November 18, 2020

Last month, I spoke with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt about the news cycle in 2020.

He told me, “Once upon a time there was a thing called a Slow News Day. It just feels like we’re drinking out of a fire hose every night. … There are some days where we say, ‘We’ve got three leads tonight.’”

Yesterday was one of those days. Today is one of those days. Tomorrow is one of those days. Every day is one of those days. I can just say a word and there’s a major story associated with it.

Trump. Biden. Election. Coronavirus. Vaccine. Thanksgiving. Afghanistan. Hurricane.

There is plenty to talk about when it comes to President Donald Trump. There are his baseless protestations about the election. There is his refusal to concede to President-elect Joe Biden. There is his neglect for the job he still has for another two months. There is how his stance is delaying a smooth transition to Biden, and thus potentially putting the country at risk on many fronts.

Yes, these are all important stories. They impact the country. They harm our democracy and put our safety in jeopardy. They shouldn’t be ignored.

However, the other story seems so much more critical. That’s the coronavirus. Numbers are spiking at an alarming rate all over the country. Deaths are piling up again. We seem to be in the worst of this pandemic and everything points to it getting much worse before it gets better.

Coronavirus, Trump. Trump, coronavirus. Our heads spin.

To be clear, the media is fully capable of chewing gum and walking at the same time. That is, it can appropriately cover both the coronavirus and Trump and all the other stories that need to be covered, and it can do it simultaneously. And it can do it really well.

However, at this point, I’m not sure news consumers have an appetite for either story, as important as they both are. I say that, especially, when it comes to the coronavirus as you will see in the next item below.

But, first, I mention all this for a couple of reasons. One is to marvel at the incredible work being done in journalism — from the big TV and cable networks to the local stations, from national newspapers and websites to local papers and radio stations. The work being churned out by journalists has never been more impressive and never been more important.

I also know, because I’ve heard from some readers, that not everyone can absorb this much news, this much bad news, this much depressing information every single day. They need breaks, and I’m here to say that’s OK, too. Some days, news consumers need to spend their evenings watching “The Bachelorette” or “The Voice” instead of CNN or Fox News. Sometimes it’s better to read a John Grisham novel instead of The Washington Post.

And when you’re ready again, hard-working journalists will be there. Just like they have been every day, drinking out of a fire hose.

So, now about that news fatigue …

Cases up, interest down

Medical personnel don PPE while attending to a patient at Bellevue Hospital in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Coronavirus cases in the U.S. are going up. Online interest in the virus is going down.

So says the latest poll from NewsWhip, which was written about by Axios’ Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer. Rothschild and Fischer write, “Over the last two weeks, news articles about the pandemic have generated 75 million interactions on social media (likes, comments, shares), according to NewsWhip Data. The last time it was that low over a two-week stretch was in early March.”

And there’s more. The online interest is mostly about how disruptive the coronavirus has been to everyday lives as opposed to the health dangers of the virus.

Rothschild and Fischer point out that the media is still giving the virus much attention — covering it at about the same level as when cases spiked over the summer. But audience engagement is the lowest it has ever been. It’s true that the election has dominated the news cycle in recent weeks, but it appears many people are simply tuning out coronavirus, perhaps out of fatigue.

A clear picture of Real Clear Politics

The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters is out with a piece about the website Real Clear Politics. Peters describes Real Clear as “well known as a clearinghouse of elections data and analysis with a large following among the political and media establishment.”

However, Peters also accurately notes, “But less well known is how Real Clear Politics and its affiliated websites have taken a rightward, aggressively pro-Trump turn over the last four years as donations to its affiliated nonprofit have soared. Large quantities of those funds came through two entities that wealthy conservatives use to give money without revealing their identities.”

Peters adds, “As the administration lurched from one crisis after another — impeachment, the coronavirus, a lost election the president refuses to concede — Real Clear became one of the most prominent platforms for elevating unverified and reckless stories about the president’s political opponents, through a mix of its own content and articles from across conservative media.”

That has been evident especially in the past two weeks as Real Clear continues to push stories that question the outcome of the presidential election.

Check out Peters’ whole story to see the shift at Real Clear Politics.


The WW Higher Education Media Fellowship supports U.S. journalists interested in learning more about and covering issues related to post-secondary career and technical education (CTE). The Fellowship is a six-month, non-residential reporting fellowship which includes $10,000 in funding. Applications are open through December 11.

I’m dead?

What’s the old Carl Reiner line? “Every morning, I would actually look at the obituaries before I had breakfast. And as a joke I said if I was not in it, I would have the breakfast.”

A few celebrities out there might have found a surprise earlier this week if they checked the obits on the Radio France Internationale website. The site mistakenly published about 100 prewritten celebrity obits. Some of the obits were automatically picked up by Google and Yahoo News. To borrow a line from The New York Times’ Aurelien Breeden (as well as from, of course, Mark Twain) those whose deaths were greatly exaggerated included Queen Elizabeth II, Pelé and Clint Eastwood.

RFI apologized for the mistake, which it said happened when the outlet moved its website to a new content management system.

Just to be clear, many news organizations have prewritten or preproduced obits ready to go in the event of a well-known person’s death. For example, Breeden notes that The New York Times has more than 1,500 obits ready to go.

A big move

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

Chairman Paul Huntsman and his board of directors have landed a rising star at McClatchy as the next editor of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune.

She is Lauren Gustus, 40, who has been not only the top editor at McClatchy’s flagship, The Sacramento Bee, but also regional editor for the chain’s 10 Western newsrooms. Gustus had been an assistant sports editor at the Tribune early in her career.

She comes aboard a year after the Tribune switched to nonprofit status and as it prepares to drop print publication to once a week at the start of 2021 (as will its competitor the Deseret News). The publication is trying to build a business model around individual reader digital memberships and donations from foundations and wealthy individuals. Both have been revenue approaches McClatchy is trying at its 30 newspapers and sites.

I wrote in September about the messy departure of former editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce. She hinted in her resignation letter, and others in the newsroom said, that Huntsman often interfered in newsroom coverage decisions, especially during his brother Jon Huntsman’s unsuccessful campaign for governor earlier this year.

End of a run

Talk show host Conan O’Brien. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The big TV news on Tuesday was late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien announcing that he will end his TBS show “Conan” in June 2021 and that he is going to HBO Max to start a weekly variety series. I was stunned to see this nugget in this story: O’Brien has been on TBS for 10 years. TEN! Doesn’t it seem like the whole Conan/Jay Leno/NBC fiasco was more recent than that?

Anyway, check out this hilarious quote from O’Brien: “In 1993 Johnny Carson gave me the best advice of my career: ‘As soon as possible, get to a streaming platform.’ I’m thrilled that I get to continue doing whatever the hell it is I do on HBO Max, and I look forward to a free subscription.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought O’Brien was wickedly funny (you should follow him on Twitter) and an excellent talk show host. He’s going to be fine, but you can’t help but think about what kind of career he would’ve had if he hadn’t been given a raw deal by NBC.

The ratings game

TV news ratings came out Tuesday and there were a few notable items.

ABC’s “World News Tonight” drew 9.857 million viewers for the week of Nov. 9 — the most viewers it has had in six months. All the network evening news broadcasts did well last week with “NBC Nightly News” attracting 8.3 million viewers and “CBS Evening News” drawing 5.9 million viewers.

I’ve written about this often this year, but it has been something of a renaissance year for the evening national news. The networks aren’t seeing numbers like they did in the golden days of Walter Cronkite, but having more than 24 million viewers tuning into the three evening news broadcasts on a given night is a really solid number.

Fox News continues to set the pace on cable. In primetime, Fox News drew 3.6 million viewers, as compared to CNN (2.3 million) and MSNBC (2.2 million). Note this as well: Overall, these numbers add up to a little more than 8 million viewers. When you think about it, it’s not that big of a number.

This past Sunday, NBC’s “Meet the Press” had a great week, averaging 4.05 million viewers — which was a 10% increase from a year ago at this time. “Fox News Sunday” had 3.81 million viewers, a 20% hike from a year ago.

CBS’s “Face the Nation” was not on the air this past week. It was preempted by the network’s coverage of the Masters golf tournament.

And, finally, a shout out to what might be the best pound-for-pound show on TV: “CBS Sunday Morning.” The show drew a very solid 5.4 million viewers last Sunday on a show that featured a Gayle King interview with Barack Obama.

Media thoughts that popped into my head

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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