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Rebuilding audience engagement in the post-Trump era

May 6, 2021 | By Daniel Levitt – Independent Media Reporter @DanielLevitt32

Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world. 

As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared. 

The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.

But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period. 

A slump by any other name

While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience. 

At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.” 

As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest. 

After a decade of open access, The Atlantic relaunched its paywall 20 months ago. The 163-year-old organization now boasts more than 750,000 subscribers. It is well on its way to eclipsing one million paying members by the end of 2022. Rosen says that ensuring the outlet’s retention and acquisition efforts are equally strong is critical for achieving this goal. 

Fundamentals and experimentation

On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.

Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.

“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”

Not content with the content

Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.

“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”

Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.

Perspectives and connections

Centralized business units have been crucial for Axios. It’s technology, sales, audience, and marketing teams have allowed it to fill local voids without the vast capital needed to build startups from scratch, like The Texas Tribune in Austin and Seattle’s InvestigateWest. Axios currently has five local newsletters. It also recently announced plans for a sixth in Northwest Arkansas.

“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”

Global ambitions

As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.

Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.

“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”

The local news

That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.

One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.

Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.

For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.

“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”

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