It’s been quite a party, but the hangover is going to be a real doozie. Americans obsessed with the unpredictable election news have been gobbling up news in almost any format. And that has been masking the troubles facing our media.
On the surface, the cable networks have been on a real tear. MSNBC had its best month ever in October 2016. And CNN is reportedly getting close to the $1 billion mark for the year — a mark it has never achieved. Fox reportedly passed that milestone a while back and is on its way to its most profitable year ever.
Newspaper websites report surging traffic as well, though they still seem to have the problem that has plagued them for several years — an inability to translate sets of eyeballs into profits from online advertising. In fact, an analysis by Digital Content Next showed that virtually all of the digital ad growth is going to Google and Facebook, leaving a shrinking pie for everyone else.
Even before the inevitable post-election air pocket, we have been seeing a wave of signs of trouble, with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian announcing layoffs or buyouts. Meanwhile, nobody knows how many reporters are left on daily newspapers around the country, because the American Society of News Editors has quit reporting it. The last number — in mid 2015 — was below 33,000 (the high point was 56,000 in 1990). My guess is that we’re well below 30,000 now, or will be by the end of the year. But that’s just a guess, because unless somebody else steps in to count heads, we won’t really know.
We’ve had a steady stream of cuts at all levels, despite the election-fed surge in traffic. What can we expect once the suspense of the election is gone?
But wait, we’re not done with the dreary news. People have been so hungry for news that they’ve been grabbing it wherever they can, without paying much attention to the source. That has led to an explosion in fake news sites with sensational (but phony) headlines that are being spread via social media (especially Facebook) to create clicks and sell advertising. We have to expect that a lot of those will go away as we wean ourselves from the news cycle, but this could be wishful thinking on my part.
So what will the morning after bring? We can almost certainly look for aggressive layoffs at all three of the major cable networks, starting with some of the political operatives who have been paid very well to shout the day’s partisan talking points at each other on news programs.
If it ended there, it could be a good thing, but it won’t. The political campaign had provided jobs for a lot of national and regional reporters, producers and crews. As ratings and web traffic tank, the media will feel the pressure to lop those quickly.
So yeah, this could get ugly.