Monday, January 5, 2009

Who's Polling Who, Part One

The site Newspaper Death Watch -- despite the name, Paul Gillin's summations of newspaper news are 90 percent of the time free from Internet-triumphalist cant, and in his heart he seems to wish print newspapers could be saved, he just doesn't think they can be (a view I have been holding in recent weeks), and thus it would be better for journalism to stop wasting money on them --

Well, that was an interminable sentence. Start over. Paul Gillin's Newspaper Death Watch recently linked to a Gallup Poll of how people "get their news" in which Gillin found that "the most striking finding is the percentage of people who say they consult the Internet for news every day: up 9% in two years to 31% today. The percentage has more than doubled in the last five years. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who consult a local newspaper every day has dropped from 54% in 1999 to 40% today."

He adds: "The statistics point to a continuing trend that has been hammering the newspaper industry: Young people don’t read newspapers. Meanwhile, Internet consumption is up across the board as people increasingly demand that news be delivered whenever they want it and wherever they happen to be."

Well, OK. Those are interesting statistics, although what has been hammering the newspaper industry is "advertisers don't use newspaper classifieds anymore." There are statistics Gillin does not mention that are also interesting. They are interesting even though I have no idea what they really mean. This will not stop me from theorizing.

"Got my news daily from a newspaper" declined by 7 percentage points from 1999 to 2003. That would be Internet 1.0. Between 2003 and 2007 the decline was 3 percentage points. From 2007 to 2008 the decline was 4. If you put it on a straight line, it's 7 percentage points in one four-year period and 7 more in one five-year period. But it wasn't a straight decline. It was a leveling, followed by a plunge. We can't see year by year from 1999 to 2003, so we don't know if there was a similar pattern.

The plunges were significant in two areas between 2007 and 2008 -- local TV news and local newspapers. Cable news jumped by 6 percentage points. The Internet by 9. National newspapers actually ROSE by 2 points. OK, the margin of error is 3 points, so that it could be a fluke.

But if it indicates a trend or a blip, what is it? One could posit that the cutbacks in news coverage on the local level are finally having an effect. Of course, most newspapers' Web sites are still largely reflections of their print operations. One could also posit that the changes in the economy left people with less money and so they gravitated toward free sources of news. Certainly both are logical explanations.

I would put my money, though, on the 2008 campaign. As was noted, this was the first campaign in which online news was a major driver (whether it was the major driver we will leave for online enthusiasts to put forward). It's the growth (or stability, if the 9-to-11 ranking is just margin of error) in national newspapers along with cable that is the clue to me. Yes, the Wall Street Journal has become more newsy. The Times and USA Today, though, are still the Times and USA Today. I doubt the Journal accounted for two percentage points. A large change happened in one year because what people wanted to read about -- in some cases, nearly all they wanted to read about -- was the campaign. Unlike past years, they did not look to their local newspaper for this coverage.

Was it because their local newspaper no longer had any of its own staff on the road? Because their local newspaper had come to believe that all readers wanted from it is local news? Because all they really do want from it is local news, which is bad for the paper when they are not interested in local news? Because "news from the Internet" is Drudge and Huffington and Kos and RealClear as well as 1,400 newspapers, but "news from newspapers" is those 1,400 newspapers, one or two per market? Because in politics more than in general news, what many people really want is a site on which you can post your two cents? (What is there to post about "two killed in traffic accident" other than "how awful"? But politics is a field of endless blather.) The mind reels.

Of course, people turn away and often do not come back. But here is an even more interesting matter. Between 2006 and 2008, readership of local print newspapers among people 18 to 29 remained at its anemic level of 22 to 23 percent -- which is still one out of five, a large number of people to do anything. Readership among 30- to 49-year-olds fell two percentage points; let's assume that is the people who became 30 and 31 in those two years. Readership among senior citizens actually grew by two percentage points. All of this either makes sense or doesn't matter much. Here is what does matter: Readership of print newspapers among 50-to-64-year-olds fell by EIGHT percentage points.

Go to national newspapers and the pattern is even more interesting. Readership of national newspapers increased for 18-to-29s and 30-to-49s. The rise for both was outside the margin of error, so this was a true increase, though probably part of Obamamania. National newspaper readership also grew among seniors. Again, the fall was 50-to-64-year-olds, a decline of 2 percentage points; a margin of error fall, but the only decline.

So if you put both local and national together -- a dangerous proposition admittedly, since Gallup did not ask it that way and thus a cumulative figure may be completely wrong, but, let's do it anyway: Newspaper readership EVERY DAY (not occasional) among 18-t0-29-year olds may have grown by 4 percentage points, outside the margin of error, to a combined 34 percent between 2006 and 2008; among 30-to-49-year-olds by 2 percentage points, within the margin, to a combined 42 percent; among seniors by 3 percentage points, right at the margin, to a combined 80 percent; and among boomers it apparently fell by an amazing 10 percentage points, to a combined 50 percent. So the headline here is not "young people turn away from newspapers" but "baby boomers turn away from newspapers."

Again, there are so many problems in interpreting this from what Gallup posted -- what does "get your news" mean? The question did not appear to ask: Do you get your news "mainly" or "exclusively" from this source? Also, does "newspaper" mean print-only or do people who read newspapers online-only answer that question affirmatively, and if they did, what does "Internet" mean to them as a separate category from newspapers? A 22-year-old might view as a newspaper; a 50-year-old might see one as the newspaper and one as the Internet. So one might shoot this thing full of holes. (Perhaps if Gallup is reading this, they can enlighten.)

Even so, if "newspaper" actually means "newspaper," this poll would tell this tale, which other polls might challenge: Baby boomers, the group for which newspapers are increasingly edited and who are alleged to still love them, were the ones deserting them en masse in 2008. And there seems to be a floor of daily newspaper readership somewhere around 30 to 40 percent regardless of age. And 10 percent of this seems to be based on national newspapers, as it has been for a decade. The decline is in local newspapers. Does this mean that all these people in focus groups have been lying when they say that what they want from newspapers is all-local? Or that the group that wants all-local is not getting it and thus giving up?

More tomorrow. Literally tomorrow.

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