US President Donald Trump waves while walking on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 20 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/EPA/ALEX EDELMAN
US President Donald Trump waves while walking on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 20 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/EPA/ALEX EDELMAN

New York — President Donald Trump has long predicted that the New York Times would go out of business and cable-news ratings would collapse if he left the political stage.

The numbers from the height of the political campaign would suggest otherwise — that, in fact, viewers and readers are ready to tune in to somebody new.

In October former vice-president Joe Biden outdrew Trump in the ratings for their competing town-hall events. And in the past six months, articles about Biden in US publications have received slightly higher engagement per story on social media than articles about Trump, according to NewsWhip, which tracks, among other metrics, the number of reactions, shares and comments each story receives on Facebook.

A Biden victory would hardly remove Trump from the scene. Weeks of tension between the president and his successor could make for compelling articles and good TV.

It’s when news outlets look further into the future that they start to get nervous. Year three of a Biden administration might mean relying more on political kerfuffles in Washington, and whatever crises await, than on a single man’s personality.

“With Biden you’re not going to have these wild rallies. You’re going to have speeches on budget reconciliation. I don’t think that’s going to light people’s hearts afire,” said Jim VandeHei, cofounder and CEO of the digital news start-up Axios. “There’s no way you’re not going to see lower cable ratings and some reduction in traffic to websites.”

Perhaps no media company has had a better run during the Trump years than the New York Times. The breakneck pace of news — and free marketing from Trump’s “failing” label — have brought subscribers in droves. In the summer of 2015, the Times had about 1-million digital-only subscribers. It had 5.7-million at the end of 2020’s second quarter.

“There’s certainly a perception within the investor community that a Biden win will result in a slowdown in New York Times subscriber growth,” said John Belton, a media analyst at Evercore ISI.

But while Trump was a big reason for the surge in Times subscriptions a few years ago, growth has accelerated recently “for reasons that go well beyond Trump”, Belton said, citing a $1-a-week promotional offer as one of the moves that have helped drive growth.

“The Times is in many ways, as a business, countercyclical to certainty in the world,” CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said at a recent investor conference. “And it is very hard to imagine that we’re moving into more certain times.”

If Trump loses, however, newspapers and magazines may shed subscribers who signed up to support media outlets that the president attacks. “The tribal representation of subscribing as political act loses some of its strength,” said Tony Haile, CEO of Scroll, a start-up that sells subscriptions to an ad-free online news bundle.

A Biden victory could also pose a dilemma for newsrooms. An ex-president Trump is unlikely to cede the spotlight, and covering his political opinions could prove irresistible to news outlets, VandeHei said. “If on one hand you’ve got Biden who is predictable and conventional and you have all these wild antics on the other side, do you just ignore it or do you cover it?” he asked. “It’ll be a big test for the media.”

For cable news channels, the past four years have been a ratings bonanza, with viewership soaring to records at Fox News, AT&T’s CNN and Comcast’s MSNBC. If Biden wins, audiences could look more like they did under his former boss, Barack Obama.

A return to a normal media landscape could benefit Fox News more than its rivals. The most-watched cable news channel’s 55% share of the cable news audience during the Obama years actually slipped to 46% during the Trump administration, according to Nielsen. Left-leaning MSNBC, meanwhile, has struggled when the news cycle in 2020 has strayed from politics.

Longer term, the pandemic is likely to continue to attract viewers. And Trump could still be a ratings magnet as he faces legal challenges from authorities in New York. If Trump loses, said Jon Klein, a former president of CNN/US, it could be “like the end of season 1 of your favourite bingeworthy drama. There’s a huge cliffhanger, but that’s just the start.”

Trump has been both a boon and a headache for social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter. His posts are often among the platforms’ most engaging, but both companies have also had to change policies to combat his public declarations, which can be misleading or in violation of their rules.

Facebook’s and Twitter’s policing of Trump’s posts has been a point of contention in Washington, with Republicans saying their approach shows bias. A Biden victory could make it easier for Facebook and Twitter to enforce their own rules without having the president at the middle of most debates.

A Biden presidency might also alleviate internal tension among Facebook and Twitter staff. Hundreds of Facebook employees held a virtual walkout in June, for example, after CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to remove a Trump post suggesting that police would use violence against protesters in Minneapolis.

As Trump’s online platform of choice, Twitter may have the most to lose from a Biden win. But the company points more to live events such as the Olympics or political debates as catalysts for growth, and CFO Ned Segal downplayed the idea that Trump’s presence on the service helps keep users engaged.

“There are a lot of people who use Twitter a lot,” he told Bloomberg Television’s Emily Chang on Friday. “Politics Twitter is great, but politics Twitter is a small fraction of what happens on the service.”

Even if he loses, it seems unlikely Trump will abandon the unparallelled reach of Facebook or Twitter.

A Biden presidency may temper political posts on TikTok, the music-video app that became a home for activist clips during the pandemic — and found itself in the Trump administration’s crosshairs. While many supporters of Biden are on the app, Trump is talked about more there. Posts with #Trump2020 hashtags have 13.9-billion views on TikTok, compared with 4.7-billion views for posts with #Biden2020.



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