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Will people still pay for news without President Trump?

Donald Trump wasn’t good for much but he was great for the news. The New York Times, for example, saw a 300% uptick in digital subscriptions once Trump became President. There’s a good reason for that, which we’ll get into below. (Hint: it’s the same thing that drives engagement on social media.)

Trump isn’t the only reason places like the New York Times have seen an uptick in readers and subscribers: they’ve built their entire operating model around getting subscriptions and its paid off. But Trump’s presidency, and the burning need people felt to know about it, helped.

Can media outlets maintain that need without him? Chris Cermak, Monocle’s news editor, asked as much about The Washington Post on The Late Edition of the Monocle 24 podcast:

Will [reporting on the Biden administration] attract readers in the same way [as Donald Trump]? Will that maintain this positive feeling that liberals have, for that matter, about The Washington Post? Will they continue to read or will they go back to being more apolitical now that Donald Trump is out of office?

You can ask the same of the New York Times and any of the liberal and left-of-centre publications that saw a surge of readership – or even just a clear sense of purpose – under the Trump administration.

Audiences love a villain. They simplify things. Why pay for news? So you know what he’s doing. Why donate to this cause? To help stop him.

Conservatives and the far-right have always been good at this kind of thing. They manufacture enemies, tiny paper demons folded from lists of your nightmares, to stand against and to rally their base around. It’s how Trump got himself elected: he invented opponents to push over. Fox News do the same thing.

It’s not exclusive to the conservative side of politics, of course: über-engaged people on social media, across the political spectrum, are amazing at finding enemies to rally around. Some of them are real, some of them are only real under the tawdry veneer of a newsfeed but they all inspire a share and a whole lot of something. You never want to find yourself as the main character of Twitter, after all.

Media outlets made a whole lot of hay out of Antagonist Trump. He was an main character big enough and important enough to inspire real, tangible action. His show was worth a subscription. Now, though? Biden isn’t as compelling.

Really, Trump’s tenure as president was an audition for outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. Are they worth the money to people now that Biden has arrived? Have people learned to value the news as a product? Is the habit engrained? Will people just forget they’re subscribed? Is inertia enough?

There are real woes and troubles that are worth knowing about: coronavirus, China’s continued rise as a global superpower, climate change, to name a few. But none of them have really inspired the passion required to throw a few dollars at a paywall in the past.

They’re not characters. And people love a character.