Political Media Struggles To Capitalize On Its Trump Bump

While political news drives traffic and engagement, many DC-focused publishers are taking a hit as ad budgets fail to materialize.

“There’s a real seasonal cycle for political advertising,” said Jordan Lieberman, politics and public affairs lead at the ad targeting firm Audience Partners. “But the legislative calendar is so messed up, it’s not leaving time for organizations or activists to really plan a campaign.”

Typically, the year following a presidential campaign sees a deluge of high-profile bills and public opinion ad campaigns. Bolder legislation can be shaped at the beginning of the electoral cycle because lawmakers don’t face immediate reprisal.

“There are clients who would gladly spend millions to shape an infrastructure bill in Congress,” Lieberman said. What’s missing is the bill or the animating legislative force behind a potential bill.

Broad advocacy groups that are usually consistent advertisers have “sat on their wallets to see what would happen,” said Grace Briscoe, VP of candidates and causes at ad tech company Centro.

“There’s this element of the unexpected now,” she said. “Clients that previously planned out three to six months ahead around Congressional recesses and the legislative calendar are doing maybe week-long tactical campaigns.”

Lieberman said that “the RFPs tend to be less certain.” So in the past where a public opinion campaign might be rolling out now to advocate for an August bill, this year organizations want a retainer in case the issue is broached over the summer.

The public opinion advocacy budgets that haven’t surfaced this year aren’t a meaningful chunk of overall news media advertising, but they disproportionately fund DC-focused outlets with political readerships.

Four political digital ad buyers said that soft demand has decreased rates for media packages offered by publishers as diverse as the Daily Caller, Roll Call, McClatchy, RealClearPolitics and Daily Kos.

National news publishers with broader audiences also feel the rippling political impacts of Donald Trump’s young presidency.

Brands and advocacy groups “aren’t as tempted as they have been in the past” by media packaged around high-attention political events like the inauguration or Trump’s 100-day mark in April, said Bloomberg Media global CRO Keith Grossman.

The problem is distinct from the brand safety concerns that have driven advertisers from conservative news sources like Breitbart and Fox News. Brands aren’t taking issue with the legitimacy or decency of the news they appear next to, but more broadly with political news – and specifically Trump coverage – regardless of editorial quality or point of view.

Quartz, an economic news publication owned by Atlantic Media, works with public opinion advertisers on native display campaigns and sponsored content “who especially at the beginning of the year were slow to come to market,” said Joy Robins, the publisher’s senior VP of revenue and strategy.

Robins said Quartz isn’t deeply impacted by the drop-off because its global focus means sluggish “Beltway campaigns” (referring to the Capital Beltway highway that surrounds DC) don’t drag down overall demand.

Last month Quartz introduced a “Trump snooze” feature on the iOS version of its app that mutes news featuring the US president for 24 hours – though the inventory and sponsors are unaffected for users taking a break from Trump coverage.

Briscoe said she’s seen a marked drop in brand and advocacy clients interested in appearing next to political stories.

“There’s a feeling that isn’t partisan but avoiding the whole subject,” she said, pointing to a six-part series by the LA Times called “Our Dishonest President” that even liberal-oriented brands were wary of. “We’re seeing advertisers block the whole news section or even go so far as to avoid homepages because it’s going to be primarily political headlines.”

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