How Trump made American newspapers great again
The failing New York Times is soaring, and Jeff Bezos' Washington Post is roaring. And it's largely coming at the expense of Donald J. Trump.
Both newspapers broke traffic records this week with massive competing scoops: that Trump casually revealed highly classified intelligence to Russian officials (the Post); and that former FBI Director James Comey kept records of Trump's request to drop the bureau's Russia investigation (the Times). In the Post's case, more than 100,000 people were reading the scoop on the newspaper's website at once (that's a lot!).
The work of these newspapers isn't just popular. It's meaningful. As Politico's Joe Pompeo wrote, "This may sound earnest and perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but make no mistake, there are people out there who believe these two papers are the most essential guardians of our democracy right now." And this from Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson:
A week to praise the 1st Amendment: the free press is running the investigation the political system won't do.
— Nicholas Thompson (@nxthompson) May 17, 2017
They're right. The Times and the Post are doing hugely important work in holding President Trump to account. (On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal got in on the action too, revealing that one of Trump's previous partners in the hotel business had been financed by a state-run Russian bank with close ties to one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.)
It's paying off. The newspaper industry, once viewed as a lumbering dinosaur whose age of extinction was already upon us, is suddenly thriving. The Times had a "stellar" first quarter, driven by more than 300,000 net new digital subscriptions. Just after the election, the Post announced 60 new staff positions in its newsroom, including a bigger video team. "The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal also reported record growth in subscriptions" at the end of 2016, NPR reported.
In Trump's America, the newspaper business is suddenly booming.
The White House, meanwhile, is increasingly traumatized, with staffers hunkered down in perpetual fear of the next crisis, ruled by the boss' capricious authority and apparently limitless ability to sow self-destructive chaos, and wondering if the next news bomb will finally be the one that brings the roof down on them. And through it all, Trump rails against the media, branding them the "enemy of the American people."
This complicated dynamic between Trump and newspapers reminds me a bit of professional wrestling.
Stay with me.
During his business days, the president enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment. He was a fixture on Wrestlemania, the WWE's annual extravaganza, and was even inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. Wrestling is an inherently political form of entertainment, spinning tales of good guys versus bad guys for the audience to boo and hiss or cheer on. Trump versus the media works much the same way.
By reporting on one Trump scandal after another, newspapers drive up readership, both boosting their bottom lines and keeping outraged Trump haters in a lather. Business at the Post and the Times began booming as soon as Trump took office. At the same time, the constant critical coverage outrages Trump's base, driving them even further into his arms.
Except this isn't Wrestlemania. It's not a fun diversion. We're talking about America's government and the free press, our unofficial fourth estate.
This was always the inherent danger of Trump's bizarre fusion of entertainment and politics. He clearly can't differentiate between the two worlds and their very different stakes. So he rockets between offensive but ultimately meaningless media conflagrations, and actual constitutional crises that threaten our shared political life as Americans.
Meanwhile, the Times, the Post, and the rest of the media have no economic incentive to differentiate between those two types of news either. Idiotic tweets from America's 45th president make a nice and easy news hit. But the specter of obstruction of justice, impeachment proceedings, and a constitutional crisis have also rejuvenated the newspaper business after the (relatively) drama-free Obama years.
For-profit businesses often say that by pursuing their own self-interest, they benefit society as well. It doesn't always work out that way, as the perverse economic symbiosis between the media and Trump during the 2016 campaign often demonstrated.
But now that Trump is in power, the Times and the Post are investing in deeper reporting. It's profitable — but that profit is driving journalism that also serves the public good. In this case, at least, the system is working as advertised.
Now the question is whether or constitutional system can work as advertised, too.