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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute

Since 1992, the number of people who say they regularly read newspapers has fallen more than 20%, according to survey data.1 Why is that happening? Is it just technology? Changing lifestyle? Or is it something about the newspapers themselves and how they have changed?

A close look at the data on public attitudes suggests that lifestyle, particularly people’s perceptions of time and convenience, is the major factor.

Still, newspapers have a core of loyal readers. People who really enjoy following the news prefer newspapers to other media by a significant margin. That advantage should transfer to the Web as well.

And while that group is not as large as it once was, it is still a significant number. Those readers, moreover, not only appreciate the depth and breadth of newspapers, but more of them than not think that papers are getting better.

There is one more bit of good news in the data. While newspapers still fall in the middle of the pack when it comes to believability, their rates have inched up in the last two years while other media have seen further declines.

Why People Have Stopped Reading

No doubt technology and changing lifestyle explain part of why newspaper circulation is declining. But what specifically do people who choose not to read the newspaper cite as their reasons?

The answers overlap some, but the biggest reason by far, according to data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, is people saying they don’t have time (23%).2 That trend has been building since the 1960’s, and the ever-expanding array of new technologies no doubt contributes to its acceleration, particularly among younger people.

Perceptions of time, of course, can reflect a combination of factors — the length of stories, the fact that print newspapers are usually read at home, the ease of accessing other sources. The second most cited reason, indeed, was a related one — lack of convenience (10%).3 The fourth factor cited, in some ways, is also connected — people saying they don’t enjoy reading (7%).

Add those factors together and they account for 40% of those surveyed.4 Still others are also related (the design of papers, 5%, the cost, 5%, and the hassle of subscribing, 6%).

Some of these perceptions can be ameliorated by the Web.

But not everything people cite as reasons for not reading newspapers is related to delivery. People are also worried about bias (at 8%) and some just find what’s in the paper dull (6%).5

Why People Are Not Reading the Newspaper

“What is it that you like less about newspapers compared with TV, radio or the Internet?”
%
Don’t have time
23
Inconvenient
10
Biased/opinionated
8
Don’t like to read
7
Inconvenient to get/don’t subscribe
6
Not interesting/nothing there
6
Cost/not free
5
Layout (small print/big pages)
5
Just pile up/clutter
5

Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

What Are Newspaper Readers Reading?

And what about those who still do read? What keeps them turning to the printed page?

Nearly half of all newspaper readers say they come in part for local news about government, the top factor.6 That is a full 20 percentage points higher than the second most popular subject, culture and arts (29%). Crime and business come next (23%), followed by international and political news, each with 15% of the public’s attention, according to the Pew news consumption data.

Why People Turn to the Newspaper

Type of News
Percent
Local Government
49
Culture/Arts
29
Crime
23
Business
22
International
15
Political
15
Entertainment
14
Sports
13
Weather
7

Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

When asked a slightly different question, “What things in the newspaper are most interesting to you?” regular readers again highlighted local news. More than a third (35%), cited the local/metro/state section, which included obituaries, gossip and scandal.7 Second on the list was a general category for headlines/current events (28%). Following those sections were sports (21%) and international affairs (11%).8

Politicos and News Junkies

The data also suggest there is a core audience for newspapers that represents something of a strategic advantage for the medium. People who love to follow the news, and especially those who love politics, prefer newspapers over every other medium.

Two-thirds (66%) of those who follow political news closely prefer newspapers, a full 20 percentage points more than the next most popular medium, network news (at 46%) and 30 points more than CNN (36%).9 The problem is that only 11% of the public is especially interested in politics, according to the Pew data.

Newspapers are a Destination for Political News
2006
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

But newspapers also remain the destination of choice for those who might be called “news junkies” generally — people who say they particularly “enjoy keeping up with the news.” Roughly two-thirds of them chose newspapers first. Network news was a distant second (less than half). And news junkies are a large group of the population (52% of the people surveyed).10

Here may be the logical base for the newspaper’s future — people who are particularly attuned to the world around them. And online, newspapers theoretically may be able to increase their share of that group.

Media That News Junkies Turn To
2006
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

Newspaper Performance

Another advantage newspapers have is that people tend to think their daily newspaper has improved in the past five years. About 4 in 10 (38%) said that the paper they were most familiar with had become better, according to the Pew data.11 A smaller but still significant number (27%) thought their paper was worse.

Those who see improvement most often think the coverage has provided more depth. They also believe the range of topics has broadened. And a smaller number believe the newspapers have improved their format to make them easier to read.

That may be good news for editors who have worked hard in recent years to change how stories are written, broaden the definition of news and redesign papers to make them easier to navigate. Readers apparently have noticed.

What is worrying those who think that coverage has eroded? The biggest factor here is that people think the coverage is biased, liberal or too opinionated. Next they worry that the range of topics is too limited. Third, they think the coverage is shallow.12

Believability

But trust is another matter altogether.

Despite the relative popularity of newspapers, the Pew biennial survey found that people don’t really believe a whole lot of what their daily newspaper tells them. For that matter, they don’t believe much of what any news medium has to say.

Overall, local daily newspapers sat on the lower end of the scale among media on believability, lower than CNN, Fox News, NPR and local television, and above only the Associated Press. In 2006 19% of people said they believed all or most of what they read in their daily paper, down 10 points in eight years. (Another 40% believed a good deal of what they read in the paper, though less than “most”).

Three national newspapers that the Pew survey has tracked over time fared both better and slightly worse than newspapers in general. In all, 26% said they believed all or most of the Wall Street Journal, down from 41% in 1998. And 18% believed all or most of what they read in USA Today (down from 23% in 1998).13 Slightly more, 20%, said they believed all or most of what they read in the New York Times. That was down just slightly from 21% two years earlier, when the survey began asking.

Of the media tracked here, only one improved its believability ratings from 2004 to 2006. The Wall Street Journal saw a slight uptick, from 24% to 26%.14

News Source Believability
1998 – 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006

Conclusion

There is much, in fact, for newspapers to be optimistic about in the public survey data.

People who really love the news still prefer newspapers by a large margin. What’s more, many of the problems people see are fixable. By far the largest core of complaints about newspapers — time, convenience and access — are all something that the Internet may alleviate.

Bigger problems, however, may loom. For newspapers to thrive on the Internet, Americans have to continue enjoying the news. There are limits to how far journalists can change their product to make news compelling, and going too far in the direction of entertainment may actually weaken the appeal of what newspapers provide. Society needs to produce citizens who find the outside world worth following if newspapers, or their online versions, are to flourish.

The other concern has to do with the journalists themselves. Newspapers, probably more than other media, deliver news at some remove. The journalists are not seen or heard. Their work comes more strictly through words — without a face or a voice attached. The strength of the newspaper is in the style of the prose, the quality of the analysis, and the breadth of topics — and indeed people say those are the things they like.

Yet the modern audience increasingly also wants the news on demand, and wants it to be immediate and interactive. Serving such needs, at a certain point, can undermine the emphasis newspapers put on reporting and writing. The answer, ultimately, is in finding some kind of balance.