President Trump’s Media Ire is Fueling a News Revival

Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

Between voter fraud allegations against Hillary Clinton, increasing concerns over ties to Russia, and a rescinded “immigration ban” executive order, the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been a headline-generating bonanza. A Google search brings up more than 206 million results for “Trump,” and the deluge of content generated during the 2016 political campaign has newspapers eyeing ways to turn the increased digital traffic into long-term readership.

The early indication was that a Trump administration could mean big subscription increases for national players like the New York Times, which saw its digital subscription total increase by 276,000 members in the last three months of the year, more additions than in 2013 and 2014 combined.

But then Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon called the media “the opposition party” in a January interview, and Trump decided to turn against traditional media completely, calling CNN, the New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS “fake news,” and “the enemy of the American people,” in a series of tweets. Then on Feb. 24, the White House blocked media outlets including CNN, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and others from attending a briefing with press secretary Sean Spicer, while allowing a select group of journalists in—many of which were from conservative outlets.

Now newspapers across the country are gearing up to market their unbiased reporting in an effort to keep the momentum rolling from the election year. For example, the New York Times ran a television commercial for the first time since 2010 during this year’s Academy Awards. The ad is part of the company’s new marketing campaign “The truth is more important now than ever.”

The New York Times isn’t the only publication hoping to take the “Trump Bump” from a short-term readership surge to a subscription or membership increases. Below, E&P spoke to a few other news outlets to talk about their recent marketing and brand strategies targeting Trump’s media disparagement and the battle against fake news.


Los Angeles Times: New T-shirts and Real Journalism

The Los Angeles Times was one of the outlets shut out of a Feb. 24 press briefing at the White House—a move that led to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Davan Maharaj to release a statement saying, “It is unfortunate that the Los Angeles Times has been excluded from a White House press briefing. The public has a right to know, and that means being informed by a variety of news sources, not just those filtered by the White House press office in hopes of getting friendly coverage.”

The paper started a print ad campaign in January, touting the message “Real Journalism, Real Impact,” and calling 2017 “The Year of Trust” in digital subscription advertisements.

Hillary Manning, director of Communications at Los Angeles Times, explained to E&P the recent marketing shifts at the paper.


E&P: What led to the decision to create the new branding campaign? 

Manning: There’s been a lot of disparaging talk about the press, and an effort to delegitimize and diminish journalism. We created a t-shirt design with the phrase “We will not shut up,” or something with a similar sentiment, in more than a dozen of the languages commonly spoken in Los Angeles. Our message is that the Los Angeles Times is committed to covering the White House, Sacramento, and city hall—to name a few—without fear or favor. We happened to have that special subscription offer planned before we were excluded from the White House press briefing.

The Los Angeles Times highlighted past journalism accomplishments in a recent ad to show the importance of its publication.

Has the Los Angeles Times experienced any sort of ”Trump Bump” in print or digital subscribers? 

Print subscriptions are fairly consistent, with a Sunday circulation of more than 955,000, and last November, we reached an all-time high for new paid digital-only subscribers. The week of the election, we saw a 61 percent increase over the average (based on the previous four weeks). The next two weeks after the election, we were up 60 percent compared to the average. Our subscription marketing efforts have led to significant year-over-year growth in general, with 2016 outpacing 2015 by more than 220 percent. However, November 2016 beat November 2015 by 450 percent, which is more than twice the average rate of increase. Also, we had the most web traffic ever on Election Day, Nov. 8, with more than 9 million visits and 15 million page views. The day after the election, Nov. 9, was a close second with 7 million visits and 13 million page views. (Stats are from Omniture.)

Our parent company, tronc, recently released digital subscription results from January. Ten days after Trump’s inauguration—during the week of Jan. 30, which included the #PressOn social media campaign—tronc recorded the most weekly new digital subscribers in its history. Specifically, that week’s starts were 87 percent more than the 2016 weekly average, and 44 percent more than the weekly average we experienced during the last quarter of 2016, which included the election.

Is there hope that the campaign to emphasize legitimate news sources could positively impact subscriber bases and circulation numbers in the long term? Not just during Trump? 

Accountability journalism, including investigations, is a priority for the Los Angeles Times. The message is, “More than ever, the Los Angeles Times is committed to accountability journalism and dedicated to the highest standards of quality, accuracy and fairness. Our mission is to keep you, our readers, informed.” 

The need for this type of journalism is constant, regardless of who is in the White House. Think of the corruption in the small city of Bell our reporting uncovered, or our investigation into the Wells Fargo fake-accounts scandal, or even our ongoing coverage of the need for more diversity in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. These things all make a difference. 

Is there hope that readers will come back to the home pages of news websites and subscribe to print editions, instead of relying on Facebook and social media feeds for their news?

With some of the research that came out after the election, it’s clear that the source of news is vitally important. And it’s a good idea to seek more than one source of news, so you can compare different reports on the same story, to keep yourself fully informed. The Los Angeles Times has spent more than 135 years establishing a reputation for fairness and accuracy. We believe that means a great deal to our readers, subscribers and society as a whole. Not only do we hold others accountable through our reporting, we are accountable to the community through an open dialog with readers and respect for the truth. Although there is a troubling amount of misinformation available, many people probably don’t realize how much they rely on newspapers already. Although print circulation has dropped, we are read by more people now than ever before: has a readership of more than 50 million unique visitors each month.


Washington Post: What’s in a Slogan

In a call to reinforce its mission statement, the Washington Post is rolled out a catchy, if not somewhat preachy slogan in February—”Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

It’s not a direct shot at the Trump administration, but it’s hard not to draw the lines between its unveiling and the recent efforts from the White House to shut the door on some media outlets. Washington Post communications manager Molly Gannon Conway said the slogan was originally disseminated on Snapchat targeting the paper’s newest readers, and was subsequently rolled out online, and in print editions, with the new motto top and center, just below the newspaper’s name.

“This is something we’ve said internally for a long time in speaking about our mission,” Conway said. “We thought it would be a good, concise value statement that conveys who we are to the many millions of readers who have come to us for the first time over the last year. We started with our newest readers on Snapchat, and are rolling it out on our other platforms.”

As far as helping in subscriptions, it is too early to tell. But the Post was already on a roll before the new motto, with more subscription starts generated in January than in any other month, beating what had been a record-setting November, with the Post overall reporting “doubled digital subscription revenue in the past 12 months, with a 75 percent increase in new subscribers.”

Using images of UFOs, mermaids and dragons as its visual foundation, the Southern California News Group campaign playfully reiterates the value of fair and objective reporting that’s published by an established local news organization.

Southern California News Group: ‘Fake News’ Illustrated

Southern California News Group—an arm of Digital First Media—has 11 daily newspapers, weeklies, websites, magazines and social media accounts that reach an audience of more than 9.5 million readers each week. But even with the local readership base, the publishers pushed out a new branding campaign in February that uses images of UFOs, dragons, and mermaids to illustrate the fake news infiltrating the internet and social media streams, and contrasting it with a message that the news produced by journalists, and fact-checked by editors for accuracy is a valuable asset.

Here, key members of SCNG answer E&P’s questions about the branding campaign and the future of local journalism in the Trump era.

E&P: What led to the decision to create a new branding campaign?

Bill VanLaningham, vice president of marketing, SCNG: We wanted to reinforce a time-honored and simple truth that despite an increasingly changing and complex media environment, there’s tremendous value in fair and objective reporting that’s published by an established and locally focused news organization. The brand campaign contrasts the importance of consuming news produced by journalists with editors who fact-check stories for accuracy, versus reading something that’s trying to pass as news from unknown or intentionally biased sources. It’s about planting a flag and saying we’ve never wavered in our mission to produce accurate, trustworthy and unbiased reporting that serves the public’s interest.  

In recent months, Trump has called media outlets he disagrees with, or finds stories to be too critical, ‘fake news.’ What could the impact of that type of label have for media companies and the press in general?

Ron Hasse, president and publisher, SCNG: While the narrative is bringing a lot of high profile and unfair criticism to ‘the media’ in general, it is also empowering citizens to exercise discernment in what should be construed as a reliable source. The narrative holds journalists accountable in being fair, balanced and objective in their reporting. And that’s not a bad thing. It is also important to remember the government is accountable to the people—which the media is an important part of, and not the other way around.

Given the shift in how fake news is now disseminated on social media feeds right alongside legitimate media outlets, how do you see your marketing strategy reaching your audience in a meaningful and impactful way?

Frank Pine, executive editor, SCNG: We’re hopeful that the public scrutiny of fake news will bring more audience to credible journalism. At the same time, we’re taking steps to showcase our best journalism with language that underscores its value to democracy as well as the professionalism of the staff members who produce it.  

How can you bring the message of your newspapers’ commitment to journalistic standards in the current social media landscape?

Pine: The article page is the new homepage. By far the majority of our readers come to our sites horizontally, via social or search. They’re finding individual stories on our sites. Our goal is to deliver a first-rate user experience when they come to read a story and to package and point to other stories to keep readers inside our network or bring them back for more news later. The same can be said for those who prefer a print edition. When they’re subscribing or paying for single copies, our goal is to create a best-in-class reader experience that they feel is important to their lives and want to refer to every day.


PolitiFact: Membership Matters

PolitiFact, a small, fact-checking outfit, was born out of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times in 2007. The site gained notoriety for a simple idea: create an outfit of full-time fact checkers that covered the presidential election year, and give readers an easy-to-understand “Truth-O-Meter” that ranged statements made by politicians from “True” to “Half True” to “Pants on Fire!”

This year, Politifact created a “Trump-O-Meter” to track the 102 promises President Trump made on the campaign trail, and also launched a membership program, aimed at getting readers to contribute directly to the site’s cause.

According to Poynter, PolitiFact raised $105,000 in 20 days in donations and pledges, through its newly launched membership program—more than the site had hoped to raise in all of 2017.

PolitiFact executive director Aaron Sharockman took time with E&P to answer a few questions regarding how the “Trump Bump” has influenced PolitiFacts’ role in objective journalism.


E&P: What led to the decision to launch the membership program, and what is involved?

Sharockman: We thought that we had a very passionate following of fans, and we wanted to try and find ways to better connect them to our work. Of course, the revenue the membership campaign provides will help fund our work, but this project was as much about trying to learn more about our readers and for us to do a better job telling our story. PolitiFact is a polarizing product by its very nature, so it was important to build an army of fans who can help support and promote our work. A membership campaign isn’t easy. At PolitiFact, we’re a staff of 10, and nine of us are journalists. So we had to learn a lot about how membership works, what members expect and how we can deliver. We had hoped to launch last summer but it took us until January 2017 to get the program sorted out.

Has PolitiFact experienced any sort of “Trump Bump” in print or digital subscribers?

For PolitiFact, traffic in January and February 2017 is ahead of the pace for 2016. People certainly are interested in the new administration and holding President Donald Trump accountable.

In recent months, Trump has shifted the “Fake News” narrative from its original definition, to a catch-all for news stories he finds disagreeable, or hurting his agenda. What could the impact of that type of label have for media companies and the press in general?

I think you’re seeing a lot of support for journalism in general. I’m not sure what impact the president’s use of “fake news,” is having. As fact-checkers, our job is to hold politicians accountable and help readers, voters and viewers better understand difficult policy issues to make more informed decisions. We’re not going to alter that mission.

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