Monday, January 26, 2009

Are newspapers doomed?

Martin Langeveld writes:

This crisis doesn’t stem purely from the current economic downturn — it has been decades in the making.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, publishers noticed that younger people weren’t reading newspapers as much as their elders. The industry responded with youth-oriented features and a Newspapers in Education program, hoping to inculcate the daily newspaper habit. And, the philosophers among us said, “Look, when these kids grow up, get married, buy houses, have kids in school, and pay taxes, they’ll read newspapers because they need to know what’s going on.” And indeed, some of them did. But the experience since the 1970s is that each succeeding age cohort reads newspapers less than the prior cohort. (Links: 1970-1997 trend, Sunday newspapers (PDF), 1967-1997 trend, daily newspapers (PDF), 1999-2006 trend). Moreover, as each cohort ages, its newspaper readership tends to drop, not grow. This is true even of the oldest age groups. Nothing the industry has tried to do has made the slightest dent in these inexorable trends.

The industry now tends to point to the Internet and to suggest that it is both the problem and the opportunity — younger people read newspapers less because they get their news online, but the industry is benefiting from rapid growth in online readership and revenue.

Hold on, though: the age-cohort readership trends started in the 1960s, not in 1995 or so when the online readership started to make an impact. This problem has been a long time coming. As the readership figures linked above show, around 1970 the nation was still fairly monolithic in its readership habits — all age groups were heavy newspaper readers with rates ranging from 70 to 76 percent.

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