Boring news cycle deals blow to partisan media

In the months since former President Donald Trump left office, media companies’ readership numbers are plunging — and publishers that rely on partisan, ideological warfare have taken an especially big hit.

Why it matters: Outlets most dependent on controversy to stir up resentments have struggled to find a foothold in the Biden era, according to an Axios analysis of publishers’ readership and engagement trends.

By the numbers: Web traffic, social media engagement and app user sessions suggest that while the entire news industry is experiencing a slump, right-wing outlets are seeing some of the biggest plunges.

  • A group of far-right outlets, including Newsmax and The Federalist, saw aggregate traffic drop 44% from February through May compared to the previous six months, according to Comscore data.
  • Lefty outlets including Mother Jones and Raw Story saw a 27% drop.
  • Mainstream publishers including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reuters dropped 18%.

App visits tell a similar story. Both right-leaning (including Fox News, Daily Caller) and left-leaning (including Buzzfeed News, The Atlantic) saw considerable average drops in app user sessions over this time period at 31% and 26%, respectively, according to Apptopia data.

  • Data from Sensor Tower shows that downloads of fringe-right social networking apps like MeWe, Rumble, Parler and CloutHub have also plummeted.

Engagement on social media has taken the biggest dive, according to data from NewsWhip.

  • Left-leaning and right-leaning publishers have seen social interactions on stories drop by more than 50%, while mainstream publishers have experienced a slightly more modest drop of 42%.

The big picture: Opposition media traditionally relies on traffic booms when a new party takes office, but right-wing outlets have seen some of the most precipitous declines in readership since a Democratic president took office.

  • “In this particular cycle, the opposition is more heavily linked to an ex-president than in the past,” says Rodney Benson, chair of NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.
  • “And the fact that Trump has been banned from the major social media likely has spill-over effects decreasing circulation of the opposition media.”

Between the lines: While the Biden administration has seen plenty of debate over policy, economics and a a crisis at the border, personality-based controversy has largely been absent.

  • “He's not giving the opposition a lot to attack,” Benson notes. “This could suppress the audience for pro-Trump media, at least in the short-term.”
  • A slower political news cycle has put the spotlight on breaking news stories that may not have otherwise gotten as much attention in the Trump era, like a ship getting caught in the Suez Canal or the Derek Chauvin trial.

Yes, but: Changes to the media landscape could also be at play here. For example, there's been enormous growth in conservative podcasts over the past year.

  • In particular, an analysis from conservative media expert Howard Polskin finds that younger conservative talk personalities, like Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino and Steven Crowder are gaining enormous traction, alongside veterans like Bill O'Reilly and Mark Levin.

What to watch: “I anticipate traffic levels to conservative websites will start to rise in the first half of 2022 starting in about February,” Polskin said.

  • “The midterm elections will begin heating up and audiences will be seeking news and insights about the various races,” he said. “That will help drive audience growth. However, I would be surprised if we hit the traffic numbers we saw in 2020.”

Methodology: To measure the decline in engagement among certain types of publishers, Axios created five groups of publishers based on assessments of their news bias, in consultation with news bias ranking service NewsGuard. Each group contains 4 different publishers, with the exception of mainstream, which contains 8. Those groups include far-right, right-leaning, mainstream, left-leaning, and far-left.

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