Why President Trump’s spat with newspapers could actually increase subscriber numbers

Media outlets offering unbiased reports stand to increase their readership as papers with political leanings are seen to have their own agendas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 6:09pm

The Trump administration's combative view of traditional news media as the “opposition party” and “fake news” is turning out to be the best hope in 2017 for newspapers struggling to attract more digital readers and advertisers.

The New York Times , the Financial Times , The Wall Street Journal and Gannett are building on the online readership they gained during the 2016 presidential election by marketing unbiased reporting as a sales strategy.

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The risk, however, is whether those new readers will attract advertising dollars for newspapers, some of which have been criticised for having political leanings.

An Edelman survey of more than 33,000 people in 28 countries shows trust in the media is at an all-time low at just 35 per cent.

So far, there is reason for optimism among newspaper executives and investors.

The New York Times , which President Donald Trump has referred to as “failing” in his Twitter messages, added a record 276,000 digital news subscribers in the last quarter and sees digital ad revenue up 10 to 15 per cent in the current quarter.

The company says it expects to add 200,000 digital subscriptions to its news products in the first quarter.

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The Wall Street Journal added 113,000 digital subscriptions in its latest quarter, an almost 12 per cent jump.

It says that January's numbers were even higher, but declined to provide figures.

Financial Times digital subscriptions grew 6 per cent in the fourth quarter to 646,000, while digital subscriptions at Gannett's USA Today Network, made up of 110 newspapers across the country, increased 26 per cent to 182,000 in the fourth quarter.

Divisiveness stirred by the US election campaign last year has made brands avoid publications that appear to be politically aligned, according to Natalie Prout, a strategist at Phenomenon, a Los Angeles-based branding agency.

"For example, there is a heightened understanding in the wake of November's election that if a brand buys an ad in The Huffington Post, for example, it could be perceived as supporting a liberal agenda,'' she says.

Brands are also worried about their ads showing up in what is perceived as “fake news”, so they are exercising more caution when using programmatic advertising, where they automatically buy digital ad spots through a third party.

Despite the recent bump in subscribers, newspapers “still are facing major headwinds”, says newspaper analyst Ken Doctor. “Print advertising is in free fall,” he says. “The fundamentals haven't changed.”