The presidential election, the pandemic, and the racial calculation were stories that sparked intense media interest and engagement in 2020. To a large extent, 2021 represented the inevitable hangover.
Various metrics illustrate the declining popularity of news content.
Cable news networks have been the primary form of evening entertainment for millions of Americans last year. In 2021, weekday prime-time audiences fell 38% on CNN, 34% on Fox News Channel and 25% on MSNBC, according to the Nielsen company.
The decline was less pronounced but still significant in evening news broadcasts: 12% on ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “CBS Evening News”; 14% to NBC’s “Nightly News”, Nielsen said.
The Trump era saw explosive growth in subscriber numbers for some digital news sites like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Yet readers don’t spend as much time there; Comscore said the number of unique visitors to the Post’s site was down 44% in November from November 2020, and down 34% at The Times.
While a December 23 headline on the Los Angeles Times front page – “How Much More Can We Take?” – refers to COVID-19, it could easily be applied to the news appetite in general.
For the most part, smart information executives knew the 2020 peaks were not sustainable.
“It was completely predictable,” said media analyst Ken Doctor.
This was perhaps most evident on cable news networks. They built a prime-time model almost entirely focused on political combat during the Trump years, which made it difficult for them to turn to something different, said Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at the University of the Maryland.
“You become, to some extent, a prisoner of the public that you have built,” Rosenstiel said.
These networks remain focused on politics even as viewer interest wanes. Media monitoring firm NewsWhip examined 14 million political articles online last year and found that they had an average of 924 social media engagements or interactions. The 13.5 million articles NewsWhip tracked in 2021 averaged 321 engagements.
To some extent, these outlets have looked elsewhere for revenue opportunities, Doctor said. CNN is preparing to launch a new streaming service early next year and recently asked Fox News’ Chris Wallace to join the effort.
Fox News, while doubling down on conservative comments following perceived threats from outlets like Newsmax and OANN, directed fans to its streaming service Fox Nation. Arguably Fox’s most interesting lineup of the year was a documentary on the Capitol Riot on January 6 by Tucker Carlson, which claimed it was an effort to silence Trump supporters .
CNN and MSNBC both face key programming decisions in the New Year. CNN is set to replace its most popular host, Chris Cuomo, who was fired after revealing how he helped his brother through a political scandal. MSNBC is set to replace Brian Williams in its lineup and will most likely see its most popular personality, Rachel Maddow, cut back on hours.
Although use of the Times digital site is on the decline, the company has had 8 million subscriptions and is poised to grow further. The doctor said The Times had done an effective job of diversifying beyond politics, notably with its Wirecutter consumer referral service.
Post executives have struggled with how to handle their readers’ reliance on political tariffs, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company is looking for international growth opportunities, Doctor said, a goal that builds on the strength of its new editor-in-chief, Sally Buzbee.
“People have focused inward to a certain extent,” Rosenstiel said. “They are getting the news they need, but it is not as much news as it was a year ago.”
Particularly for national news organizations, Rosenstiel said 2021 may be best remembered as a year of transition away from the frantic pace of news from the Trump years.
He sees the effect of those years in the intensity with which the media has covered every round and round of legislative negotiations on President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill. Like most work in Congress, it is slow and filled with incremental developments.
He fears that the focus on that story may have distracted attention from other priorities, including focusing on local efforts to restrict voting rights, a story that’s ultimately more important.
Some 100 to 120 local newspapers closed in 2021, a number that matches the decline of the past two decades, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University.
Yet local media are also expected to experience their lowest number of job cuts in 14 years, according to research firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. It comes after 2020 saw the most lost newsroom jobs since 2008.
“What we’re seeing this year is sort of a watershed in the shift from a shrinking print business model to a digital model that is starting to take shape,” said Timothy Franklin, Abernathy’s colleague at Northwestern.
He cited the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as two successful newspapers.
Local news outlets saw an increase in digital subscriptions as people searched for information at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As interest in news about the pandemic waned, Abernathy said she believes outlets have been doing well in retaining many of these new subscribers.