What's Driving the Surge?

What's powering subscription growth, and will it have legs?

No one knows.

"I hope it's energized more by a desire for truth than it is by some sense that there's imminent disaster," Remnick said.

It's not just idealism -- or raw anti-Trump fear -- behind the numbers. As Weisberg pointed out, "People do recognize that independent media is part of the thing that keeps us from authoritarianism, but it's partly that people are just consuming a lot of media and news content."

Remnick agreed. "My guess is that as much as I love cartoons that the bump in subscriptions is not because of that. ... Nobody's polled everybody to say the 'Why?' But I think we're also at a moment where the values of truth and the values of what the press should be at its best are not only in question, but being questioned by the president of the United States in the most uncertain and aggressive terms. And I think people, and this is part of what gives me a lot of optimism ... I don't think people want to put up with it. I think people want to know. They're not easily cowed or deceived. And I think tens of millions people think that way."

Remnick runs a "liberal-minded magazine" long known for allowing its writers to express strong points of view. He attributes The New Yorker's own surge to much more than that, though.

"The rigor has to be there. The facts have to be facts, and no bullshit allowed. ...I think readers are intelligent. They know the difference between shit and Shinola," he said. "I think people are hungry for exactly what all the cynical outlets tell them they're not hungry for.

"I think these institutions whether they're old, so-called media institutions, legacy institutions like the Times or The New Yorker or The Washington Post, or they're new and they're ambitious but they have similar values, I think they're essential to working in a democracy. I mean what could be more vital in the landscape right now than the incredibly energetic competition between The Washington Post and The New York Times?"

In fact, the audience numbers confirm that obsessive readership. Though there seems to have been a December holiday-from-Trump news break, news readers came roaring back in January. Atlantic.com's February -- at 33.6 million monthly unique visitors -- surpassed its record-setting January, the company said.

What does it attribute its readership and subscription increase to? "Politics drove this success: Five of The Atlantic's 10 issues of 2016 led with politics, including its four best-selling covers of the year," a magazine representative said.

Those top-line digital audience numbers, though, aren't what drive the reader revenue-seeking news publishers. Rather, it's engaging that top few percent of those readers, turning them from semi-regular to habituated and to paying customers.

"You know, we've really shifted our focus to loyalty, in-depth engagement," Weisberg said.

It's not the millions coming to the site every once in a while; it's the thousands coming regularly that now determine the success or failure of digital news businesses. Each news company measures its engagement differently; Slate puts particular emphasis on two groups, those who have visited eight times or more and those who have visited 25 times or more within a month. But the one number that's most meaningful: time on site.

An Echo of Watergate?

Is there any historical precedent for this subscriber boom? I wondered if Watergate -- the national crisis more than 40 years ago that first elevated both The New York Times and The Washington Post to their surpassing prominence in American journalism -- had produced a surge of its own.

The answer: not much of one. In fact, the Times' circulation barely changed between 1970 and 1974, the year in which Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon finally helicoptered out of the White House, walking past "that old Magnolia tree planted by Andrew Jackson." That circulation: 1.45 million. It is the digital world that has now allowed the Times to double that number and for many others to form a quicker, more meaningful relationship with paying readers.

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