How 2020 splintered the media landscape

Dealing with partisanship and the media won't be easier in the Biden era, says Ken Spain, of Narrative Strategies.

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Getty Images

When President-Elect Joe Biden is sworn into office in January, companies confronting policy and regulatory issues will be navigating a brand-new set of political challenges. Many people believe a Biden presidency represents a 'return to normal,' but the country and the nation's capital are both still deeply divided.

The possibility of a divided government means it could be more difficult than ever to pass legislation through Congress. The bitter partisanship of recent years is as strong as ever, and the media landscape is at the center of this phenomenon. This landscape has shifted rapidly in 2020, driven mostly by the high-pitched partisanship of the presidential election. Public affairs professionals will have to leverage this splintered landscape in order to drive — and stop — public policy in 2021 and beyond.

Despite his loss, the era of bitter, bare-knuckle politics that thrust Donald J Trump into office will not disappear when he leaves the White House. Joe Biden might represent a steadier personality and more even-tempered tweeter. But his presidency is unlikely to mark the return of bipartisan bridge building in Congress.

Against this backdrop, the 2020 election accelerated a transformation that was brewing in the information landscape throughout the Trump era. Populist-right outlets are booming and eating market share from establishment right-of-center media. Establishment-left outlets are losing some of their most prominent voices as their newsrooms become more ideologically homogenous.

COVID-19 has accelerated the decline of local newspapers. Social media continues to be a major information driver across the spectrum, but some platforms are fracturing along partisan lines.

The increasing clout of populist-right news media is one of the under-examined stories of 2020. Newsmax TV has grown from a relatively minor voice to more than a million viewers a night and Newsmax now claims it has about half the regular viewership of Fox News. Other Trump-aligned outlets have eaten into Fox's market share, and establishment outlets like the Weekly Standard have disappeared altogether.

In the past, partisan news sources aligned with the party out of power have experienced rapid growth. Even after Trump leaves office, these emerging outlets will play a significant role in shaping the narrative going forward. Anyone advocating on behalf of corporate clients will have to understand what these outlets are saying — and why.

On the other end of the political media spectrum, banner names like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Andrew Sullivan have departed prestige media properties. Criticisms like "ideological homogeneity," have become common among renowned journalists as they leave major newsrooms.

These journalists are increasingly turning toward outlets like Substack, a newsletter service that now counts a quarter-million subscribers. While this emerging medium does provide a spot for prominent left-leaning voices, their platforms are unquestionably smaller. These shifting dynamics will make it harder to break through on the left and shape narratives with those audiences.

Earlier this year, the Knight Foundation found that a majority of Americans believe there is bias in the news source they rely on most often, solidifying the notion that people are inclined to seek information sources that align with their existing beliefs. In this light, it's hardly surprising that Parler, a conservative-friendly platform branded as a 'non-biased free speech' alternative to Twitter reached the top spot in the Google and Apple app stores after Election Day.

Meanwhile, mainstream outlets are feeling additional pain as they reel from the financial impacts of COVID-19. Newsroom layoffs totaled more than 11,000 in just the first half of the year. Information sharing through social media is as popular as ever and digital outlets are providing new platforms to powerful voices, but traditional and local newsrooms are playing a diminishing role.

This constellation of media outlets, combined with fractured politics, will make it harder than ever to shape sweeping narratives and build the coalitions necessary to drive policy outcomes. In order to succeed, public affairs campaigns will have to target and engage disparate audiences with highly tailored, research-backed messages that can move public opinion despite significant headwinds.

On the flip side: the ability to appeal to specific segments of the splintered news media will make it easier to stop sweeping and potentially harmful policies.

The change of power in Washington will not stop the trends taking shape throughout the news media throughout 2020 because the nature of our deeply partisan politics remains unchanged. Results-driven PR professionals in Washington will need to exercise political dexterity in order to assemble diverse coalitions and leverage this bifurcated media environment.

This is no small task, but it will be the only way to notch public policy wins under a closely divided government.

Ken Spain is a partner at Narrative Strategies.

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