A lot of people began returning to work in 2021, though there are still many jobs waiting to be filled. That news might lead you to believe that business is booming, and that’s true in some sectors, but not all of them. One area where a slump worsened in 2021 as compared to the previous year was the news business. Traffic and revenue were down pretty much across the board for both newspapers and cable news outlets. At first glance, that may seem rather counterintuitive because there’s just so much going on, right? The pandemic dominated most news cycles, but there were other big stories that stretched out across the year. These included the Democrats’ flailing efforts to pass Joe Biden’s agenda, the renewed debate over abortion, and foreign policy disasters involving Afghanistan, Russia, and China. But for some reason, as the Associated Press reports this week, people simply weren’t tuning in anywhere nearly as often as they had during the first year of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The presidential election, pandemic and racial reckoning were stories that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020. To a large degree, 2021 represented the inevitable hangover.
Various metrics illustrate the dwindling popularity of news content…
While a Dec. 23 headline on the Los Angeles Times front page — “How Much More Can We Take?” — referred to COVID-19, it could easily be applied to the news appetite in general.
For the most part, smart news executives knew the peaks of 2020 were not sustainable.
A handful of dismal numbers for some of the major cable and newspaper outlets sum up the story for us. Prime-time viewership at CNN dropped an eye-popping 38%. Fox News fell off by 34% and MSNBC was down 25%. (Of course, MSNBC had already lost a lot of ground and were probably closer to their minimum core audience by the start of 2021.) The major alphabet network evening news shows did a little better, but they were still down. ABC and NBC News lost 12 and 14 percent of their audiences respectively.
Things weren’t much better for the larger newspapers. November traffic at the Washington Post website was down 44% as compared to the same time in 2020. Traffic at the New York Times sank by 34% for the same period.
So what caused people to tune out in such large numbers? That data is harder to pin down but the anecdotal evidence suggests a few possibilities. One of them might be related to the fact I mentioned above. The one story dominating nearly every news cycle was the pandemic. And you probably don’t need me to tell you that more and more people are simply done with COVID and the endless doom and gloom they are fed on a daily basis. We know the virus is still out there and that mutations are showing up. We know the government wants everyone to get vaccinated. We don’t need to be reminded every five minutes.
Another factor that’s no doubt in play is one that shows up during every election cycle. People are most interested in the news during presidential election years and they also tend to pay more attention as we approach the midterms and control of the House and Senate is up for grabs. But in the odd-numbered years – particularly the ones following a presidential election – people are burned out and they turn their attention to other matters. Traffic is always down in these “local election” seasons.
One of the biggest drivers of the decline just might be something that was missing rather than what was most frequently being covered. 2021 had a distinct lack of news about Donald Trump, the one topic that sent ratings through the roof in 2020. Trump has been around, hosting a few rallies and giving the odd interview here and there, but he’s out of office and unable to take much direct action impacting national and world events. Donald Trump was probably the best thing that ever happened to both CNN and Fox News and their ratings show that they miss him sorely.
This too shall pass, however. Once we get through the annual slump in traffic that always accompanies the arrival of Christmas and New Year’s we’ll be getting into the midterm races. There are a lot of seats up for grabs, including quite a few open seats in purple districts and states. You can probably expect to see news ratings rebounding next year, though perhaps not all the way to Trump-era levels.