It’s become clear in recent months that Donald Trump’s growling at the national press has, in many ways, backfired. The New York Times and The Washington Post are producing exceptional and indignant stories about the new administration. Subscriptions have surged. Cable news ratings are hitting record highs. And nonprofit outlets like Mother Jones and ProPublica have seen a major increase in donations.
Times Editor Dean Baquet put it this way in late February: “There was a long time when the press wondered about its place in society. . . . What’s happened in the last couple of months, I have to say, has been tremendous for news organizations. Our mission is clearer than it’s ever been.”
I’m excited about the press’s reinvigoration, too, but I’m also worried about Trump’s anti-press words and deeds—and their trickle-down consequences for state and local journalists.
I contacted 16 editors or publishers of state and local newspapers in California, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas to ask if their papers had seen post-election bumps in subscriptions or readership. Their circulations range from 8,000 to 200,000 daily. Seven responded, and only one reported growth. The others didn’t know why they hadn’t seen growth or said their local focus might be to blame. I don’t want to lean too heavily on these results, which are anecdotal. But they only add to my concern that Trump’s anti-press antics will inspire unprecedented attempts to delegitimize the state and local press.
Consider what five press freedom experts told me:
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists: “When [Trump] belittles, attacks, and undermines journalists, that creates a new norm that has global repercussions as well as local ones. His rhetoric normalizes press freedom abuses at the state and local levels.”
Clay Calvert, media law professor at the University of Florida: “Trump chums his base by bashing the press. Some local politicians undoubtedly will take a page from his playbook and use it against news outlets in their own cities and towns. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then this is the most dangerous form of mimicry.”
Katie Townsend, litigation director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: “If state or local officials take their cues from the top and view reporters and news organizations as ‘the enemy,’ then they may see nothing wrong with refusing to speak to certain outlets, or in denying them access to records and information.”
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association: “[Trump’s] invective and the administration’s actions barring certain…