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After Trump and record elections: what’s next for the news media?

The arrival of the Biden presidency will usher in a new era for media outlets

The 2020 election was like no other. 

Even by American standards, drama levels were sky-high – one side fearing a coup would depose its “Dear Leader,” the other literally calling it a last chance to save democracy. 

As Election Day turned to Election Week, hundreds of millions around the world were stunned, glued to their TV, laptop and mobile screens – putting the media front and center and delivering an election season for the history books.

Media in the spotlight – record audiences and money

If something is clear already, it’s that the election brought larger audiences, more subscribers, and more money.

Millions tuned into cable channels, big newspapers and niche politics-focused publications to follow pre-election predictions and get a sense of the immediate post-election mess. As Poynter’s Tom Jones puts it, “as Election Day turned into Election Week and closed the curtains on Trump’s anti-media presidency, the media shined.” 

The full extent of the election’s impact on the news media’s audience and their bottom line is not yet clear. Still, the results reported are impressive. For example, CNN claimed the election week was “best in [its] digital history,” “far outpacing anything on record.” In peak hours, more than a million viewers were watching the channel’s coverage at any given moment.

Pre-election coverage also drew record audiences, especially for talk show hosts. This year, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson brought a record 7.56 million viewers for one show in October, while 5.7 million people tuned in to The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC in July. 

While US-based media took center stage, global media companies such as The Economist or The Financial Times also benefited – partly due to their outside-of-the-US perspective (sought by some Americans tired of polarization), and partly due to global interest.

Before the election, Digiday reported that The Economist used election-focused products to power its growth in the United States. The most popular ones included an election forecast and a “Checks and Balance” podcast and newsletter. The latter’s success prompted The Economist to make “Checks and Balance” a permanent part of its programming.

Thinking about a post-Trump future

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Now-president-elect Joe Biden campaigns at a community event in Iowa (2019; author: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)

“What is the future for the US media after Trump?” The question has no doubt echoed across newsrooms and J-schools across America.

Biden’s presidency is widely expected to improve freedom of the press in the US and across the world. The new president won’t bash “fake news media” and won’t brand them as “enemies of the people”. He can roll back visa restrictions for journalists and clean the mess in the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Still, will Biden’s presidency continue to bring in readers and viewers like the current one? Many media are worried if the new administration’s more conventional approach to politics will continue to deliver as many people, particularly as many paying subscribers. Indeed, news outlets can experience a drop in readership and viewership from the next year, Fox Corporation’s CEO Lachlan Murdoch warned investors in November.

It’s not a given, though. As Brian Stenberg notes, “networks will have access to homebound viewers for some time” while the pandemic lasts. Political polarization and important issues at stake, such as coronavirus and climate change, will inform the media habits of millions of Americans.

Perhaps the most interesting story is that of Fox News, a right-leaning, pro-Trump cable channel that was the most popular cable news channel during the Trump presidency. With Trump due to lose his job in January (and angry at Fox News for its Election Day coverage), he is reportedly considering launching his new media network, a direct competitor and a thorn in the side of Fox News

However, Fox News might thrive in opposition to a liberal administration, and, as The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum reminds, Fox News successfully navigated numerous presidencies before – “Presidents come and go. Rupert Murdoch remains.”

Polling tops agenda of election post-mortems

In 2016, pre-election polls missed the mark badly – few analysts predicted a Trump win. For four years since, pollsters and the media worked to improve on their 2016 mistakes. 

Yet, in 2020, the polls were off again. Biden did win, but his victory was much narrower than most polls predicted.

Surely pollsters will look hard into what went wrong and how polls can be improved going forward. But growing voices, even inside the media polling industry, suggest that maybe polls shouldn’t have played such an important part in the election coverage in the first place. 

Individual states play an outweighed role in the American electoral system, but regional polling is inherently more difficult than nationwide one.

As we wrote in a post-election digest, “even before election day, some critics seriously questioned the value of [sophisticated models which tried to predict outcomes]. These voices will become louder now.”

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People in Washingon, DC, celebrate Biden’s win (author: Sdkb, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The election won’t be over for months

The presidential election is over (even if Trump is not willing to admit it), but Senate elections, at the very least, are not done yet. 

In early January, two Senate run-off elections in Georgia will decide which party controls the upper chamber of US Congress and, as a result, what Biden’s presidency will look like for at least two years.

Thus, for almost two months the country’s – and the media’s – attention will be turned to Georgia. Big tech companies are already preparing, with Facebook having extended its ban on political advertising. 

News media will also likely pay an unusual share of attention to this Southern state – to say nothing of a presidential election that may still deliver several unexpected surprises along the way.

More from The Fix: Weekly Digest: The Impact of Elections

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