Cable networks are cutting back on contributors as the Trump media frenzy comes to an end

  • Some reporters and commentators in the Trump era made $50,000 to $100,000 or more a year with contributor contracts on CNN and MSNBC.
  • Sources said deals are not getting renewed as TV news networks thin the ranks.
  • Publishing sources expect the market for political books to cool in the Biden era. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The end of the Trump frenzy has brought a new reality to the media landscape, with TV networks paring back on paid contributors and the political book market expected to cool.

CNN and MSNBC have long ended their expensive arms race for political experts and are now declining to renew some existing contributor deals, reporters, agents, and network sources told Insider. The publishing industry is preparing for life after the consumer binge on Trump books. 

And reporters who covered the last administration are processing four years of near-constant turmoil as they move on to new stories.

“I feel like a feral child who has to learn how to sit at a dinner table and not bite my siblings,” said Olivia Nuzzi, the Washington correspondent for New York magazine. “I feel like I’ve been raised by wolves with this story and now I have to relearn how to be a person and how to cover people.”

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One of the uncomfortable realities of the Trump years was that it was good for parts of the media business like book publishing, cable news, and the subscription businesses of the publishers that produced some of the most high-impact Trump stories, like The Washington Post and The New York Times. In Trump and his underlings, news outlets found a sense of purpose and a ceaseless well of stories to break.

The groundswell of attention made household names out of the top White House reporters like Maggie Haberman at The New York Times and Jonathan Swan at Axios. In the briefing room, viewers saw CNN’s Jim Acosta, April Ryan, and PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor confront press secretaries and the president himself.

Experts in all things Trump — White House reporters, national security figureheads, legal analysts and, most recently, medical experts – became a lucrative commodity on cable news. 

Contributor contracts vary, but network sources and agents say outside commentators on CNN and MSNBC/NBC News typically make between $50,000 and $100,000 per year, with top contributors bringing in well into the six figures. (Fox News tends to draw from a separate roster altogether of mostly conservative contributors.) 

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By design, deals tend to expire around inaugurations, giving networks flexibility to change their rosters of talking heads, sources said. That has meant the end of contributor gigs for some familiar faces. CNN’s cuts include journalist Joan Walsh and Brian Karem, a reporter for Playboy whose briefing room questions made him a viral star during the Trump years (Karem’s long battle with the White House culminated in a federal appeals court ruling that his press credentials were unfairly suspended.) Karem did not return a request for comment. 

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s ‘Morning Edition,’ and Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent, ‘PBS NewsHour,’ appear on ‘Meet the Press.’Getty Images/William B. Plowman/NBCOne agent said that contributors who are getting their contracts reupped are being renewed at flat rates.

It can be difficult to discern who has lost a paid contract, given that people can still appear on the network for free. A knowledgeable CNN source said the network would add new commentators in the next few weeks.

According to four people familiar with the matter, NBC/MSNBC has in recent months pushed contributors to per diem agreements rather than annual contracts. Day rates range between $250-$500, two sources estimated. Spokespeople from CNN and MSNBC declined to comment. 

Part of the rationale for thinning the contributor ranks, one source theorized, is that networks built up their full-time staff of reporters, anchors, and editors during the Trump years. Now that it’s time to tighten the belt, the easiest thing to cut is outside contributors. The economic fallout from the pandemic might also push networks to be more conservative with their budgets, insiders said.

The art of the Trump book

The publishing industry is also bracing for a big change as the Trump book phenomenon fades. After Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” sold 1.7 million copies in the first few weeks after its release in early 2018, publishing houses scrambled to buy up books from political reporters, departing White House officials, and Trump’s relatives. 

Bob Woodward’s “Fear” has sold almost 1 million print copies in the US.Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesMany books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies or more, like Bob Woodward’s “Fear” (990,000 print US copies) or Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” (1.2 million), according to the NPD Group/NPD BookScan. There were so many Trump books — some 150 plus — that The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada even wrote a book about Trump books.

“We’re coming off of a sugar high of ratings and book deals and all these things that were amplified by Trump. It was going to end, the question was when,” said Keith Urbahn, the president of Javelin, which represents authors like James Comey, John Bolton, and Miles Taylor, the “resistance” administration official previously known as Anonymous.

Urbahn said he expected books about the Trump era to continue to sell as readers try to make sense of the era with some distance. Javelin represents Maggie Haberman, for instance, whose Trump tell-all will publish in 2022. But the overall market for political books will soften, he believes.

“I think publishers are going to be more cautious in the future about books in the political realm, and they’re going to be getting used to a more normal presidency and a more boring and predictable news cycle,” Urbahn said. 

Reporters are learning to adjust to a new news cycle

As the Biden era begins, reporters are getting used to a new rhythm themselves. They say it is already less frantic, leaving some time to process the last few years. 

“I don’t feel as inclined to look at Twitter every second or worry that running to lunch for 30 minutes would mean you’re four news cycles behind,”said Josh Dawsey, who covered the White House for The Washington Post and will now move to the political investigations team, covering how the Republican party adjusts after the Trump presidency.

“I think in some ways it will be one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting story in 2021,” he said. (Dawsey and the author of this story were colleagues at The Wall Street Journal). 

Read more: The Washington Post’s longtime editor Marty Baron is retiring. Insiders have been speculating over who might replace him.

Some reporters reflected on how the idea that Trump was “good” for the media has been used by the president’s supporters to denigrate their work.

“It’s a fact that I have professionally and financially benefited over the past four years from covering Trump and all the cronies and dipshits around him,” said Asawin Suebsaeng, a senior political reporter for The Daily Beast, who co-wrote “Sinking in the Swamp” with Lachlan Markay about Trump’s inner circle. “But if you gave me the option to wave a magic wand to take away the massive suffering and degradation [that Trump caused] in exchange for giving all that back, I would take that deal in less than a split second. My life was fine in October 2016.”

To be sure, reporters don’t exactly expect the news cycle grind to a halt. “The unraveling of national and world events is going to continue apace and the Biden era will bring its own unique terrors and tumult for us to peel back layers,” Suebsaeng said. 

And with that tumult will come a new roster of media beneficiaries. As one agent put it, “As the administration turns, so too do the rewards that journalists will reap.”

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