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Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Tom Stites on the future of journalism.

My mentor and friend Tom Stites spoke last weekend at the Media Giraffe Project's conference, "Democracy and Independence: Sharing News and Information in a Connected World." His speech, published on Dan Gillmor's Center for Citizen Media Blog, describes how daily newspapers have abandoned low- to mid-income readers as advertisers have narrowed their focus on the top 40 percent of earners. The result is that more and more Americans — the people who no longer read newspapers (in print or online) because their interests are not addressed by newspapers — are not getting information they need to participate fully in our democracy. Online news, blogs, and other elite media can't fill this gap, he says. The problem is not the medium: Newsprint works great, but the contents — and the economic system that supports the newsroom — are driving readers away.

Tom found some fascinating evidence for this argument in surveys by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Among people with annual household incomes from $50,000 to $75,000, the percentage of people who had read a newspaper the day before they were surveyed had actually gone up by a percentage point between 1998 and 2004, to 58 percent. People with household incomes over $75,000 declined by five points, however, to 55 percent — but many of these people may be like Tom, who reads weekday news online rather than in a newspaper. The bad news is at the lower end:

For citizens with household incomes of less than $50,000, readership has plummeted. For people in households earning $30,000 to $50,000, readership is down by 13 points, to 35 per cent from 48; for people in $20,000-to-$30,000 households, it's down by 9 points, to 34 per cent from 43 per cent, and for people in households with less than $20,000 income, it's down 11 points, to 27 per cent from 38 per cent. In terms of percentage of decline, the falloff exceeds 20 per cent for all three of these groups — in only six years.

Tom concludes his speech:

Many of us think about citizen journalism and blogs as the saviors of democracy, and while they certainly have impact and show lots of promise, so far they reach a much smaller and much more rarefied audience than daily newspapers. We talk of readers as the audience, as the users, and as the people formerly known as the audience, believing that they are participants in the news process now. It's much more accurate to say that some are participants now, and to acknowledge that the majority do not participate, and that no small number never will. Many of us are committing the marketing sin of thinking the customers are like us. Some are like us, but most citizens are less educated than us, and make less money than us, and have far more uncertainty in their lives.

So my plea to all of us, myself included, is that we keep America's discarded readers in mind as we work to strengthen journalism and shore up our withering democracy. We need to remember that they're citizens, too, and to take care to make sure they have easy access to quality journalism that squarely addresses the issues that affect their lives. Unless we do, there's a good chance that our democracy is doomed. Or, at the very best, our democracy will be disfigured by a class divide that's the 21st century equivalent of our nation's earliest days, when voting was restricted to white male property owners.

Two other discussions about journalism's future that captured my attention last week: OnPoint's conversation with Jim Lehrer, Ben Bradlee, and Jeff Jarvis about the future of news (6.19.06) and Slate's tenth-anniversary forum at the New York Public Library, "Online Media and the Future of Journalism" (6.15.06), featuring Malcolm Gladwell, Arianna Huffington, Michael Kinsley, Norm Pearlstine, and Jacob Weisberg.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 4 July 2006 at 9:05 AM

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Doug Muder:

July 4, 2006 10:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

I just finished reading "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News" by David Mindich. It had similarly distressing numbers about the fall-off of readership among the young -- and the Internet was not making up the difference.

The last paragraph of the book has a line that sums it all up well: "Government supported by an uninformed citizenry is not a democracy; it is a sham."


July 4, 2006 11:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philo, I was just wondering what "uncertainty in their lives" means in this context. Job security? Financial worries? Insurance fiascos looming around the bend? Or is it referring to something more existential?


July 5, 2006 05:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can't help but wonder if TV (i.e. Fox News) and talk radio have supplanted some of the newspaper readership among low-income people. Or a general disinterest in politics altogether. Or daily schedules that have left less time for reading newspapers (i.e. working more hours to get by). I'm not ready to attribute the decline in readership to newspaper content without seeing some quotes by said persons on the topic. If anything, I've seen local newspapers go out of their way to reach a wider and less afluent or educated audience (by putting rock stars and sports stories on the front page, for example).

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