Declining Literacy a Threat to Newspapers

Published October 1, 2002

U.S. newspapers have a life-or-death interest in schoolchildren being taught how to read and becoming motivated to read regularly.

The trends are not encouraging—for literacy or for newspapers. National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores for fourth-graders have not budged off dreadful over the past decade. Poor and minority children have fallen even further behind, despite a federal expenditure of $125 billion over 25 years that was supposed to narrow the gap.

Perhaps even more chilling was an analysis done by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Among 18 industrialized nations, OECD found, the United States ranked dead last in the literacy of 16- to 25-year-old high school graduates who did not go on to further study. Six in 10 of the high school graduates read below a level considered minimally necessary to cope with “the complex demands of modern life.”

It hasn’t always been that way. An OECD analyst noted that 30 years ago, the United States was the “undisputed leader” in educating its people. Now, it’s the literacy laggard among developed nations.

Recent data on newspaper readership add further cause for concern.

Dead in Two Decades?

Writing for TechCentral Station, an online forum on technology and markets, economist Arnold Kling deemed the numbers so grim he predicted “the newspaper business is going to die within the next 20 years. Newspaper publishing will continue, but only as a philanthropic venture.”

Kling’s concern was triggered by data from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which calculated spending on newspapers by age group. The highest spending relative to the general population came from 65- to 74-year-olds, who spent 136 percent of the national average on newspaper subscriptions or single-copy purchases. The lowest spending on newspapers came from the 18- to 24-year-olds, who spent just 25 percent of the national average.

Of course, it’s always been true that people begin to subscribe to newspapers more readily as they grow older. The meaningful comparison, therefore, is between newspaper reading by young persons today and in years past.

Peter Franchese, founder of American Demographics Magazine, has recently done just such a study. His findings: 63 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds bought newspapers in 1985. By 1995, that figure had fallen to 56 percent. By 2000, it had plummeted to 35 percent.

Noted TechCentral Station’s Kling, “on a cohort basis, newspaper readership among young adults has fallen by over 50 percent in 15 years. … In an industry that depends on economies of scale to overcome high fixed costs, a decline in volume that approaches 50 percent is going to be fatal. These demographic effects will slowly but inexorably kill the newspaper business.”

Not all analysts are so pessimistic. Media consultant Sidney Goldberg delivered a riposte on TechCentral Station’s Web site, asserting newspapers will “very much be around in 20 years.” In his view, the bleak forecasts fail to take into account future technology that will enable newspapers in the Internet Age to deliver their product electronically in a portable, reader-friendly format.

Stu Tolley, president of the research firm that crunched the numbers for the NAA, concluded, “the major change in newspaper reading is the drop in frequency of reading. It is not that great numbers of people have completely stopped reading the paper. They just read less often. It is the daily paper, not the Sunday, that has lost the most and it is the six dailies per week, not the Sunday paper, that bring in the most revenue.”

Tolley says a straight-line projection indicates by the year 2078, at the latest, there would be an end to daily newspaper reading in the United States. However, that outcome is not inevitable. By doing a better job of discovering and providing what their occasional readers want, newspapers might stave off this trend.

Why Don’t They Read?

Clearly the biggest challenge lies with the young population, where readership declines have been dramatic. Many analyses focus on why young people don’t want to read.

An MTV Networks survey found 14- to 24-year-olds ranked music as their favorite topic to read about, but they perceived newspapers put music at the bottom of their priority lists and politics at the top. That raises an interesting policy question for newspapers’ corporate boardrooms: Should newspaper executives bring their product to the MTV level in order to raise revenues?

The OECD data showing the decline of literacy among recent high school graduates in the U.S., and the NAEP data showing failures to teach reading in primary grades, suggest the problem goes far deeper than reading material preference. Many young people are leaving school or even graduating unable to read proficiently. That is a threat not only to the newspaper industry, but to the survival of America’s democratic experiment.

Newspaper editorialists have been known to scoff at parents who demand schools return to such “pre-modern” basics as the use of phonics in beginning reading. Those columnists might want to reconsider whether they themselves are the real dinosaurs. After all, whose existence is imperiled by the asteroid named illiteracy?

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

on the newspaper industry, including circulation figures and readership demographics, visit the Newspaper Association of America’s Web site at

For an introduction to the OECD literacy report, “Education Policy Analysis 2001,” including a link to the report, see John Gehring, “U.S. Seen Losing Edge On Education Measures,” Education Week, April 4, 2001 (at

Further details of the OECD report are available from the OECD Web site at