Saturday, March 11, 2000
Photo By Ken Sakamoto, Photo Illustration By David Swann, Star-Bulletin
is good news
for a growing number of
Americans who have lost their
appetite for reading newspapers
and watching TV news
And how this trend is helping to kill
the newspaper you are
reading right now
By Gerry Keir
Special to the Star-Bulletin
lawsuit is keeping this newspaper alive, but nobody who understands newspaper economics believes that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin has a long-term future. Its death will put more than 100 people out of work and deny Honolulu a second, independent voice in print journalism. A tragedy.
However, the question was never if the Star-Bulletin would die, merely when, because Americans are increasingly uninterested in news and public life. All over the country, newspapers -- particularly afternoon papers -- are dying.
Back in 1965, the average American household got more than one daily paper. Today, just 57 percent of households get a weekday paper; just 60 percent get one on Sunday.
The loss of interest in news is particularly striking among young people. About one in four Americans under 30 reads a paper on the average weekday, compared to two-thirds of senior citizens.
Hawaii's no different. In Honolulu, Sunday circulation and combined weekday circulation of the Advertiser and Star-Bulletin have both been fairly level for 25 years, though the numbers also dropped during the 1990s. Because of population growth, the percentage of households getting a paper dropped significantly.
TV news numbers are no more encouraging. On a weekday evening, less than 25 percent of the homes nationwide tune in to ABC, CBS and NBC news -- combined.
TV news has the same problem attracting younger people. More teen-agers watch Jerry Springer than Brokaw, Rather and Jennings.
More than half the viewers of network news are over age 55. Take a look at the regular sponsors -- Fixodent, Just for Men hair color, Maalox.
Here again, unfortunately, Hawaii mirrors the nation. Combined ratings for all channels have been declining since the 1970s.
What about the Internet? Most people who use the Net don't use it for news. Instead, they're sending email, visiting chat rooms and surfing non-news websites. Of the 25 most-visited Net sites, only two are "news" outlets -- CNN and Pathfinder from Time-Warner. Research shows that CNN and Net newshounds almost invariably use other media as well.
Just half the population pays attention to news on a given day. So news junkies now have more places to read, watch and surf for it, while a growing number of Americans -- especially younger people -- consume no news at all.
At the same time, there have been major changes in the corporate landscape of the media -- and in definitions of news itself.
The loss of local family ownership and growth of national newspaper chains is an old story. There were 1,300 independent newspapers in 1940; now, just 300 mostly small-town papers, 20 percent of the total. Inheritance laws push some local owners to sell, as the Twigg-Smith family did locally by selling the Advertiser to Gannett Co. Inc. in 1993.
There are willing corporate buyers because newspapers are still very profitable, despite lower circulation numbers. Operating profits for newspaper companies run about 20 percent, double the average of other U.S. industries.
A newspaper, like any other business, needs profits to survive and fulfill its First Amendment mission. Unlike family operations, however, public companies have to report those profits quarterly to shareholders.
Newspapers are a cyclical business. The price of newsprint, a major cost, fluctuates wildly. Advertising volume goes up and down dramatically with the economic cycle. But stockholders, especially institutions, don't like cycles. They want increases every quarter of every year. So a public company tries to level out cyclical peaks and valleys.
Newspaper companies are very adept at controlling costs by reducing staff (meaning fewer journalists) and newsprint use (meaning less space for news stories). Another way to control costs is to hire cheap help, leading to more inexperienced reporters on local TV news around the nation.
You can boost revenues by changing the mix. Adding commercials has driven network news content below 20 minutes in a half-hour show.
Besides cutting expenses, news companies also try to improve revenue with market research. They ask people what kind of news they want, then try to give it to them.
This isn't necessarily unhealthy; any business should be in touch with its customers. Unfortunately, market research has often created a "News Lite" diet -- more fluffy desserts, less spinach. As a result of its market research, for example, the Chicago Tribune stopped covering the Pentagon.
The most famous early research was "Changing Needs for Changing Readers," written in 1978 by Ruth Clark. She concluded that readers were less interested in hard news (White House, Pentagon, economics, state capitols). Instead, they wanted "attention paid to their personal needs...news about personally helpful subjects like health," Clark said.
In 1982, the new USA Today embraced her vision; many other papers followed suit. Print and broadcast media beefed up "lifestyle" coverage and de-emphasized harder news:
(PI) In 1977, 1 in 5 Time cover stories was about foreign affairs. Now, it's 1 out of 20. Today you'll find a celebrity on Time's cover three times as often as foreign affairs.
(PI) News coverage of state governments is in free-fall. Michigan had 25 reporters at its state capitol in the mid-1980s; now, just 15. Connecticut's capitol press corps was cut in half. No California TV reporter covers Sacramento as a beat. Nationally, 500 reporters cover state capitols, compared to 3,000 at the Super Bowl.
(PI) Nationally and locally, there is no TV news equivalent to the "editorial page" -- no Eric Sevareid, no John Chancellor, not even a Cec Heftel.
(PI) TV newsmagazines blur the lines between news and entertainment by doing re-creations, or creating events out of whole cloth, to add drama.
(PI) Market research says crime is hot. So the supply of crime coverage increases to meet the demand. The U.S. homicide rate dropped 20 percent between 1993 and 1996, but network news coverage of murders jumped 721 percent.
Even TV executives worry about the trend:
(PI) Paul Friedman, executive producer of ABC World News Tonight: "Network news is under pressure to become indistinguishable from local news, leading with blood and guts."
(PI) Dan Rather: "We're running stories we know, in our journalistic heart of hearts, don't meet the standard to be on the network news. We run it because we're scared to death our competition will run it and beat us."
Bulletin closing archive
(PI) Walter Cronkite: "Networks now do news as entertainment. We've always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product and now you're finding the bad driving out the good."
As a result of media market research, says journalism scholar Ev Dennis, "We are confusing what is of public interest...with what is in the public interest."
Has it worked? No. After years of marketing-driven news menus, more and more people are perfectly happy to tune out.
Well, so what? Why should we care?
We should care because any successful democracy needs citizens who pay attention to public life. It needs media to relay news about that public life. If the media don't do their jobs, or if we don't pay attention, democracy suffers.
Why are fewer people paying attention to news? Perhaps because Americans feel impotent to change public institutions, so they don't get involved. And it spirals downward. Less exposure to news eliminates citizens' common information base, limits the quality of public debate and makes elections a less effective tool for change. So people pay less attention.
How can journalists tell citizens what they ought to know in a way that makes them want to know? How can media make the spinach appealing, instead of just serving more dessert?
Meanwhile, the lines on the chart drop. And the Star-Bulletin faces extinction.
Gerry Keir, a former editor of the Honolulu Advertiser,
now heads corporate communications for
First Hawaiian Bank.