Where Have All the Readers Gone?  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   April 1992

Where Have All the Readers Gone?   

When afternoon papers fold, blue-collar workers often lose the newspaper habit.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

A troubling fact of the newspaper business is that when a daily such as the Dallas Times Herald or the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock shuts down, a high percentage of formerly loyal readers apparently gives up the daily newspaper habit all at once.

At best the surviving newspaper in the market can expect to capture about half the closed paper's circulation, according to research I have done; 40 percent to 45 percent is the more common experience, and 30 percent to 35 percent has not been uncommon in failed-newspaper cities over the last 10 years.

Some of this dropoff, of course, can be explained by duplicated readers – people who had bought both papers before one shut down and continue to buy the surviving paper. Typically, duplication accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of the closed newspaper's circulation, according to studies performed by Scarborough Research in the 1980s. That still leaves a large number of dropouts – 30 percent to 50 percent in the markets I have looked at.

This is disturbing evidence of newspapers' fragile hold on reader loyalty – one more symptom of the continuing readership problem the newspaper industry has been struggling with for decades.

If not to the surviving newspaper, where do the dropouts turn for news? There have been many newspaper readership studies to determine what readers do and do not like about the newspapers they read, or why some people cancel subscriptions (cost and poor delivery service are major reasons) or why some people never bother to become newspaper readers in the first place. But I'm not aware of any studies answering why a large mass of readers would suddenly drop the newspaper habit when a newspaper fails.

It is possible, though, to surmise some of the reasons. Most of the newspapers that have shut down since World War II had been what were once called "blue collar" papers (the Arkansas Gazette and the Washington Star were notable exceptions). Typically they were afternoon papers (the Dallas Times Herald in its last years and the Arkansas Gazette were exceptions), the better to serve the reader who got up early in the morning to go to a factory job and came home from work in the mid- to late afternoon.

This segment of the population has been shrinking as the nation's economy has shifted increasingly from manufacturing to service industries. That's one reason afternoon papers have become weak. Another reason is blue-collar workers are generally less educated than today's typical newspaper reader and more inclined to turn to television for news and entertainment.

Thus when confronted with the sudden disappearance of the newspaper that arrived when it was convenient to read, at least some of these readers probably lost what likely was an already weakening attachment to newspaper reading. Even the Dallas Times Herald, which at its death had become for the most part a morning paper (officially it was an "all-day" paper), probably still had a large proportion of blue-collar readers from its days as an afternoon paper who just gave up on newspapers when it closed.

Another factor likely at work is the appeal of the suburban community papers that have grown up around most cities of size. Research has shown that a growing percentage of people, especially those with less than a high-school education, turn to television for national and international news and seek out newspapers chiefly for local coverage. The suburban papers play to this interest by offering local coverage almost exclusively. Some readers shift from daily to weekly papers.

Can anything be done to minimize losing newspaper readers when a paper fails? Newspaper managers confronted with this problem in recent years (in earlier years, there was a tendency to let happen whatever happened) have tried to encourage the daily newspaper reading habit at all costs. At great expense in distribution, production and especially newsprint, they have delivered their products to every household not already subscribing in the hope that every former reader of the failed paper would embrace the surviving one.

When the Los Angeles Herald Examiner closed in late 1989, the Los Angeles Times even went so far as to purchase all of the Herald Examiner's news racks, leave them in the same locations, and cover the Herald Examiner logo with Times bumper stickers to make sure Herald Examiner readers accustomed to buying a paper in a particular place could still do so.

Most surviving papers have also acquired the failed paper's syndicated features, hired its name writers and heavily promoted discount subscriptions to woo new readers.

With all these efforts, though, the percentage of circulation captured by the surviving papers has not improved much over the earlier attempts, according to my research. Maybe just staying even is progress, in light of the newspaper industry's weak circulation performance of recent years. l