American politics and the changing media landscape

Almost two years ago, Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator to announce his run for president. And we haven't stopped talking about him since.

"Our lizard brain stems are responsive to stimuli like danger and sex and novelty and story and he provides that constantly," said Marty Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California.

From Syria strikes to Stormy Daniels, the Mother of All Bombs to Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, who is getting fired to who is getting his office raided by the FBI, the sagas and scandals coming out of President Trump's White House have fueled an unrelenting 24/7 flow of breaking news.

"He understands that the nature of the modern media business is that it's an attention economy and he understands probably better than anyone how to work that to his advantage," Kaplan said.

If that attention helped him win the presidency, it also has given new life to national media outlets that were staring down digital-age decline just a couple years ago.

In 2017, the New York Times took in over $1 billion in subscription revenue while in a Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop-for-scoop battle with the Washington Post. And the Post saw its digital subscriptions triple from 2016 to surpass 1 million online subscribers in 2017.

On TV, CNN and MSNBC's wall-to-wall political coverage brought record-breaking ratings jumps while Fox News Channel continued its cable dominance.

But our increased attention to the Trump show may also be deepening Americans' political division.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found 87 percent of Republicans versus 53 percent of Democrats say news organizations tend to favor one side, while 34 percent of Democrats and only 11 percent of Republicans believed the national news organizations very trustworthy.

"Now we have seen the political divide beginning back in 2013, 2014, so this was something that was already beginning, however, we saw pretty dramatic increases in those gaps from 2016 to 2017," said Amy Mitchell, the director of journalism research at Pew Research Center.

But whether it's our local or national newspapers, what we're reading on our phones, or what we're watching on our TV, who owns the platform makes a difference in our changing media landscape.

"Who owns the media has a lot of power to decide how much resources go into that outlet, where those resources go, what kinds issues are reported," said Rodney Benson, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University.

The Washington Post owes its resurgence in part to the very deep pockets and professed idealism of founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the newspaper in 2013.

"Democracy dies in darkness, that certain institutions have a very important role in making sure there is light," Bezos said in a talk. "And I think the Washington Post has an important seat to do that."

While the president has attacked Amazon and the "fake news" Washington Post on Twitter, he has defended the pro-Trump local news conglomerate Sinclair as it shifts towards national and ideological content.

"The concentration of ownership has really come up in the case of Sinclair," NYU's Benson said. "They own about 170 stations and there's a proposed purchase of Tribune Company that would take them to over 200 stations."

Local newspapers are struggling. Over the last decade, private equity investors have bought up and hollowed out newsrooms hit hard by the great recession and digital disruption.

Through all this, social media has only become more essential. News outlets rely on Facebook for traffic. President Trump rallies his supporters over his Twitter feed. And social justice movements from Black Lives Matter to Me Too hashtag their way to prominence.

"I do see amongst activists, among journalists of color a sense that hey there's a gauntlet that's been thrown down and for better or worse we've got to do something," said Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University.

But social media, we're learning, has a flipside.

"These platforms that have really brilliantly democratized the ability to publish for everybody also have brought this sort of architecture that can be gamed for nonsense at a much bigger scale than ever has been seen," said Nabiha Syed, associate general counsel for BuzzFeed.

When we only got our news by opening the newspaper or turning on the TV, we didn't have to worry about white nationalists unleashing hate speech, Russian operatives running troll farms, Cambridge Analytica mining our data.

And in the aftermath of Mark Zuckerberg's Senate testimony, how we take on these challenges may be the next big shift in our changing media landscape.

"The undercurrent of all of this is, 'Hey we didn't know what was going on, we didn't know about the manipulation, we didn't know who was buying ads,'" BuzzFeed's Syed said. "And at the end of the day, when you say, 'We didn't know and that's a problem,' what you're advocating for is transparency."