In 2020, the presidential election, pandemic, and racial reckoning were all issues that drew a lot of attention and involvement from news organizations. To a significant extent, the year 2021 symbolized the inevitable hangover.
The popularity of news material is diminishing, as seen by a variety of indicators.
Last year, millions of Americans relied on cable news networks for their nightly pleasure. According to Nielsen, weekday prime-time viewership decreased 38 percent at CNN, 34 percent at Fox News Channel, and 25 percent at MSNBC in 2021.
At broadcast television evening newscasts, the fall was less pronounced but still significant: 12 percent at ABC’s “World News Tonight” and the “CBS Evening News,” and 14 percent at NBC’s “Nightly News,” according to Nielsen.
Some digital news outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, enjoyed spectacular subscription growth during the Trump administration. However, users aren’t spending as much time on the site; according to Comscore, the number of unique visits to the Post’s site was down 44% in November compared to November 2020, while the Times’ site was down 34%.
While the title on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 23 alluded to COVID-19, it could easily be applied to the news hunger in general.
Smart news executives, for the most part, realized that the 2020 peaks would not be sustainable.
Ken Doctor, a news media expert, remarked, “It was absolutely expected.”
That was maybe most evident on television news networks. During the Trump years, they established a prime-time format that was almost totally centered on political battle, making it difficult for them to switch to something else, according to Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
“You become a prisoner of the audience you create,” Rosenstiel explained.
Even when interest in politics wanes, those networks stay focused on it. Last year, the media monitoring firm NewsWhip examined 14 million political pieces online and discovered that they had an average of 924 social media interactions. In 2021, NewsWhip tracked 13.5 million stories, with an average of 321 interactions.
According to Doctor, these channels have looked elsewhere for revenue options to some extent. CNN is gearing up to launch a new streaming service early next year, and Fox News’ Chris Wallace has recently joined the team.
While doubling down on conservative commentary in the face of perceived challenges from Newsmax and OANN, Fox News drove viewers to its Fox Nation streaming service. Tucker Carlson’s documentary on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which claimed it was an attempt to suppress Trump supporters, was arguably Fox’s most attention-getting programming of the year.
In the coming year, CNN and MSNBC will have to make important programming decisions. Chris Cuomo, CNN’s most popular presenter, was sacked after it was found that he assisted his brother through a political controversy. MSNBC will have to replace Brian Williams in its lineup, and Rachel Maddow, the network’s most popular personality, would most likely be reduced in hours.
Despite a drop in usage on the Times’ digital site, the firm has crossed 8 million subscribers and is on track to gain even more. Doctor believes the Times has done a good job of expanding outside politics, citing its Wirecutter consumer recommendation service as an example.
According to the Wall Street Journal, leaders at the Post have struggled with how to cope with their readers’ reliance on political fare. Doctor said the firm is searching for expansion prospects worldwide, a goal that plays to the strength of Sally Buzbee, the organization’s new executive editor.
“People have turned inside to some extent,” Rosenstiel added. “They’re obtaining the information they want, but there isn’t as much information as there was a year ago.”
Rosenstiel believes that 2021 will be recognized as a transitional year away from the frenetic news tempo of the Trump years, particularly for major news agencies.
The fervor with which the media has covered every twist and turn of congressional deliberations over President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill reflects the impact of those years, he believes. It’s slow-moving and full of small steps, much like most of Congress’s job.
He’s worried that the spotlight on this story has diverted attention away from more pressing issues, such as local initiatives to restrict voting rights, which he believes is a more pressing issue.
According to Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor at Northwestern University, 100 to 120 local newspapers would close in 2021, a number that is on par with the reductions of the previous two decades.
Local news organizations, on the other hand, are likely to have the fewest job layoffs in 14 years, according to the research company Challenger Gray & Christmas. This comes after the largest number of journalistic job losses since 2008.
“This year is sort of a watershed moment in the shift from a print business model that is shrinking to a digital strategy that is beginning to take shape,” said Timothy Franklin, Abernathy’s Northwestern colleague.
He singled out the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as two newspapers that have made the move successfully.
As individuals sought information in the early phases of the COVID-19 outbreak, local news outlets experienced an increase in digital subscriptions. Despite the fact that interest in pandemic news has diminished, Abernathy feels the sources have done a good job of retaining many of the new members.