Dwindling public interest for news in 2021 causes outlet closures

NEW YORK, (AP) -- In 2020, the presidential election and pandemic were news stories that drew intense attention and engagement from news outlets. To a large extent, 2021 was the inevitable hangover.

Dwindling public interest for news in 2021 causes outlet closures

Diverse metrics show the declining popularity of news content.

Millions of Americans viewed cable news channels last year as their main source of entertainment at night. According to Nielsen, in 2021, weekday prime time viewership fell 38% at CNN, 34% on Fox News Channel, and 25% at MSNBC.

Nielsen stated that although the decline was less dramatic, it was still significant for broadcast television evening newscasts: 12% and 14% respectively at ABC's "World News Tonight" (ABC) and CBS Evening News (NBC), Nielsen.

Some digital news sites, such as The New York Times or Washington Post, saw rapid subscriber growth during the Trump era. However, readers aren’t spending as much time on the site. Comscore reported that the number of unique visitors to The Post’s site fell 44% compared to November 2020 and 34% to the Times.

Although the headline of the Los Angeles Times frontpage, "How Much More Can we Take?" was referring to COVID-19 it could be easily applied to news appetite generally.

Smart news executives understood that the 2020 peaks were unsustainable.

Ken Doctor, a news media analyst said that "it was completely predictable."

This was perhaps most evident at the cable news networks. They created a prime-time model that was almost exclusively focused on political fight during Trump's years. This made it difficult to change, according to Tom Rosenstiel, University of Maryland journalism professor.

Rosenstiel stated, "You become, in some degree, a prisoner for the audience you created."

These networks are still focused on politics despite a decrease in viewership. NewsWhip, a media monitoring company, looked at 14,000,000 political articles online and found that they had an average 924 social media interactions. NewsWhip found that the 13.5 million articles it traced in 2021 had an annual average of 321 engagements.

Doctor stated that these outlets have turned to other revenue streams for a portion of their revenues. CNN plans to launch a new streaming service in the first half of next year and Fox News recently hired Chris Wallace to help with that endeavor.

Fox News directed viewers to Fox Nation's streaming service, Fox Nation, even though it increased its conservative commentary in response to perceived threats from outlets such as Newsmax and OANN. The documentary Tucker Carlson's Jan. 6 Capitol Riot by Tucker Carlson was Fox's most popular programming. It claimed it was an attempt to silence Trump supporters.

Key programming decisions for both MSNBC and CNN will be made in the new year. CNN will need to replace Chris Cuomo as its most popular host. He was fired following revelations about how he assisted his brother in a political scandal. MSNBC will replace Brian Williams as its host and Rachel Maddow, its most beloved personality, will likely be reduced in hours.

Although Times' digital site usage is declining, 8 million subscribers were purchased and the company is expected to continue growing. Doctor stated that the Times has done a great job diversifying beyond politics through its Wirecutter service, which provides consumer recommendations.

According to the Wall Street Journal, leaders at the Post have struggled to address their readers' dependency on political discourse. Doctor stated that the company is seeking international growth opportunities. This focus is a testament to the strength and leadership of Sally Buzbee, its executive editor.

Rosenstiel stated that "people to some extent have focused inward." "They are getting the news they need, but not as much as they were a year ago."

Rosenstiel stated that 2021 is a transitional year from the Trump-era news pace, which is especially relevant for national news outlets.

He can see the impact of those years in how intensely the media covered every turn and twist of the legislative negotiations over President Joe Biden’s "Build back Better" bill. It's slow-moving, filled with incremental developments, like most work in Congress.

He is concerned that the focus on this story has led to distraction from other priorities such as focusing on local efforts in restricting voting rights. This story is ultimately more important.

According to Penelope Muse Abernathy (a Northwestern University professor), between 100 and 120 local newspapers will close in 2021. This is in line with the declines over the past two decades.

According to Challenger Gray & Christmas, local news outlets will see the smallest job cuts in 14-years. This is after 2020 saw the largest number of newsroom jobs lost since 2008.

"What we are seeing this year is kinda a watershed moment, in the pivot from an existing print business model that's diminishing to digital model that's beginning to take shape," Timothy Franklin, Abernathy’s colleague at Northwestern.

He mentioned the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and other newspapers that have made the transition.

As people searched for information during the COVID-19 pandemic, local news outlets experienced a surge in digital subscriptions. Although interest in pandemic news is declining, Abernathy stated that she believes the outlets have succeeded in keeping many of their new subscribers.

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