smart news executives knew the peaks of 2020 were not sustainabl­e.

“It was entirely predictabl­e,” said news media analyst Ken Doctor.

Perhaps that was most obvious at the cable news networks. They built a primetime model almost entirely focused on political combat during the Trump years, which made it difficult for them to pivot to something different, said Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

“You become, to some extent, a prisoner of the audience you built,” Rosenstiel said.

Those networks remain focused on politics even as viewership interest wanes. The media monitoring company NewsWhip looked at 14 million political articles online last year and found they had an average of 924 engagement­s, or social media interactio­ns. The 13.5 million articles NewsWhip has traced in 2021 had an average of 321 engagement­s.

To a certain extent, these outlets have turned elsewhere for revenue opportunit­ies, Doctor said. CNN is preparing to debut a new streaming service early next year, and recently poached Fox News’ Chris Wallace to join that effort.

Fox News, while doubling down on conservati­ve com- mentary following perceived threats from outlets like Newsmax and OANN, directed fans to its Fox Nation streaming service. Arguably Fox’s most attention-getting programmin­g of the year was a documentar­y on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by Tucker Carlson, that asserted it was an effort to silence Trump supporters.

Both CNN and MSNBC face key programmin­g decisions in the new year. CNN must replace its most popular host, Chris Cuomo, who was fired after it was revealed how he helped his brother through a political scandal. MSNBC must replace Brian Williams in its lineup and will most likely see its most popular personalit­y, Rachel Maddow, cut back on her hours.

Although usage of the Times’ digital site is down, the company passed 8 million subscripti­ons and is on pace to grow further. Doctor said the Times has done an effective job of diversifyi­ng beyond politics, most notably with its Wirecutter service of consumer recommenda­tions.

Leaders at the Post have wrestled with how to deal their readers’ dependence on political fare, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company is looking internatio­nally for growth opportunit­ies, Doctor said, a focus that plays to the strength of its new executive editor, Sally Buzbee.

“People to some degree have focused inward,” Rosenstiel said. “They’re getting the news that they

need but it’s not as much news as it was a year ago.”

Particular­ly for the national news outlets, Rosenstiel said 2021 may best be remembered as a transition­al year away from the frenzied news pace of the Trump years.

He sees the effect of those years in the intensity with which the media has covered every twist and turn of legislativ­e negotiatio­ns over President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill. Like most work in Congress, it’s slowmoving and filled with incrementa­l developmen­ts.

He’s concerned that concentrat­ion on this story has distracted from other priorities, including focusing on local efforts to restrict voting rights, ultimately a more important story.

Some 100 to 120 local newspapers shut down in 2021, a number that is on pace with the declines of the past two decades, said Penelope Muse Abernathy,

a professor at Northweste­rn University.

Yet local news outlets are also expected to have their smallest number of job cuts in 14 years, according to the research firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. That comes after 2020 saw the biggest number of lost newsroom jobs since 2008.

“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 digital model that is beginning to take shape,” said Timothy

Franklin, Abernathy’s colleague at Northweste­rn.

He cited the Boston Globe and Minneapoli­s Star-Tribune as two newspapers that are succeeding in the transition.

Local news outlets saw a boost in digital subscripti­ons as people sought informatio­n in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. While interest in pandemic news has waned, Abernathy said she believes the outlets have done well in keeping many of those new subscriber­s.

 ?? AP PHOTO ?? Exterior images, from left, appear of CNN headquarte­rs on Aug. 26, 2014, in Atlanta, the New York Times building on June 22, 2019, in New York, News Corporatio­n headquarte­rs with Fox News studios on July 31, 2021, in New York and The One Franklin Square Building, home of The Washington Post, on Feb. 8, 2019, in downtown Washington. The metrics are ugly for many television, digital and print news organizati­ons: after record-setting engagement numbers in 2020, many people are cutting back on news consumptio­n.
AP PHOTO Exterior images, from left, appear of CNN headquarte­rs on Aug. 26, 2014, in Atlanta, the New York Times building on June 22, 2019, in New York, News Corporatio­n headquarte­rs with Fox News studios on July 31, 2021, in New York and The One Franklin Square Building, home of The Washington Post, on Feb. 8, 2019, in downtown Washington. The metrics are ugly for many television, digital and print news organizati­ons: after record-setting engagement numbers in 2020, many people are cutting back on news consumptio­n.

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