US news organisations have struggled to cover a pandemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives, along with the contentious 2020 presidential election, a racial reckoning marked by nationwide protests, and a violent attack on the Capitol by supporters of the outgoing president. The unrelenting news cycle seemed to take a toll on audiences as well, with declines in consumption, interest, and trust in the news.
The long-predicted end of the ‘Trump bump’ showed up clearly in our Digital News Report survey, with a seven percentage point drop in the most avid news users (who access once a day or more), along with a decline of 11 percentage points in respondents who are ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ interested in news. Industry data echoed this trend, with national news brands especially hard hit.1 Online traffic to the New York Times and Washington Post in February 2021 fell sharply from January's peak – 17% and 26%, respectively – and was also down year-over-year, according to ComScore data. Meanwhile, by mid-March, CNN and MSNBC lost 45% and 26% of their prime-time audiences respectively, from highs in January.
The collective tuning out was no surprise after an unusually bitter election culminating in a second impeachment trial and the political exit (for now) of an extraordinarily divisive and attention-grabbing president. As a former CNN head predicted in August, ‘What would go away is the bad guy in the story. There’s no antagonist. So what are we tuning in for?’2 Another factor, though, may be declining attention to the Coronavirus pandemic; just 31% of US adults were following COVID news closely in a March 2021 Pew survey, down from 37% at the end of November and 57% in March 2020.3
While the early months of the pandemic coincided with record traffic levels for many news outlets, the loss of advertisers, distribution, events, and other revenue sources took a devastating toll. One consultancy report suggested the media industry lost more than 30,000 jobs in 2020, with national outlets such as BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, and HuffPostannouncing furloughs and layoffs. BuzzFeed acquired HuffPost in February but subsequently announced cuts affecting 47 US employees.
Local newsrooms faced particularly acute challenges. By February 2021, more than 60 local newsrooms across the country had closed, including those owned by large chains (CNHI) and local families and many that had been operating for more than a century.4 These closures, as well as layoffs, furloughs, and reduced print days, exacerbated concerns about the rise of news deserts in the US, where nearly 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004.5 These declines have amplified calls for public funding for US media, including opportunities to confer non-profit status on news organisations and create subsidies supporting new journalism outlets and initiatives.
More positively, the New York Times attracted a record 2.3 million digital-only subscriptions in 2020 and, for the first time, saw its digital revenue overtake print. The Washington Post, whose digital subscriptions have reached nearly 3 million, announced in December 2020 that it would add 150 jobs in 2021, resulting in the largest newsroom in the company’s history.
The summer of protests sparked by the death of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers in May 2020 drew millions of people to the streets across the country and caught the attention of news audiences. However, media organisations faced their own racial reckoning. Notably, the New York Times editorial page editor resigned after staff outcry over a column by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton calling to ‘send in the troops’ against protesters, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor left in response to staff rebuke of a ‘Buildings Matter, Too’ headline, and editors at Variety and Bon Appetit stepped down amid concerns about a lack of newsroom diversity. Calls for enhanced representation in newsrooms and news coverage also spurred the creation of The 19th*, a racially, ideologically, and socio-economically diverse non-profit news outlet led by women and focused on covering stories related to gender, politics, and policy, including the 2020 election, the pandemic, race, the LGBTQ+ community, health care, and business.
Meanwhile San Francisco-based Substack has been making headlines for attracting high-profile journalists away from established news outlets with a platform for monetising subscription digital newsletters. It now features the likes of Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias, Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi, BuzzFeed senior technology reporter Alex Kantrowitz, and New Republic climate reporter Emily Atkin, with some journalists drawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in subscription revenues.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
University of Wisconsin-Madison
All major channels for news – TV, print, online, and social – saw parallel declines as regular news sources, with print and TV dropping to historic lows after small gains in 2020.
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
Overall trust measures remained flat in the US, with only tiny dips for trust in ‘News I use’ and ‘News in social’. These findings highlight the challenges of translating 2020's surging news usage into long-term trust-building in the highly polarised American market. Cable news channels Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have some of the highest levels of distrust.