August 26, 2009

Clunkers Make Good Copy

Economy Storylines
Other Businesses 6
Stimulus 6
Housing 7
Banking and Bailout 8
State & Local Governments 8
Recession Evaluations 9
Unemployment 10
Cash for Clunkers 12

12% – Percentage of economic coverage devoted to “Cash for Clunkers” during the program’s five-week life span

The economy—largely defined by the financial crisis that exploded last September—has been a dominant story this year. It accounted for nearly half of the newshole in the first two months after President Obama’s inauguration. And while attention has decreased recently, tied in part to a sense that the recession has bottomed out, it has still been the No. 2 story in the media agenda in the summer months.

A series of major economic events helped drive the recent coverage, but the attention paid to one such event may come as a surprise. In late July, the government unveiled the Car Allowance Rebate System, providing up to $4500 to those who traded gas guzzlers for new more fuel efficient vehicles. The program got a catchy nickname—“Cash for Clunkers”—and proved so popular it had to be shut down this week after exhausting its funding.

It also proved popular with the press. During the five weeks of its existence—from July 20-August 23—Cash for Clunkers was the No. 1 financial storyline, accounting for 12% of the coverage of the U.S. economy. The coverage included everything from consumers streaming into dealerships to the debate in Congress about adding $2 billion to the program to the impact on used car sales.

A number of key economic themes ranked behind the car story in that time frame. The unemployment situation accounted for 10% of the newshole. Next, at 9%, were evaluations of the recession’s severity and duration. Then came the impact of the downturn on state and local governments and coverage of the banking industry, both at 8%. The housing market accounted for 7%. Coverage of the stimulus package and the recession’s effect on businesses not related to the financial sector rounded out the roster of the leading economic storylines—both at 6%.

Maybe it is America’s storied love of the automobile. Maybe it was the program’s raging popularity. Or maybe it was the many media-friendly images that accompanied the story. Whatever the reason, clunkers proved to be the economic story of the late summer.

Tricia Sartor and Dana Page of PEJ