Who Will Read Newspapers?

Published June 1, 2004

As the Education Writers Association’s awards demonstrate, newspaper reporters continue to produce thought-provoking and substantive stories. However, recent reports raise concerns as to whether newspapers will continue to have readers in tomorrow’s America.

A major worry is whether public schools are preparing children to read well enough that they will want to read for pleasure as well as information when they become adults. Only about a third of the nation’s public schoolchildren read proficiently, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While reading achievement levels have increased slightly among fourth-graders, they have been declining among high school seniors.

A 500-page report, “The State of the News Media 2004,” recently published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, indicated the immediate prospects for newspapers, as well as televised network news, are not bright.

Average Circulation of US Daily Newspapers

Circulation of English-language papers in the United States has declined 11 percent since 1990. The share of the U.S. population that reads newspapers has been shrinking for more than two generations, but population growth once masked the trend. Now circulation is decreasing in absolute terms.

The inaugural report, done by a research affiliate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, attempted a comprehensive look at all forms of news media. While traditional newspapers are losing readership, nontraditional ethnic, alternative, and online outlets are enjoying brisk growth.

Spanish-Language US Daily Newspaper Circulation

Spanish-language newspapers, in particular, have experienced phenomenal gains since 1990, with circulation tripling to 1.7 million papers a day. Bilingual education programs, which often keep immigrant children immersed in their native language instead of rapidly teaching them English, could be affecting this trend, although the report did not explore that angle.

The portion of the massive report devoted to newspapers offered this observation about the post-1990 circulation decline for English-language papers:

“It became clearer that the young, the next generation of likely readers, were failing to develop a newspaper reading habit. The lack of immigrant readers and the middle class also became more pressing as those populations grew and … several mainstream newspaper companies are now pursuing the Spanish-language market in particular.

“What’s more, some data now suggest that people who began reading newspapers in recent years–including young people–have stopped. Newspapers are now losing readers across age and demographic groups.”

One conclusion possible from the mass of data presented in the report is that increases in the numbers of college graduates may not automatically translate into increased newspaper readership. It remains true that the more formal education people have the more likely they are to read a newspaper; however, in the past four years, readership has fallen at a faster rate for those with four-year college degrees than among those with only high-school diplomas.

Weekday readership has fallen 4 percentage points in the past four years among college graduates (from 63 to 59 percent), while Sunday readership among this group has dipped 7 points (from 76 to 69 percent). During the same period, weekday readership among high school graduates has declined 3 percentage points (54 to 51 percent), while Sunday readership has gone down 4 points (from 64 to 60 percent).

Not all the news for newspapers is bleak. The financial picture, bolstered in part by cutbacks in news staff, remains reasonably strong. Revenues and profits grew in the 1990s even as circulation was falling.

“The surviving newspapers in town have remained the one place where advertisers can reach the most people with a single ad buy. The demographics are also attractive. If you want to reach opinion and business leaders and the most affluent people in a town, newspapers are the way to go,” the report noted.

In addition, the report continued, newspapers usually remain the institution in a community with the largest newsgathering capacity, the broadest range of coverage, and the greatest number of daily stories. “Newspapers, in other words, are still the biggest watchdog in town.”

A survey done separately by USA Weekend magazine, in cooperation with two newspaper associations, found strong majorities of American teens still find the newspaper relevant to their lives and expect to be reading a newspaper in their adult years. A whopping 95 percent considered newspapers somewhat or very important for an informed citizenry and democracy.

Nevertheless, the “State of the News Media” report concluded that while financial strategies of the past two decades yielded dividends for newspaper companies, they may only have delayed a confrontation with basic problems. While it was making money, the industry invested relatively little in training, research, and development, or in long-range projects to attract lost or “emerging” groups of readers.

“Now the industry faces an important question. Given their history and their relative strengths, do newspapers believe that if they invest in creating new content and even new kinds of newspapers they can attract new readers? Or is this a mature and declining industry where investing in those things would be throwing money away?”

Another question could be: If schools don’t produce proficient and motivated readers, how can newspapers expect to find new readers?

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

For more information …

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s report, “The State of the News Media 2004,” is available online at http://www.journalism.org.

The results of USA Weekend’s “17th Annual Teen Survey” are available online at http://www.usaweekend.com/classroom/survey/teen_survey2004_results.html.