A big change is structural, however. In 2016, a good deal of the old, postwar structure of media remained in place, like evening news broadcasts, along with the cable news apparatus that got layered on during the 1990s and the basic infrastructure of digital news in the 2000s. The 2016 election was the first in which a supermajority of Americans owned smartphones. Phone news push alerts gained prominence in 2015 and 2016, just in time for each turn of that unbelievable thing happening in the country.
Twitter introduced the quote-tweet function in 2015 and shifted toward an algorithmic timeline in the spring of 2016; the combination juiced essentially every Trump tweet into a conflict that sat there like an electromagnet. Mentions of Mr. Trump on Facebook were so prominent and constant, they could barely be compared with those of the other candidates.
Some of the deep challenges that the media business faced then persist (like the steep decline in newspaper circulation that began during the Great Recession), but some, like cord cutting, were more an existential threat rather than the massive, ongoing shift it is now. And streaming and digital options were exploding, seeming poised to replace the old. Mr. Trump knew and understood the old media (the desire for spectacle and participation) and was the perfect vessel for social media (constant debate about him). The result of the old and new at the same time was like a Trump cacophony.
Eight years later, Mr. Trump is often on TV less compared to his presidency, and fewer people are watching; he’s not on social media in the same way, and social media is kind of falling apart, except for TikTok, which is less centralized. Last summer, John Herrman wondered if 2024 would be “a placeless race, in which voters and candidates can and will, despite or maybe because of a glut of fragmented content, ignore the news.”
The smallest percentage of households are being reached by paid, live television since 1991, according to research by MoffettNathanson. The old newspapers and new digital outlets continue to scale back or shut down. Last year, during jury selection for the E. Jean Carroll defamation trial, potential jurors offered a wide range of answers for how they kept up with the news. A few people said CNN. One said local CBS AM radio. “Google, anything on the internet,” one man said. “Social media is my news outlet,” one woman said, as The New Yorker reported. “Every now and then I’ll listen to a podcast,” Juror 71 said. “I don’t barely watch the news — I just watch YouTube,” Juror 31 said.