The Decline of Newspapers: The Local Story
‘Judging from our three studies, the future of America’s local newspapers is dim.’
In 1963, the television networks plunged into the news business in a serious way, expanding their nightly newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes and hiring the correspondents and film crews necessary to produce picture-based daily news. The change transformed the newspaper business. When the networks launched their new format, there were 1,400 afternoon dailies and fewer than 400 morning papers. Within two decades, the circulation of the afternoon dailies had plunged below that of morning papers, and scores of afternoon papers had switched to morning delivery or shut down. Population growth—the coming of age of millions of baby boomers—was the only thing that kept overall newspaper circulation from falling.
By the 1980’s, the boomer boost had run its course and a new threat to newspapers had emerged: 24-hour cable news. Newspaper circulation edged slowly downward, falling by 10 percent overall in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the past few years the drop has accelerated, fueled in part by the growing audience for Internet-based news.
The newspaper industry faces an uncertain future, one more challenging than might be assumed. During the past year, as part of an initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation and Knight Foundation, we conducted three studies aimed at assessing the future of newspapers (in a word, discouraging)—and in each of these studies we learned also about local papers and how the Internet is changing the distribution of local news.
Classroom Use of News: We surveyed a national sample of 1,250 middle- and high-school civics, government and social studies teachers to determine the news media they employ. Fifty-seven percent of teachers said they frequently use Internet-based news in the classroom—twice the proportion (28 percent) who frequently rely on the daily newspaper. Moreover, teachers were nearly three times more likely to say they plan to make greater use of the Internet in the future than to say they intend to use the newspaper more fully. And teachers were four times more likely to say they plan to cut back on newspaper use than to say they intend to reduce Internet use.
Given the decades-long history of Newspaper-in-Education programs, it might be thought that teachers would turn to the local paper’s Web site when transitioning to Internet-based news. However, two in three Internet-using teachers said they depend mostly on the Web sites of nationally known news organizations, such as CNN.com and nytimes.com. Only one in seven said they depend mostly on their local newspaper’s Web site.
The Comparative Advantage of Brand-Name Web Sites: This study examined the traffic to 160 news-based Web sites during the period April 2006 to April 2007. Newspapers, as a whole, had virtually no increase in site visitors during this period. However, the flat trajectory masked important differences among newspaper sites. Those of the national brand-name papers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal—gained audience. Their already high traffic level rose more than 10 percent on average during the year-long period, while the average traffic level for other newspaper sites declined. The Web sites of some local papers experienced positive growth, but most of them had either no growth or negative growth.
The Internet has weakened the influence of geography in the selection of a news source. When people go to the Internet for news, they can just as easily navigate to a source outside their community as one within it, bypassing a local site in favor of a known site elsewhere. The Internet inherently favors “brand names”—those relatively few sites that are readily brought to mind by users everywhere when they seek news on the Internet. The New York Times’s Web site, for example, draws three fourths of its visitors from outside its primary readership in the states of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
Local newspaper Web sites also face heightened competition from those of local broadcasters. Technological advances have increased the Web’s capacity to carry audio and visual content, and broadcast news organizations are now more actively pursuing an online audience. Our study found that although the site traffic of local broadcasters still lags behind that of local papers, the gap is closing. Local papers might face even greater competition from the sites of search engines, aggregators and bloggers. Our study found that these sites had the greatest increase in traffic during the past year. Their overall growth rate easily outpaced that of Web sites run by traditional news outlets.
The News Consumption and Habits of Americans: Using a sample of 1,800 Americans and a variety of survey methods, we obtained answers from equal numbers of groups based on age, including teenagers (ages 12-17), young adults (ages 18-30), and older adults (31 years of age and older). Noteworthy is the inclusion of teenagers, who are rarely included in national polls.
Our survey makes it clear that America’s newspapers have lost two generations of young Americans. Only one in 12 young adults and only one in 20 teens rely heavily on the newspaper—meaning they read it almost daily and do more than just skim a few stories while doing so. Although most young Americans do not attend closely to any daily news medium, the newspaper is their least-used medium.
Judging from our three studies, the future of America’s local newspapers is dim. Perhaps they can effectively manage the transition to the Web and somehow find a way to attract the attention of young people. However, there is nothing in our studies to suggest such efforts will be highly successful. The decline of the hard-copy newspaper appears irreversible.
The decline will diminish America’s public life. Since the nation’s founding, the community’s story, as told through the local paper, has been an everyday part of American life. Weakened newspapers will shrink local communities as places where self-government is practiced.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This year, he is also acting director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.