Declining readership

Internet Gaining on TV and Newspapers?

Well, yes…and not necessarily. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has another survey, out this week, that’s informative, if you don’t misinterpret the findings. The clearest finding is that the Internet is becoming more of the medium for news for many folks than television. It certainly hasn’t overtaken it among all groups, though it has among people 19-29 years old. And even that conclusion is somewhat suspect. After all, you can watch a TV program online. Who gets the credit as the source—TV or “the internet”?

This fuzzy conclusion gets more obscured when you read about the internet’s supremacy over newspapers, which applies to the overall population, though not among the 50+ set. After all, whereas most folks don’t go to the internet to watch TV, I’ll bet a sizable portion of those who look for news online indeed go to newspapers sites. Which makes the conclusions here a little misleading.

[M]ore people continue to cite the internet than newspapers as their main source of news, reflecting both the growth of the internet, and the gradual decline in newspaper readership (from 34% in 2007 to 31% now).

…The internet also has grown as a news source for people ages 50 to 64; currently 34% say the internet is their main source of national and international news, nearly equal to the number who cite newspapers (38%), though still far below television (71%). There has been relatively little change in the how people age 65 and older get their news. The internet has risen to 14% from 5% in 2007, but is still far behind newspapers (47%) and television (79%) as a main source.

I wish the good folks at the Pew center (and I love their work) would have worded it differently.  But reading further, there are nuggets that should influence how political questions are debated.

College graduates are about as likely to get most of their national and international news from the internet (51%) as television (54%). Those with some college are just as likely as college grads to cite the internet as their main source (51%), while 63% cite television. By contrast, just 29% of those with no more than a high school education cite the internet while more than twice as many (75%) cite television.

For political operatives that may mean deploying different spokespeople for different media. For example, if it’s the lower middle class you want to target, send those folks who can sound as if they are one of them. I don’t mean that condescendingly. Joe Biden may make a good source on TV news because he has a working class persona, whereas John Kerry may not.

There is some unabashed good news in the survey results.

Reflecting the slow decline in the proportion of people getting most of their national and international news from television, the numbers specifically citing cable news outlets or broadcast networks as their main news source has fallen. When asked where on television they get most of their news, 36% name a cable network such as CNN, the Fox News Channel or MSNBC; 22% name ABC News, CBS News or NBC News; and 16% say they get most of their national and international news from local news programming.

TV is constrained by its format. Rarely are issues covered in-depth and without prejudice or bias. If more people read the news online, they would be caught up in the world of hyperlinks, taking them to new sources that allow them to gain more knowledge and hopefully a broader range of viewpoints, though that’s not guaranteed.

But here’s the best news. The percentage of people who say they get their news from radio has remained constant over the past 20 years. Alas, they all aren’t listening to NPR; many are Limbaugh ditto-heads. According to Carroll Doherty of the Pew Center, NPR’s audience mirrors the general demographics of the population, so both young and old are listening. Why has radio remained constant? Because traffic hasn’t improved most places. Radio listeners tend to be in their cars at the time.

Media Chiefs’ Pay Day

I’m now reading The Death & Life of American Journalism whose authors advocate for public funding of journalism outlets.  They claim for-profit news enterprises simply cannot keep up with the demand for profits from investors and make the investments necessary to attract enough readers to remain viable. 

It seems again the capitalist model is not working out for the front-line workers of their customers.

The media industry may be going through some rough times, with the landscape changing day to day, but at least one aspect is business as usual: big paydays for the people at the top.

Top executives at the country’s largest media companies continued to reel in multimillion-dollar pay packages in 2009, a year of widespread cost-cutting throughout the industry. In several cases, the packages even increased from the year before.

Why The Post is Becoming Irrelevant

With all the problems the American way of life faces today–declining economic leadership and standard of living, two wars, a broken healthcare system, climate change, increasing energy costs, a financial system that holds the taxpayer hostage–what is The Washington Post covering today?

Before the papers even hit the driveways, I count on its web site 12—Count ‘em, 12!–stories/posts/commentaries, etc. on Tiger Woods’ apology yesterday.  And these are only the ones I can find links for on its home page:

“A disgusting apology,” Woods convinced me,” “Taking the blame,” “Call it a half-apology,” “Tiger Woods Apologizes,”Tiger Woods’…Mea Culpa,” “…Apology Leaves Little Room for Sincerity,” “Sincere and Thorough,” “…What Do We Believe,” “Woods Opens Door on Private Life…,” “Will Tiger Join the Shame Hall of Fame,” and last, but not least though certainly a new low for The Post, a poll, asking readers what they think.

Let me spare you all the wasted time reading the work of 12 writers and God knows how many editors, web and graphic designers, and the poor dead trees that gave up their lives for this.  Here’s the video of his public apology.

Let me save you more time:  Don’t view the video.  I didn’t.  And as Friday night rolls into Saturday morning in the central time zone, I can say I have survived not knowing what he had to say.  I may not make it ‘til morning.  I may wake up in a cold sweat and succumb to watching it and reading what all these underemployed journalists think about it. 

Most of them, of course, are pissed that he apparently took a swipe at them.  (I couldn’t help hearing that on a TV news report that caught me before I could run out of the room screaming.) They feel cheated:

“Tiger, would you let us know what your wife said to you when she found out?”

“Yo, Tiger, did you really tell a porn star you loved her and would marry her?  Oh, and how was she?”

“Please tell us, how does it feel to be so humiliated?”  (Note to non-reporters:  “How does it feel?” is the first question all reporters learn to ask.  Adding questions to their repertoire can help their careers, but isn’t really necessary.)

I’m willing to bet that when the paper comes out in the morning, you won’t find 12 full-fledged news stories in the A section.  As I’m out of town, let me know, and if proven wrong, I’ll admit it—in front of cameras with my family members in the audience.  And I’ll try to top Tiger by getting my wife to be there looking distraught and shamed that I guessed wrong.

But only if The Post apologizes to all those dead trees.

Newspapers’ Problem: A 30-Something Nurse

An open letter to The Washington Post:

I met the problem newspapers like The Washington Post face.  She is a 30-ish admissions nurse at Inova Hospital.

I was sitting in her office clutching The Post and the Wall Street Journal, my hands gray with newsprint.  She noticed and volunteered, “I stopped my subscription recently because the paper was all yesterday’s news.”  She confirmed to me that she gets her news online.

The most obvious way to profit from readers like her is to give her information she can’t readily get elsewhere or charge for online content.  Maybe you put it in newsprint before going online with it, if you think newsprint is your future. 

I suggest you might save both your newsprint and online real estate for stories that readers like her care about.  Dan Balz’s article about a “pep rally”  is a case in point.  I understand that The Post’s reputation has been built on its reporting of politics, but that’s no longer helpful for two reasons.

One, Politico, Huffington Post, blogs, etc. give us more and faster. 

Two, politics has become so predictable and offensive.  Writing an article that’s nothing more than dueling talking points probably holds little interest for most of your readers.  Exactly how many of them care to hear the partisan tit-for-tat about what might happen a year from now?  And even “Republicans acknowledge that events could change the political landscape before next November.”  In March 2007, a year before Obama’s breakthrough victories in the primaries, who would have bet on his being president?  Still, let’s assume such navel gazing matters to political insiders.  Count them all.  I’m sure there are thousands.  Are there enough to save The Post

Now consider Shear and Eggen’s story this morning.  There is no news there except the coordinated effort by healthcare opponents to tie the recent mammogram study to “healthcare rationing.”  And The Post dutifully obliged to help that effort with front page placement.  The lede has no news hook:  “opponents stepped up efforts to define the legislation as big-government ambition run amok that will interfere with intimate medical decisions and threaten the pocketbooks of average taxpayers.”  Is that news?  Increased taxes had never been mentioned before yesterday?  “Stepped up efforts”?  I was unaware opponents were holding their powder before yesterday.  The story is “fair and balanced,” if that’s your criteria for good journalism.  But is this story of any value to my admissions nurse?  It certainly helped “radio show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Glenn Beck,” who again seem to act as The Post’s assignment editors.

I might argue with at least one point in the article:  “Obama administration officials [say the] U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which issued the [mammogram] guidelines, has no power to affect coverage decisions by insurance companies.”  In fact, insurance companies could use the results of the task force as a rationale to cut coverage for mammograms for women under 50.

But my complaint is not about any partisan slant or arguable point.  Nor is it with any of these reporters.  My problem is their talents are going to waste because of bad decisions about what content readers want.  That ultimately rests with Mr. Brauchli.  Maybe he needs a push from the national editors. 

Maybe readers want more critical analysis of the big issues of our day, which I seem to get more of in Post columns than I do in daily stories.  Or maybe it’s a curriculum change being considered by the local school board.  I don’t know, but surely it isn’t what The Post has done for decades.  That’s over.  You’ve lost that war, at least for your newsprint edition.  And I would argue that getting the story about the Republican governors’ conference on your web site faster isn’t the answer, either.

‘Dismal Quality of Many Big Papers’

There is much gnashing of teeth over the erosion of newspaper readers.  Former Washington Post online journalist Mark Potts says sure the economy and the Internet are reasons for the slide, but

Probably hardest to measure, but certainly a factor in the decline, is the increasingly dismal quality of many big papers as the result of slashing staff cuts over the past couple of years (and don’t expect those cuts to be over, especially with ongoing declines like these circulation figures). Many American dailies, not very good to begin with, are turning into virtual shoppers; even the best papers are noticeably reduced versions of their former selves, as coverage has been pruned and sections shrunken or dropped. Readers clearly are noticing.

Indeed, they are noticing.  But beyond being “reduced versions of their former selves,” newspapers are abandoning their role as seekers of truth.  They instead trying to be “balanced.”  “He said, she said” and using labels to mark people, ideas and organizations leaves most readers lost in their search for solid information.