Donald Trump, media saviour

Front pages from New York City newspapers feature the then president-elect Donald Trump Image copyright John Moore/Getty Images

Donald Trump is, by sheer force of character, destroying the mainstream media as we know it.

His relentless barrage of abuse, not least about "fake news", has fatally undermined the trust of the American people in their traditional sources of news; and by denying the Washington press corps access to his administration, he has neutralised a key weapon in the armoury of political journalism.

Meanwhile, his use of social media, talk radio and favoured alt-right websites has allowed him to communicate directly to voters, rendering journalists an irrelevant distraction.

And the Spicer Doctrine - the belief held by the White House press secretary that it is the job of government to hold media to account and not just the other way round - poses a mortal threat to the trade we call reporting.

Any combination of the above paragraphs could appear, without much contention, in almost every appraisal of Trump's relationship with the media that I have read in the past year.

That it has limited basis in reality, and indeed is contradicted by the vast bulk of available evidence, has been no impediment to its ubiquity.

In fact, contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, Donald Trump is not the man who will kill the mainstream media. He is the man who could save it.

Image copyright Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The New York Ti
Image caption Mark Thompson, of the New York Times Company, has seen revenues rise

Together with Dominic Hurst, a brilliant producer, I have been looking at Mr Trump's relationship with the media for Radio 4's PM programme. The evidence is emphatic: Trump has given many news organisations the sustainable commercial future they so desperately crave.

The New York Times, one of Mr Trump's favourite voodoo dolls, which he has repeatedly admonished on Twitter and in rallies, is doing very well out of the new president. In the three weeks after his election, it sold 132,000 digital subscriptions - a tenfold increase.

That's a lot of revenue with which to fund serious journalism. I spoke to Mark Thompson, the paper's chief executive and a former director general of the BBC.

He told me that the president's actions and words "are causing hundreds of thousands of Americans who've never paid for news before to pay for it for the first time".

And he added: "It's not a political point, it's purely a commercial point: the Trump era seems to be a very good era for quality journalism."

CNN, the other organisation that Mr Trump has repeatedly labelled as fake news, also has plenty to thank the president for. Thanks to him, 2016 was CNN's most watched year.

As for news websites like BuzzFeed News, the Guardian, Mail Online, the Independent and others, Trump has generated phenomenal traffic - which in turn boosts revenues.

Two points about Mr Trump's benefit to the mainstream media strike me. The first is that it applies to different platforms and different business models.

Image copyright David McNew/Newsmakers
Image caption 2016 brought more viewers than ever to CNN

The New York Times is a newspaper and website with a semi-permeable paywall - the so-called free premium, or freemium model. The Independent has a low cost base and is funded by a huge range of advertising revenue streams. CNN is a cable news network. All are thriving just now.

Second, Mr Trump has doubtless fortified the differences between the commercial and editorial departments of outlets such as these three. Take the New York Times.

Columnists and leader writers on that gloriously high-minded body, the editorial board, are writing about how awful Mr Trump is, a threat to the republic, an American Putin, these are the end days, and so forth.

Meanwhile, Mark Thompson is rubbing his hands with glee - not necessarily at the policies of the president, but at the ambient glow of his bottom line.

Throughout my journalistic career, there have been serious questions about how journalism is funded.

There is no one or easy answer to that. But based on the evidence above, a very good answer has two words - "Donald", and "Trump". This brash reality TV star has caused no end of discomfort for the mainstream media.

But perhaps what should really make them squirm in their lofty op-ed conferences is the fact that he is doing more than any other modern politician to help them pay their mortgages and feed their families.

Listen to my piece on PM, BBC Radio 4 at 17:00 GMT on Monday, 6 February or later via BBC iPlayer.

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