2004 Annual Report - Newspaper Audience
Who is Reading: A Question of Demographics
In trying to assess circulation and readership trends, there are other elements of demographics that need to be understood beyond income. Three stand out.
As always, young people appear to read newspapers less than their elders. According to 2003 data from Scarborough Research, a consumer market company, only 40 percent of people aged 18 to 24 read a paper on weekdays, and less than half on Sundays (48 percent). The numbers are slightly higher for people 25-34 (41 percent weekdays and 52 percent Sundays).19
The more important trend today may be what is happening to readers between the ages of 34 and 64, the people who should be the prime target for becoming citizens engaged in civil society. These are the people buying houses, having children, worrying about schools, building their careers, running for office, becoming leaders in their communities. Their numbers are declining as well, and in some cases at a faster rate than for people under 34.
These findings are borne out by new studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. While its earlier studies of what it called the "Age of Indifference" suggested that young people were not acquiring the news consumption habits at the same rate in their 20s as was true of earlier generations, the newest survey on news consumption, in 2002, found evidence that developing the habit was no longer the lone issue. People who had become newspaper consumers had stopped.20
The bright spot for newspapers remains, as it has for some years, older people. Readership for people over 65 is just barely declining - 1 percent since 1999 for both daily and Sunday. One question is whether Baby Boomers, who will begin to turn 65 in 2011, will read newspapers as heavily as people that age do now. If so, that could be a boon to newspapers. If not, more trouble looms.
This is one reason why current experiments by papers like The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune to produce free papers aimed at young adults (18-to-34-year-olds) are being so closely watched.
To many in the newspaper industry, the fact that newspapers began only recently to experiment with such papers reflects the industry's slowness to innovate and to invest in research and development generally. These kinds of enterprises are typically defensive moves to protect the franchise. They are most often initiated out of fear that a portion of the market is slipping away or has never developed the newspaper reading habit. Free papers first appeared as alternative papers many years ago and were considered competition for entertainment advertising but were never thought to be a serious competitor or an idea that the metro papers should try.
Such thinking is explained, in part, by the old newspaper business model for doing something new: return on investment. There had to be projected revenue to offset costs of a new venture in a relatively short term. Newspapers were not likely to favor such investments solely for their long-term value without a clear prospect for a new revenue stream. Indeed, even some of these experiments are projected to generate revenue and are being conducted at limited cost.
Ethnicity and Readership
The second major area of concern for the newspaper industry may be ethnicity. The newspaper industry was built, more than a century ago, by populist publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and E.W. Scripps on the appeal of newspapers to the masses, particularly immigrants. Often these publishers themselves were immigrants, as in the case of Pulitzer, Scripps, Adolph Ochs and others.
The industry, now run by corporations rather than (often immigrant) entrepreneurs, has moved in a very different direction (see Reading Habits, above). At the beginning of the 21st century, readership is lowest among the country's two fastest-growing minority populations - Asians and Hispanics. The industry is seeking to address this now. For instance, this year newspapers in Dallas and Fort Worth joined the paper in Miami in offering Spanish-language editions. The Los Angeles Times is launching a Spanish-language edition in Southern California to compete with its former partner, the family-owned La Opinion, which in turn joined forces with a New York Spanish-language daily, El Diario/La Prensa, so that they could compete with the major newspaper chains for major advertisers. This battleground is a trend to monitor.
Among Asians, weekday readership in 2003 had dropped 5 percentage points in the four years since 1999 (to just 46 percent). That is a faster rate of decline than for whites (down 3 percentage points in that time) or African Americans (down 2 percentage points).21
Among the fastest-growing group in America, those who describe themselves as Latino or Hispanic, there has been a 4-point drop, again higher than for whites or African Americans. This group, indeed, has the lowest weekday readership rates of the four groups (just 35 percent, down from 39 percent four years earlier). The same rapid declines are true on Sunday.22
Data on the Spanish language presses (see ethnic and alternative news chapter) suggest that these immigrants are reading newspapers, but they are choosing Spanish-language papers over those in English.
While people with more education remain more likely to read a newspaper, declines in readership have been occurring regardless of education level.
Indeed, in the last four years, according to Scarborough, readership has actually fallen somewhat faster among those with four-year college degrees than among those with only high school diplomas.
Among college graduates, the group most likely to report reading the paper, readership has fallen 4 percentage points in the last four years on weekdays (from 63 to 59 percent) and 7 points on Sundays (from 76 to 69 percent). Among high school graduates, the decline was 3 percentage points on weekdays and 4 on Sundays (54 to 51 percent and 64 to 60 percent, respectively).
Readers with post-graduate degrees, however, reverse the trend. From 1999 to 2002 their readership was declining along with the other ages. But in 2003, their daily readership shot up 10 percentage points from one year earlier to 68 percent.
Education does correlate to readership. The most recent survey data from the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that 52 percent of college graduates reported reading a newspaper "yesterday," compared with 41 percent of high school graduates and 24 percent of people without a high school degree.23