Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Remarks on Media for the Heritage Foundation Panel

The Heritage Foundation sponsored a meeting here not long ago and I was asked to comment on the media in a panel discussion. Here are my notes:

We’re at a fascinating time in U.S. history. For the first time in many years, newspapers are in trouble. They are in trouble partially because of economics but mostly because they don’t recognize sufficiently that the entire media fall into two categories: Old Media and New.

Old Media consists on the traditional forms we’re used to—newspapers, newsmagazines and broadcast TV. All are beginning to fail. Why? I hope this little talk may cast light on the reason. Newspapers have begun to fail beginning in the 1940s when the percentage of Americans reading them began to drop—but for years the population was growing so much that circulation kept rising so the gradually drooping numbers reading the press were not noticed. After 1970 the population started to ease off and the numbers reading the papers remained stable. Then, in 1990, circulation began to drop in absolute numbers.

Today, just more than half of us Americans—54 percent—read a single newspaper during the week. You and I probably are atypical. I read both Chicago newspapers plus The New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day and you probably do as well. But 54 percent read a single newspaper during the week! Those reading a newspaper on Sundays are at 62 percent but this number is dropping. The only exception to the 20-year decline is USA Today which went from a dead start to a circulation of 2.1 million. I don’t read it regularly but I might just point out that USA Today has two features that aren’t duplicated, so far as I know, by any other paper. One, its editorials. They are overwhelmingly liberal but for every position they take, the run a counter Op Ed article on the same subject right under it. Second, it runs an entire page of capsule news from all over the U.S. state-by-state. Under Illinois it might run a brief note about the trouble Mayor Daley is in for example. It’s unique and gives the reader the attitude that he is not reading only the big news the editorial staff wants him to read but news from all over. As an ex-Minnesotan, I always read what’s happening in that state, for example. This concern about non-Washington or New York news and almost equal treatment on editorials of policy may be responsible for USA Today’s success.

The same decline is happening to newsmagazines, the second leg of the Old Media. TIME’s circulation has fallen by 13 percent from 1988 to 2002. U.S. NEWS has lost 13 percent as well, dropping that amount from 1988 to 2003. NEWSWEEK is significantly better, dropping 3 percent—but it’s trend is down. Among the better newsmagazines in the Economist which tells us its conservative point of view. Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee, is, to my taste, the highest quality conservative publication of all, topping the Economist, National Review, American Spectator or anything else on the market.

Now the third leg of Old Media: broadcast TV. It’s true that most Americans get their news from evening TV newscasts—some 30 million—but their ratings have dropped 59 percent since their peak three decades ago. And the audience is aging: nearly 60 years old vs. the average American age of 35—which is not good for sponsors, I am told, because older people are more cautious about making big purchases while younger people are more susceptible.

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