“The bottom line: News consumers have become desensitized to the level of drama they had come to expect from politics over the past four years.” — Axios
At Opinary, we’re asking how can publishers keep audiences engaged at this moment of comparative political peace?
American politics are boring again. After four years trapped in a Trumpian fever-dream in which the very foundations of American democracy, scientific legitimacy, and basic human decency were relentlessly attacked, the United States finds itself on the other side — and it’s eerily quiet.
Trump’s “clickbait presidency” generated media attention, to put it mildly. A daily barrage of scandal, sanctimonious slander, and slime (drain the swamp!!) kept the American people (and the global community) in a constant state of tension. The come-down from this political high (or low, as the case may be) has been swift and brutal. From January to February 2021, audience traffic to politics articles dropped by a precipitous 28%. As the global community lets out a collective sigh of relief, so too have they stopped clicking.
However, while this brave new world of the Biden era does not boast the traffic-boosting emotional chaos and dizzying uncertainty of the recent political past, it does offer something new: an opportunity for both publishers and audiences to take a collective breath and re-calibrate.
The End of the “Trump Bump” & Biden Boredom
Since January 20, publishers and journalists have had to shift down many gears in their coverage of American politics. The feeling of stillness that has accompanied the Biden presidency thus far has been welcomed by the threadbare psychological states of news junkies the world over — publishers, however, are experiencing this transition differently.
Shortly, the “Trump Bump” is over. Traffic is down and anxiety is up: how can publishers keep audiences engaged at this moment of comparative political peace?
While the genuine unbelievability of the past four years did produce a veritable onslaught of clicks, this kind of engagement generation was always fundamentally unsustainable. Everywhere, reports of “Trump fatigue” (and the more recent “Covid fatigue”) in particular and “news fatigue” in general have been lamented: according to Lineup, “human psychology is not wired to sustain that kind of emotional charge long-term.”
This psychological reality is mirrored in media consumption habits, as reported by Chartbeat: data for Q1 of 2021 has revealed that search traffic (articles views driven by internet searches for specific content) has continued to rise while social traffic (article views driven by social media platforms) has remained static. This indicates a move towards more practical, information-providing news rather than emotionally charged editorials. Readers are looking for specific content that is relevant to their lives and experiences rather than for sensationalism and pathos. Perhaps “Biden boredom” is simply a more sensible approach to news consumption, rooted in hard facts and need-to-know information?
Biden-era journalism trends
The monoculture of Trump-era political journalism, largely limited to Tweet coverage and outrage porn, has yielded to a veritable media ecosystem: diversity is flourishing, both among publishers and between stories.
The slower and more predictable pace of the news cycle under President Biden has allowed news sites to distinguish themselves from one another, as they are no longer bound to publishing pieces in response to the same outrageous Tweets or speeches. According to Digiday, “the latitude to do more enterprise reporting creates an opportunity for news outlets to differentiate themselves from one another.” And with that differentiation comes the potential to build loyal audiences who strongly identify with a given publisher’s specific ethos.
In addition to allowing for sharper distinctions between publishers, Biden-era journalism has allowed other stories to garner attention that has long been out of reach. Without the Trump-shaped black-hole at the center of the media landscape, audiences are recovering their taste for diverse content, remembering that there is a world beyond Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. Axios has pointed out that “other stories — including GameStop stock and developments on the coronavirus vaccines — have driven higher interest than they could in a Trump-centric world.” Now that Trump has stopped colonizing headlines, diverse and meaningful stories are able to flourish in terms of both traction and depth.
Rest, recovery, and really listening
This moment towards slower, deeper journalism has major implications for today’s digital journalism landscape: after four years of publishers competing to inform readers about the latest presidential dramas, the Biden era of political journalism seems to demand that audiences inform publishers about what kinds of content they’re looking for — in other words, it’s time to listen. As Ali Gordon of Lineup has written:
“Over the past 4 years, audiences have increasingly demonstrated a need to be heard, and that doesn’t change with a presidential transition. If anything — under a new administration with less news cycle whiplash and challenge to journalistic integrity — now is a time for media brands to focus on the quality of their relationships with readers, not just the quantity.”
The best way to improve the quality of publisher relationships with audiences is to listen, and publishers across the world are doing so in different ways, all of which are focused on fostering genuine relationships with readers. While we at Opinary offer polling tools for our publishers to ask their readers questions and gain more insight into their audiences’ preferences and tastes, innovation is taking place on a number of fronts, shaping what listening can mean for publishers in a post-Trump era.
As described in Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2021, Romanian publication DoR has made a point of listening to their audience in order to offer “a space that acknowledges experiences and emotions.” Catalina Albeanu, DoR’s digital editor, elaborated on the ways in which they are ensuring that they are really hearing their readership, including collecting “responses to stories where we crowdsource contributions from our members” and holding “online events that can offer validation that your own questions are important and offer some tools to find answers.” This approach even extends to listening to “what some of our members are telling us directly about what we could do better.”
Increasingly, publishers are also engaging with their readers through messaging apps like WhatsApp. Brazilian newspaper Correio has been operating WhatsApp groups, some of which only allow posts from an admin, while others are open to contributions from all members. Correio’s digital content coordinator, Wladmir Pinheiro, spoke to the Reuters Institute about the logic behind this choice: “We use the open groups as a source to know what people are talking about and sharing. We don’t mind if competitors’ content is shared. If it’s just Correio, you make the group feel artificial.” Ultimately, he emphasizes that “WhatsApp has reminded us that we have to put the user at the centre.”
A new era
President Biden is a boring president (or, as some argue, he just seems so in comparison to his predecessor). This boredom is nothing to be lamented — rather, it is an opportunity for emotional recovery for a collectively worn-out American psyche; for publishers to genuinely cater to their readers and build resilient, loyal audiences.
Given the decaying state of public faith in journalism, as widely decried and tidily summed up by Gallup here, this “boring” moment is also an opportunity for the media industry to regain the confidence of the American people (where 60% of citizens have “not very much” or no faith at all in mass media). Building this trust involves implicitly addressing the allegations of elitism and snobbery that have dogged “disconnected” media outlets for years. While these shadows will not be overcome overnight, again, it becomes apparent that the best way to move towards virtuous relationships with audiences is to take them seriously.
Now that the rolicking clamor of Trump’s chaos has died down, publishers have the responsibility to fill that void, to fill this comparative silence, with an appeal to their readers — they have a responsibility to begin asking real questions.