Thinking about the possibility that Donald Trump might win the United States election on November 8 may provoke frightening thoughts. Not only liberals are terrified at the thought that the tempestuous, crass Republican candidate will become the leader of the free world. Plenty of Republicans also shudder at the notion. But at its heart of hearts, the liberal American press, while fighting Trump tooth and nail, the very media that Trump professes to loathe, admits that even if the worst-case scenario pans out and he wins – it could be useful. To them at least.
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Even in its lofty perch at the top of the press pyramid, the New York Times is fiercely fighting for survival. Newspapers have had to slash budgets, activity and manpower. The Times and Wall Street Journal persuaded correspondents to accept early retirement, and the digital press is hurting too. The problem all share is one: a dearth of sources of income. Advertising in print has been declining for years and online advertising is mostly going to the behemoths Facebook and Google.
Visiting Israel for a joint convention with Haaretz this week, NYT International president Stephen Dunbar-Johnson and acting editor Joseph Kahn shared their views on the future of the press, briefly joined by op-ed writer Roger Cohen, who suspects that Trump is going to win.
The conversation began with the report that Shane Smith of Vice predicts a bloodbath for digital media in 2017, a forecast that Kahn suspects could be right – the entire model of building a big audience, numbering in the millions, and selling ads priced by clicks as a central source of income basically became the fief of giants, and the press can’t compete there. The evolution of the technology shifted the digital ads market to the biggest platforms, and to there alone.
Dunbar-Johnson said he agrees with that view and added darkly that 2016 was just a harbinger of things to come. But if anything, it bolsters his faith in the NYT model, of demanding payment for content and expanding beyond the U.S.
“The old model of journalism was building up a readership and subsidizing content through advertising. It doesn’t work well on the net. We are like sparrows feeding on the crumbs that fall off the desks of Facebook and Google. But paradoxically, if we build up a large paying audience, we will be attractive to advertisers. And also, even though there’s been a sharp drop in income from traditional advertising, there’s also been a rise in income from promoted content,” he said.
“We’ve been thinking for some time that the drive for paying subscribers was interrupted,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “We didn’t really see a future for our kind of journalism without getting people to pay. Our mission is to trying to stay in our journalism and this is the core of what we think is the best way, and that’s exactly why we’re expanding internationally.”
Another area where the NYT is trying to outflank the duopoly of Facebook and Google is the T-brand Studio, the newspaper’s brand for promoted material. The company is also getting into events, which is a new area but one with growth potential, says Dunbar-Johnson. Meanwhile, he finds it interesting in the last year how the disrupters – new websites with business models that disrupted the traditional models – themselves suffered from disruption, which will, it seems, continue.
“I think there will be a shakeout,” he says. “I think the New York Times is very challenged. To say that we’re not is, I think, just fiction. We are very challenged. I think we’re in a better place than many others,” but, he qualified, it’s best to be either in the NYT or in a niche, but not in the middle. “I’m not sure that’s a very good place to be.”
Hoary and prestigious as it may be, “I think that the NYTimes also has to find its niche, and it’s changing,” says Kahn. “Our [niche], we decided, is global in scope, which doesn’t sound like a niche, but not that many of our peers have set their sight on really creating a compelling global news product, that cannot sell only from the perspective of one country but that has great journalism in multiple places around the world Probably a handful will pursue that, and we’re determined to be one of them.”
There are other niche markets, such as local sites that have had some success in creating new journalism that people will pay for, or that advertisers back, Kahn adds. “There are also thematic oriented news and information sites.”
We see a revolving door between the White House and Silicon Valley, like there used to be between Wall Street and Washington. Are these mutual relations affecting the news industry?
“I don’t think we’ve seen the American government be very concerned to get into the business of regulating the large technology companies of Silicon Valley,” Kahn answers.
While Europe is keen to prevent monopolies from forming and to protect privacy, the European caution may arise from the fact that the companies are American. But, he adds, it is possible that Washington and Silicon Valley are scratching each other’s backs, like was happening between Wall Street and politics 20 years ago. The result of that was deregulation.
“I would not necessarily advocate, nor would the New York Times, much tighter regulation of the technology industry,” Kahn continued. “I just think it’s likely to be an objective fact.”
Silicon Valley has been a major source of finance, especially for Democrats, he adds – which could give them influence in a Democratic administration.
Dunbar-Johnson, for one, doesn’t think the emails scandal plaguing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton will created real change – people had long since made up their minds how to vote. Kahn, on the other hand, thinks the scandal will affect voting for Congress – and Roger Cohen is afraid of a Brexit-style surprise on the day itself.
“Would it hurt her enough to make a difference? I don’t think so. I think people have made up their minds,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “John, on the other hand instead, is concerned that we could end up with a big shock. He’s been very scared about Brexit, and I have to say, I did watch a video just before Brexit I saw a video, by The Guardian, which was a very good piece of reporting. It went around small towns in the U.K. and it really made me think, ‘Oh my God, this is not looking really good.’
“I saw a similar video the other day made by one of our competitors and had the same feeling because it wasn’t a video featuring traditional Trump supporters, it was a video featuring mostly very sensible, conservative, salt-of-the-earth Americans. Nice, solid people, and smart people, and a lot of them were going to vote for Trump because he represented someone who didn’t have a desk in Washington.”
They know he’s not “a great guy, in fact he’s far from being a great guy,” they just want an outsider, Dunbar-Johnson sums up.
What will happen to the press and the people if Trump wins?
“For the NYTimes it might be a terrible to bad thing. On the one hand, he’s really attacked the media and threatened to use the power of the Oval Office to try to suppress our great journalism,” says Kahn. “We’re yet to see if he would really follow through on the threats, or if he were to follow through, whether the institutions, the government of the U.S., which you know are pretty resilient, [would bow before him].”
But Trump certainly made this a good year for the press.
“It’s been really an unbelievable record-breaking year for us, in terms of total traffic to our digital properties and interest in our journalism both in the U.S. and abroad,” says Kahn.
And if he’d had concerns about the spotlight on the American election alienating the international readership – no such thing. “In fact, this has been the fastest growth we’ve seen in the international audience anytime since we introduced the paywall, or subscription. You have to assume that if Trump became president of the U.S., the amount of interest would continue to drive traffic back into our site. The newsroom feels a little conflicted.”
On the one hand, there’s “Trump’s kind of scary side,” but on the other, the Clinton-Kaine ticket is pretty gray. “It’s hardly clear whether a Trump presidency would be terrible for American journalists,” he concludes.