Where did the news junkies go?

Increasingly, American newspapers are trying to deliver the news electronically: online and by smartphone, tablet, Twitter, e-reader, you name it. But newspapers — particularly large metro dailies — are still having a rough time. Profits diminish or vanish, stocks plunge, bankruptcies abound. Other conventional media, such as television, radio, and magazines, are suffering, too.

Maybe the old media are trying to shove Beethoven down the throats of hip-hop fanatics. That is, young adults most heavily use the electronic forms of communication, but studies show they are less interested in news than older folks. Actually, all age groups are less enthusiastic about news than they once were. Instead of concentrating on the platforms by which news is disseminated, media should perhaps reconsider the concept of news itself.

“In spite of an expanding variety of ways to get news, a sizable minority of young people continues to go newsless on a typical day,” says a study released September 27 by Pew Research Center. In a poll, 29 percent of adults younger than 25 got no news the previous day, either by traditional means (newspapers, TV, radio) or by the digital platforms (online, Twitter, social networking, podcast, etc.). Only 6 percent of those 18 to 24 got news from newspapers; it was a mere 12 percent for those 30 to 39. By contrast, almost half of those above 65 got news via newspapers.

The trend of young people eschewing news has been evident for many years — one reason why newspaper, TV, and radio executives should have foreseen the coming crumbling of their Valhalla. In 1994, the average person age 18 to 29 spent 56 minutes a day on news. This year, that is down to 45 minutes. In 1994, people age 30 to 39 spent 69 minutes a day absorbing news. This year, that’s down to 62.

Significantly, even we older folks are spending less time on the news, according to Pew. In 1994, those 65 and older spent 90 minutes a day on news. That’s down to 83. For those age 50 to 64, daily minutes spent on news dropped from 83 to 76.

It’s possible that the news business has the same problem that…well…Beethoven has. Fifty or a hundred years ago, when classical music impresarios faced a graying audience, they were comforted knowing that as people grew older, they would come to appreciate finer music. That’s no longer true. And that could be happening in the news business. As younger folks get gray, they are not becoming more interested in news. So how can newspapers’ profitability return to halcyon days?

Whether today’s news is too shallow, too titillating, too boring, too sensationalized, too slanted, too objective, too whatever, is a mystery. I get different stories from everyone I speak with. I have long suspected that the conventional journalistic writing style is out of date. In any case, too much executive time is spent pondering the platform and too little time is devoted to studying why people are less interested in news.

The latest Pew survey shows that people care the most, by far, about weather news, followed by crime, community, and sports news. “Papa Doug” Manchester, the new owner of U-T San Diego, and the paper’s chief executive, John Lynch, are stressing the new platforms more than predecessor owners did and going full bore for community and sports news. But as they use their organ as a propaganda vehicle, they may be slashing their own wrists: Pew data show that, overwhelmingly, those getting news by Twitter and social networks don’t want biased coverage.

These days, it’s fashionable for conventional media executives to stress community coverage. After oracle Warren Buffett took a stake in Lee Enterprises, which recently sold the North County Times to Manchester, the community movement intensified. Example: the North County Times was bought for $12 million in September. The next month, the Tampa Tribune was sold for only $9.5 million. Lee is a collection of small papers that got into deep debt and doo-doo trying to buy a big metro daily. Lee emerged from bankruptcy early this year and continues to lose money as revenues decline. (Besides, Buffett isn’t always right. One of his biggest mistakes was putting money into San Diego’s long-gone PS Group.)

A company that completely specializes in community newspapers is beleaguered GateHouse Media. Five years ago, it paid more than $380 million for the money-losing Midwest papers of Copley Press. In the interim, GateHouse stock has plummeted from $18 to below 10 cents as waves of huge losses rolled in.

Still, bullishness on community papers, and community coverage by metro papers, continues. Gordon Borrell, digital advertising analyst, predicts that print ad revenue will grow through 2017. But small and midsize papers will get the gains; advertising in metro papers will still be dropping.

Last year, newspaper print advertising declined for the sixth straight year, according to Pew’s “State of the News Media 2012” report. According to Newspaper Association of America statistics, online advertising rose $207 million last year from 2010. But print advertising was down $2.1 billion. Thus, print losses were more than digital gains by 10 to 1 — worse than the 7-to-1 ratio of 2010.

The picture is not bright this year. On October 25, the New York Times reported that its third quarter advertising revenue was down 9 percent from a year earlier. Digital advertising was down 2.2 percent. Profits plummeted 85 percent, and the stock dropped 22.6 percent on the news.

Advertising sales for McClatchy fell 5.4 percent in the third quarter; online ad revenue rose 2.7 percent. Third quarter profits were cut almost in half. Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in circulation, did better: advertising revenue dropped 6.6 percent in the third quarter, but digital volume rose 5 percent.

Could print ad revenue turn up and digital revenue fulfill its promise? Now that would be news. ■

Comments

I attribute the lack of interest in news to social decay and entropy.

Burwell: You may have hit the nail on the head. The society is collapsing around us, both here and abroad; there is a lack of control that leads to helplessness. Many people simply shut the world out. I think the steady erosion of educational standards has something to do with it, too. Best, Don Bauder

I find it sad that world news ( not what the papers print) must be hunted for.

some time check the english versions of al jazeera, Much more info there than on the u.s. news media.

Murphyjunk: I find financial media in Great Britain to be well-researched and well-written. Actually, newspapers in some countries are doing better than they are in the U.S. Best, Don Bauder

One thing that I think you overlooked, Don, was the composition of the news people read/hear/see then and now. Back when, there were a heck of a lot of males who would buy the newspaper for one thing and one thing only, sports. It's all anecdotal of course, but I can tell stories all day about that phenomenon over the past few decades. One feature I recall from my days in corporate management was the fact that many peers would give The Wall Street Journal a once-over during the day but would hang on to the local paper sports section, sometimes bringing it from home. So, that meant that their best source for what I call news was the WSJ, and then the frosting on their cake was to read the sports section closely. What I'm saying is that this distaste for news and not getting much has been there all along.

Nowadays there are all these sports TV channels that have to fill the airwaves 24/7 with "something" and a plethora of sports radio talk shows. Both feature incredibly banal commentary and discussion of highly nuanced sports technique. If you really enjoy that sort of thing (I can't stand it) there is more than one human can possibly absorb and it is available continually.

We are in an era when an informed citizenry needs all the information it can get, and then some. And that citizenry is tuning it out and turning it off like never before. It will result in something like the era when only the elite learned to read. And now, why care if a kid learns to read? He/she likely won't use that skill much, or for anything worthwhile.

Visduh: Good points. One smart move Manchester/Lynch may have made is putting far more emphasis on local sports -- high school games, etc. On the other hand, one of the biggest mistakes these guys made is thinking that the white male-dominated culture still rules. It doesn't, as the last election clearly showed. While male readership may pick up with more local sports, female readership could suffer. Best, Don Bauder

I would extend this to include coverage in the news sections being biased whenever professional sports is the topic. Whether burying stories about player misconduct or hyping bogus benefits for public financing of stadiums, the news and editorial departments consistently do NOT report the truth.

This is because as Visduh points out, the newspapers have heavy financial reliance on the sports pages...it's the main reason a lot of folks buy the paper. So if the local team doesn't get its way, the paper will not report fairly on the subject.

Nowadays, we have so many sources for news that the local paper like the UT is irrelevant to serious people who aren't sports fans. It's near the bottom of the list for reading when so much quality material is available that contains actual news instead of fluff.

Don, I would suggest that news consumption has remained constant...if you broaden your definition of news (isn't following your friends' activities online more practical and important a source of information for living than reading some biased sports-centric rag like the UT?).

In proportion to how much more information is now available that is actually relevant to a younger person's life (which party to attend, rather than which party to vote for), consumption of irrelevant information must drop. There are only so many hours in a day. Popular culture (movies, TV, and yes sports heroes) has preached the irrelevance of civic participation for decades, while emphasizing the importance of time with friends and consumption of consumer goods.

So that's what young people pay attention to...news about their friends, consumer goods, sports, and entertainment...politics and economics is for nerds like us.

I have hopes the example of the Occupy movement, especially now as they help cleanup after Sandy, and younger folks will become increasingly aware of what's going on...but they will the first to tell you they don't read traditional newspapers because they are irrelevant or too biased.

Fred: Good points. When I was at the U-T and Herb Klein was in charge, I always joked that if he had had his way, the paper wouldn't cover Padres and Chargers games when the teams lost. As a matter of fact, in the months before the 1998 vote on a Padres ballpark, the U-T basically stopped covering infrastructure eruptions such as manhole covers blowing off and streets flooding, sewers backing up, etc. Mustn't tell the truth to voters before a corporate welfare vote. And then there was the notorious report by county grand jury warning of the financial risks of the ballpark deal. First, corrupt establishment lawyers managed to hold it up until the day before the vote. A U-T reporter wrote an excellent piece on the grand jury's prescient warnings. The U-T chopped it up and buried it. And yes, the national media downplayed and distorted the Occupy movement. The participants were pointing out one of the most cancerous economic phenomena of the day, but were ignored. Best, Don Bauder

I think the lack of interest in the news is due to a lack of real news and responsible reporting. I quit watching local & most national tv news many years ago when it became more entertainment than news. Print news is outdated by the time you see it & locally so biased that it has become a laughing stock.

Dennis: The fact that print news is out of date before you get your newspaper is one reason for the decline of print media. I'm not sure there is "a lack of real news." This is a very exciting time to be alive, although it can be depressing. Best, Don Bauder

I don't read newspapers or watch TV news anymore. Thanks to the internet i can get my news from many sources and average out that editorial slant. Some of the most un-biased US news can be found in foreign sources like the BBC.

I'd be careful if I were you about attributing great news coverage to BBC. It has had its share, and then some, of scandals recently. Those cast plenty of doubt upon BBC coverage.

Visduh: Again, I can't comment on BBC. Certainly, Murdoch's British papers have had their share of well-deserved bad news. Best, Don Bauder

CaptainObvious: Yes, the Internet is a great source of news. I seldom see BBC so can't comment. Best, Don Bauder

So Don, what are the hopes/fears for our beloved Reader. Ad sales up/down? The best thing any metro paper could do to boost readership would be make the B section their front page. Any world/national story I care about, I've already read on line or seen on TV. Today's (11/9) UT appears to have done that, 5 stories on the front page, all of them local.

califcomedy: I can't speak officially for the Reader, because I am not in management. However, I do think I can state my opinion as a private citizen who has written for the Reader for nine and a half years. I think the Reader does an excellent job attracting the young adult readers, and they make up a market most coveted by advertisers. The Reader also appeals to sophisticated older people who realize they are getting a lot of hooey from the downtown overlords who manipulate the mainstream media to push their agenda. The Reader is the one major publication that understands how the downtown potentates, through their puppets on the council and in the media, have been able to commandeer funds that rightfully belong to the neighborhoods. Filner promises to change that; I hope he does. In short, I think the Reader presents a product that reflects reality, while other local media continue to peddle myths. The public is wising to those myths. I think the Reader has a strong market out there. Best, Don Bauder

The Reader market appears to be composed primarily of hirsute women with flat chests who need sun tans.

Burwell: How about hirsute young men with surfboards who are admired by young women with opulent bosoms? Those constitute a major market for us. Best, Don Bauder

Don, I didn't mean to imply that there is a lack of real news in the world, just that most of it doesn't get reported in the local media. The UT focuses on non news items like their most recent proclamation that opening the California Tower in Balboa Park will bring visitors for the 2015 celebration, local TV does the same, all fluff, no stuff.

Dennis: Much of this discussion is definitional: what is news? And who says what is news? Best, Don Bauder

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