President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn't do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.
POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.
The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.
That gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks. Those concerns, which initially were raised during the campaign, were largely based on anecdotes and observations. POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.
The White House declined to comment for this story, but Trump and his campaign officials have made no secret of their preference for partisan national outlets and social media to mainstream outlets of all types. When dealing with local media, Trump often chose local TV and radio stations owned by conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, has said Sinclair agreed to have their stations broadcast interviews with Trump without commentary — which includes fact checks. (Sinclair has said it offered the same deal to Clinton, but she didn’t do any interviews.)
Now, as president, Trump is openly touting Sinclair, even though his own Federal Communications Commission is wrestling with whether to approve its effort to vastly expand its reach by buying Tribune Broadcasting. And in praising Sinclair, as in many other areas of policy and politics, Trump is utilizing social media rather than speaking directly to reporters, a method of communication that Trump considers essential to his success.
“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Trump told Fox Business Network in October. Without it, he said at the time, he “would never … get the word out.”
POLITICO’s analysis shows how he succeeded in avoiding mainstream outlets, and turned that into a winning strategy: Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online — went for him in higher-than-expected numbers. In tight races with Clinton in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the decline in local media could have made a decisive difference.
To assess how the decline in news subscriptions might have affected the presidential race, POLITICO made a county-by-county comparison of data from AAM. Almost all daily newspapers report their subscription numbers, print and online, to AAM for verification in order to sell to advertisers. (Some of the smallest outlets do not, though, including weekly publications.) After ranking the counties on subscription rates, POLITICO compared election results between counties with high and low subscription rates, and used regression analysis to determine the correlation between news circulation and election results.
Among the findings:
• Trump did better than Romney in areas with fewer households subscribing to news outlets but worse in areas with higher subscription rates: In counties where Trump’s vote margin was greater than Romney’s in 2012, the average subscription rate was only about two-thirds the size of that in counties where Trump did worse than Romney.
• Trump struggled against Clinton in places with more news subscribers: Counties in the top 10 percent of subscription rates were twice as likely to go for Clinton as those in the lowest 10 percent. Clinton was also more than 3.7 times as likely to beat former President Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in counties in the top 10 percent compared to those in the lowest 10 percent — the driest of the so-called news deserts.
• Trump’s share of the vote tended to drop in accordance with the amount of homes with news subscriptions: For every 10 percent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points.
To many news professionals and academics who’ve studied the flow of political information, there’s no doubt that a lack of trusted local media created a void that was filled by social media and partisan national outlets.
“Without having the newspaper as kind of ‘true north’ to point you to issues, you are left to look for other sources,” said Penny Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who has closely studied the decline of local media. “And because of the dramatic rise in social media, that ends up being your Facebook friends.”
Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign, had a front-row seat for the rise of Trump, and noted that for many Trump supporters, the candidate himself was the most trusted source of news.
“What he’s doing is he is becoming the source and they believe him,” Tyler said. “It doesn’t matter if the people they don’t believe say he’s not telling the truth. Trump’s breakthrough is that he’s unencumbered by the truth.”
Trump himself communicates directly to about 50 million followers on Twitter, and during the presidential primaries,his Twitter following was larger than the total number of votes he received in becoming the Republican Party nominee. His number of Twitter followers far exceeds the number of subscribers for all news outlets, print and digital, in the country — 35 million for weekday and 38 million on Sundays as of 2016, according to AAM figures.
In late December, Trump wrote on Twitter: “I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair ‘press,’ now often referred to as Fake News Media. Phony and non-existent ‘sources’ are being used more often than ever. Many stories & reports a pure fiction!”
Starting in the 1970s, when the control of the nominating process shifted from party elites to primary-election voters, a common sight at rallies, conventions and debates was small groups of journalists, men and women, most of them having traveled in from Washington, gathering to compare observations. Together, they would decide what news had been made — which candidate handled himself better, which exchanges were the most relevant, which assertions were the most questionable.
In the days before the Internet, about a dozen news outlets dominated national political coverage. They included the major television networks, weekly news magazines, The Associated Press, and about a half-dozen newspapers. Wire services such as The New York Times News Service and The Washington Post-Los Angeles Times service sent out their articles to smaller papers across the country, guaranteeing vastly wider circulation for their stories.
Top columnists and political writers would therefore appear in hundreds of newspapers, reaching tens of millions of homes. The families in those homes might have had little awareness of where the articles originated, but were reassured by knowing that trusted local editors had chosen those pieces for publication. And the local newspapers themselves engendered a strong, often fierce loyalty: They were part of families’ lives from birth to death, offering everything from holiday recipes to obituaries. They were where Mom and Dad’s wedding photo was published, and where yellowing clippings of long-ago heroics on the high-school gridiron were saved for posterity.
The editors lived in the communities they served, and went to the same churches and parent-teacher meetings that their readers attended. So when they decided to publish a story about national politics, it had a local stamp of approval: The local newspaper editor — and, in a similar way, the local TV anchor — were validators for national political coverage by reporters thousands of miles away.
By the start of the 2016 election campaign, newspapers had endured a quarter century of sharp declines in subscriptions — a loss of about 40 percent of their readers — and local TV and radio had lost much of their economic base, as well. And the rate of decline was increasing.
Between 2015 and 2016 alone, print and digital subscription rates dropped 8 percent, according to AAM. Between the 2012 election, in which Barack Obama squared off against Romney, and the 2016 Trump-Clinton clash, weekday subscriptions dropped 19 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that between 2004 and 2015. the newspaper industry lost 37 percent of its workers, leaving empty desks in newsrooms where reporters used to work.
People who no longer subscribed to the local paper could get some reported news from the dwindling numbers of free articles per month. They also could share articles from hundreds of sources — mainstream media and ideological media, or, in many cases, from places on the Web that no one could identify. Twitter more than doubled its number of users between 2012 and 2016. Facebook, meanwhile, went from nearly breaking even in 2012 to reporting a profit of $10.2 billion in 2016, emerging as the dominant organizing tool for presidential candidates.
National news outlets fared better than local outlets in the shift from print to digital. Investors — some seeing economic opportunity and others less concerned about profits than pressing openly partisan agendas — swooped in to buy national outlets and create new ones. That meant Washington was awash in reporters while the rest of the country saw an abject collapse of news editing and reporting — 1 in 5 reporting jobs nationwide were in Washington, New York and Los Angeles as of 2014, according to The Washington Post, up from 1 in 8 in 2004.
To many media professionals, the decline of local news has had its greatest impact in the lack of scrutiny of city halls and state houses across the country. But the POLITICO analysis indicates that the loss of local outlets, and the downsizing of others, has had a profound effect on the national dialogue, as well.
“Historically, strong local newspapers have had the ability to set the agenda for debate of important policy issues,” Abernathy, a former New York Times executive, said. “Because of the financial pressures that have occurred on the industry, that mission has been significantly diminished.”
Jeffrey Mondak, a University of Illinois political scientist who has written a book on the role of newspapers in politics, noted that a surprising number of small newspapers, even in rural and traditionally conservative markets, refused to endorse Trump, in some cases breaking decades-long allegiances with the Republican Party. But it seemingly made little difference to voters, suggesting that they were making their decisions based on other information.
“Many local papers either endorsed Clinton, didn’t endorse, or very reluctantly endorsed Trump,” Mondrak said in an email. “Without those papers as strong voices speaking to the (possibly negative) local implications of a Trump presidency, the Trump campaign would have had clearer sailing in those areas. My strongest hunch is that [the POLITICO data] means that Trump connected with voters via a national campaign, and that he was most successful when subnational messaging wasn’t able to weaken that connection.”
Across the nation, most of the local news available to readers was becoming as indistinguishable as the bright-eyed faces delivering the weather forecast.
Indeed, the POLITICO analysis found that most of the country was relying more on national outlets than local ones: Most of the counties that were studied had subscription rates of less than 20 percent of households. One in 10 counties had less than 5 percent of homes receiving a print or digital subscription; the top 10 percent of counties studied had subscription rates of 35 percent or higher.
Trump thrived, both against Clinton and compared to Romney in 2012, more strongly in the news-desert counties — the areas with very few subscriptions. For instance, rural Price County in northern Wisconsin had virtually no paid local-news circulation, according to AAM, and Trump walloped Clinton there by 25 points; the county had been a virtual tie between Obama and Romney in 2012.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s numbers often soared, even when comparing with Obama's in 2012, in areas with relatively high concentrations of subscribers, such as DuPage County in the suburbs of Chicago, where she beat Trump by 54 percent to 40 percent, while Obama had only edged Romney there by a single point.
To some academics who study the media and politics, the results suggest that reading a subscription news product — which carries a level of trust and loyalty greater than simply sharing stories on social media — provides an independent perspective on politics. In the 2016 election, subscribers seem to have gleaned a more skeptical view of Trump from what they read.
"The basic hypothesis is that the collapse of local media institutions has kind of broken the foundation of political engagement in our country, which historically began at the local level," said Lee Shaker, a political communications scholar at Portland State University, describing his own work in studying the roles of local and community newspapers.
Shaker considers smaller newspapers particularly important as part of the broader "information diet," a subject he worries isn't getting enough rigorous research.
"There’s a lot that we’ve underestimated or overlooked in how people get information that has consequences for pretty broad things — not only whether you voted in the mayoral election, but whether you trust your neighbor or trust the government at all," Shaker said.
Other political scientists are more skeptical about the idea that news subscribers, simply by reading more fact-checked and nuanced articles, turned against Trump. Gregory Martin, a professor at Emory University who has researched the interplay of electoral politics and journalism, suggested that newspaper readers may simply have other qualities that would inherently make them resistant to Trump.
“Newspaper circulation itself is a measure of education — above and beyond college attendance of other metrics,” said Martin, suggesting that political literacy isn’t simply a matter of degrees attained, but a level of attentiveness to detail that’s harder to measure.
Many of the counties in POLITICO’s analysis of news subscription rates tracked with the urban-rural divide that was widely noted in the 2016 election, with higher-density population centers having higher subscription rates. But Trump appeared to struggle even in rural areas with a higher-than-average presence of mainstream media.
Yuma County, Arizona, for instance, had some of the features of the Trump strongholds — a heavily rural county on the Mexican border with sky-high unemployment (15.7 percent as of last November). But voters there tend to get their news from traditional sources: The county’s news subscription rate of more than 40 percent of households is in the top quarter of all counties in the country. Romney beat Obama there by 13 points, but Trump did 8 points worse, edging Clinton by 50 percent to 45 percent.
By contrast, there was Robeson County, North Carolina — the poorest in the state, with a similar economic profile to Yuma County — which has a subscription rate of only 9 percent, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. (The actual rate is somewhat higher, though, because one of the county’s papers, the six-times-a-week Robesonian, doesn’t report its circulation to the AAM.) Robeson County was a traditional Democratic stronghold, with Democrats having more than four times as many registered voters as the Republicans had. Obama swamped Romney there, 58 percent to 41 percent, in 2012. But Trump beat Clinton by more than 4 points — a swing of more than 20 points.
Charles Broadwell, the former publisher of The Fayetteville Observer, the largest newspaper that covers Robeson Country, said he fears that cutbacks in the newspaper have deprived local readers of news they can trust, leaving them open to naked appeals from candidates. Just a few months before the 2016 election, Broadwell’s family sold the newspaper to Gatehouse Media; it ended nearly 100 years of family ownership, but came after the print publication had lost about 40 percent of its subscription base since 2008 alone, necessitating cutbacks that pared down coverage of Robeson County and other outlying areas to focus on the core market of Fayetteville.
“We aspired to be a strong local and regional newspaper in our part of the state,” said Broadwell, whose career included a year covering Robeson County prior to spending two decades in either the editor’s or publisher’s chair.
“I’m concerned now as a citizen,” Broadwell said. “You worry about whether people make a distinction between what somebody’s crazy uncle posts somewhere on Facebook and somebody doing the digging.”
“The Observer does that everyday. I hope and pray that that value will be recognized,” he said.
As president, Trump has followed the media strategy of his campaign. He’s largely avoided the mainstream media, both local and national. He’s granted the majority of his TV interviews to Fox News, the channel favored by conservatives. Twitter is, in every sense, his dominant form of communication, as he even fires Cabinet members via social media, making his feed a must-read for many people. Sometimes, he makes assertions that are later corrected by mainstream media, but it’s hard to assess how many of his 50 million followers will ever see the corrections. Often, the factual assertions in his Twitter feed amount to accusations against his perceived enemies, including the media itself.
“Check out the fact that you can’t get a job at ratings challenged @CNN unless you state you are totally anti-Trump?” he wrote in early April. “Little Jeff Zuker, whose job is in jeopardy, is not having much fun lately.”
But CNN quickly pointed out that there is no questioning of prospective employees about their views on Trump — nor have there been any reports of such a practice. CNN President Jeff Zucker’s job isn’t in jeopardy, either, the network said. CNN’s year-over-year ratings are indeed down, but by a smaller percentage than those at Fox News, the president’s preferred outlet.
Those kind of fact checks are often missed by Trump’s most devoted supporters, who are also known to repeat and sometimes re-tweet his messages, giving them even wider circulation.
Former staff members say it was a deliberate strategy of the Trump campaign to run what former deputy communications director Bryan Lanza called “a national narrative campaign” — and that meant working around members of the mainstream media, whom Trump supporters believe blocked his message and repeatedly demonstrated a bias against him.
“It obviously makes a difference to be able to communicate with the voters free of any of the media interpretation of what the president is saying,” Lanza said in an interview.
Trump’s Twitter attacks on national mainstream outlets are so routine by now that almost anyone can quote his lines — “fake news,” “Failing New York Times,” “Amazon Washington Post.” And with the local outlets who pick up their stories largely on the wane, those national news organizations are more easily dismissed in communities outside their East Coast base. That’s what former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore tried to do, with some initial traction, in depicting an on-the-record Post report of sexual misconduct when he was younger as an outside attack by political opponents.
Eventually, local Alabama newspapers validated the Post’s reporting — with some refusing to endorse Moore despite long histories of backing Republicans. He lost by 2 percentage points to Democrat Doug Jones. But to longtime media scholars and observers, there is a very real question of how much longer such local newspapers are going to be able to exist and exert independent judgment. Their concerns are exacerbated by the decline of local TV news, once a nightly staple in most homes, but which has contended with steadily declining ratings amid growing competition from national cable and online outlets.
“All of the problems of newspapers are just starting to come to roost in local TV news,” said Andrew Heyward, who was president of CBS News from 1996 to 2005, and now studies local TV news as a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab. Heyward believes stations across the country have to seek new ways of engaging and growing their audiences, largely by stressing their local authenticity and credibility.
“We’re never going back to ‘Walter Cronkite is the most trusted man in America,’ ” Heyward said. “We have scrape and claw for people’s attention.”
While Heyward and some other media scholars remain hopeful of a rebound, believing that new forms of engagement will gradually win back lost readers and viewers, most people in the political world are coming to grips with a media recipe in which traditional outlets provide fewer ingredients. And even some who regularly jousted with those outlets are finding much to fear in the changing landscape.
“It raises questions about what fills the void and most of the answers to that question are not great for democracy,” said Josh Earnest, former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama.
Obtaining an accurate assessment of a president’s performance “will be much, much, much more difficult if there are not news outlets that are widely viewed as independent and credible,” Earnest said. “And in many cases, the most credible— or at least the perception of the most credible and independent news sources — was the dominant newspaper or the local television journalists in a specific market.”
Campaign professionals see an immediate future in which there are more Trump-style campaigns, with clear, simple messages broadcast across the country, with less reliance on mainstream media at either the national or local level.
“One of the big challenges for campaigns these days is to identify and promote a message that is compelling, if not provocative almost, such that it is sufficiently viral that it transmits itself and does not rely on the old guard media outlets ... but rather,it travels on its own based on the virality of it,” said Brian Fallon, who served as Clinton’s press secretary during the 2016 campaign.
“You can’t have a media strategy that is trying to establish a brand and frame yourself that is doing battle one story at a time,” Fallon added. “You have to have something that moves the whole very decentralized social media environment, that brings it with you, that captures its attention and its imagination.”
Lanza, the former deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, agrees.
Asked if, even where local papers were still more robust, would Trump still have tried to go over and around them, Lanza said yes. “He didn’t need local media for eyeballs,” he said.
Last summer, Trump himself suggested that social media was the only truly necessary communications tool in his arsenal.
“My use of social media is not Presidential - it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” he tweeted in July.
Jason Schwartz contributed to this report.