Legacy Media is Thriving in the Trump Era

I saw this: How The Atlantic Went from Broke to Profitable in Three Years, which agrees with my earlier article from just a month ago: Why legacy media is thriving.

Every year we hear the same tired predictions about how legacy print media (which includes its online/digital equivalents) is doomed, dying, or ‘unable to keep up’ with changing times:

(Ironically, the media is writing articles predicting its own demise.)

Yet not only does legacy media continue to defy predictions of its collapse, it’s actually thriving and profitable. At this point such doom and gloom comes off as crying wolf.

Maybe the media is more resilient than commonly assumed, and it’s time to step back and assess why such predictions keep being wrong instead of repeating them over and over seemingly oblivious to this. In the early 2010s a case could have been made that the mainstream media was at a high risk of dying or obsolescence. But as I describe in my aforementioned article, legacy media successfully pivoted to paywalls and social media virality, as well as piggybacking off of ‘current things’ for added virality and relevance.

Also, as politics becomes increasingly polarized and high-stakes in the age of Trump, legacy media act as ‘hubs of influence’ more so just repositories for news and opinions. Just like there is only one Los Angeles Lakers, there is only one NYTs. As basketball becomes more popular and a bigger industry overall, it stands to reason the Lakers and other franchises will become more valuable too. Trump did more to breathe life into the liberal media than anything anyone on the left has done. Similar to Obama, sleepy Joe avoids drama and everything is rehearsed, focused-group-tested and staged to a fault, whereas Trump is more spontaneous and unscripted, which is good for ratings on either side of the aisle.

In addition to paywalls, The Atlantic also had success by abandoning the excessive wokeness seen elsewhere and pivoting to articles that appeal to a broader or more centrist readership. This readership also tends to be better-educated and higher-SES compared to the far-left. Of course, it does have a left-wing bias overall, but this is balanced out with articles of a more pragmatic nature. It helps that the quality of the content is good overall, such as a recent viral article about the implications a life-saving cystic fibrosis breakthrough treatment, if one skips the overtly partisan stuff. In copying the success of The New Yorker, many of the articles lean more heavily on social commentary and less on partisan politics, with such articles as Why the Internet Is Boring Now and The Algorithmic Radicalization of Taylor Swift. Of course, there are the obligatory articles about Trump, because readers still need to be periodically reminded that Trump is bad.

Also, instead of shilling for an increasingly unpopular administration, the legacy liberal media now routinely publishes negative stories about the Biden economy, like about out-of-control inflation hurting Biden or how Americans are losing confidence in the economy. This shows how virality and profits takes precedence over propaganda, contrary to the assumption that the media are always reliable water carriers for the respective parties. Same for articles that express doubt about the ability of Biden to win in 2024 or his suitability as a candidate, such as an article by Ezra Klein imploring Biden to not run again.

Digital media has many advantages over ‘tangible’ businesses: it scales well, it’s easy to monetize, and can be run on a shoestring budget, such as a recurring roster of unpaid contributors, freelancers or interns that do not even need to show up at any office (the entire process of writing and editing an article can be done remotely), hence saving on rent, instead of full-time onsite employees. Archived content online can generate perpetual ad revenue even if the publication downsizes everywhere else. A few lines of code can turn every page of content into a recurring revenue stream, such as Google-ads, affiliate links, or paywalls. This is true of intellectual property in general, such as movies or articles. Other businesses tend to have the opposite situation in which depreciation causes the value of capital goods to decline over time, combined with high recurring expenses. By comparison, intellectual property has a compounding or accrual effect. Once content is created it just ‘works’ and generates residual income forever.

Out of dozens of large digital publications, I can only think of two recent notable online media failures, those being Gawker and Vice, the latter because it expanded too aggressively to video and other markets at a loss instead of sticking with the far more profitable article-based content, and Gawker was sued out of existence. For all the hype and doom and gloom about the death of the media, this represents a failure rate that is smaller than the average overall failure rate for businesses.