February 26, 2009

Newspapers Face a Challenging Calculus

Online Growth, but Print Losses are Bigger

The trend is unmistakable: Fewer Americans are reading print newspapers as more turn to the internet for their news. And while the percentage of people who read newspapers online is growing rapidly, especially among younger generations, that growth has not offset the decline in print readership.

In the Pew Research Center’s 2008 news media consumption survey, 39% said they read a newspaper yesterday — either print or online — down from 43% in 2006. The proportion reporting that they read just the print version of a newspaper fell by roughly a quarter, from 34% to 25% over the two-year period.

Overall newspaper readership declined in spite of an increase in the number of people reading online newspapers: 14% of Americans said they read a newspaper online yesterday, up from 9% in 2006. This includes those who said they read only a newspaper online (9% in 2008), as well as those who said they read both print and Web versions of a newspaper (5%). These numbers may not include the number of people who read content produced by newspapers, but accessed through aggregation sites or portals such as Google or Yahoo.

The balance between online and print readership changed substantially between 2006 and 2008. In 2008, online readers comprised more than a third of all newspaper readers; two years earlier, fewer than a quarter of newspaper readers viewed them on the Web. This is being driven by a substantial shift in how younger generations read newspapers.

In 2008, nearly equal percentages in Generation Y (born 1977 or later) read a newspaper online and in print; 16% said they read only a print newspaper, or both the Web and print versions, while 14% said they read a newspaper only on the internet, or both online and in print. In 2006, more than twice as many in Gen Y said they read a printed newspaper than the online version (22% vs. 9%).

There is a similar pattern in newspaper readership for Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976). In 2008, 21% read only a print newspaper, or both an online and a print newspaper; 18% read a newspaper only on the Web, or both online and in print. In 2006, 30% of Gen X read a newspaper in print, while just 13% read a web version.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the Silent/Greatest Generations (born before 1946) continue to read newspapers at higher rates than do those in younger age cohorts.

However, the proportion of Baby Boomers who said they read a newspaper yesterday slipped between 2006 and 2008, from 47% to 42%. The decline among Baby Boomers has come entirely in print readership (from 42% to 34%).

Age Cohorts over Time

The Pew Research Center’s measures of where people got news “yesterday” date to the early 1990s. Since then, the proportions of Americans saying they got news yesterday from television, radio or newspapers have declined. Over the last decade, however, the percentage saying they watched TV news yesterday has remained relatively stable, while the audiences for radio and newspapers have fallen steadily. The percentage saying they got news online yesterday has increased over the last two years. (For more details on long-term changes in news consumption, see “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” Aug. 17 2008).1

There has long been a sizable “generation gap” in newspaper readership. In 1998, those in the oldest age cohort — the Greatest/Silent Generations (born before 1946) — were more than twice as likely as those in the youngest generation at that time (Generation X) to read a newspaper yesterday (65% vs. 31%). Older age cohorts continue to read newspapers at much higher rates than do younger cohorts (see graph on pg. 4).

Yet the decline in newspaper readership is not solely attributable to the fact that the youngest cohorts are increasingly less likely to read newspapers; newspapers also are suffering from a loss of readership within older age cohorts. Over the past decade, there has been a sizable decline in newspaper readership among the cohort that has been the most faithful readers of newspapers — the Silent/Greatest Generations.

In the 2008 survey, slightly more than half (53%) of those in this age cohort said they read a newspaper yesterday. A decade earlier, 65% of those in the Silent/Greatest Generations did so. There also has been a large decline in the percentage of Baby Boomers who reported reading a newspaper yesterday, from 48% in 1998 to 38% a decade later.

By contrast, newspaper readership has been more stable among younger age cohorts. In 2008, 26% of those in Generation X said the read a newspaper yesterday, compared with 31% in 1998. Last year, 21% of those in Generation Y said they read a newspaper on the previous day, which was little changed from 2004 (22%).

The generational pattern in television news viewership is somewhat different: Within each age cohort, the percentages saying they watched television news yesterday have remained stable in recent years. As with newspapers, a far lower proportion of Gen Y than older age cohorts reports watching TV news on a typical day. Unlike newspapers, however, there is even a sizable gap in television news viewership between Gen Y and Gen X. In 2008, just 42% of Gen Y said they watched television news yesterday, compared with 54% of Gen X and even higher percentages of Boomers (61%) and the Silent/Greatest Generations (73%).

Like newspapers, radio news has seen a gradual overall decline over the past decade. In 2008, as in previous news consumption surveys, those in their prime working years were more likely than others to report listening to radio news yesterday. Radio news listenership was higher among Gen X (41%) and Boomers (38%) than among either the Silent/Greatest Generations (30%) or Gen Y (29%).

In contrast to traditional media sources, use of online news on a typical day has increased in recent years. Nearly all of this growth has come in Gen X (from 32% in 2006 to 38% in 2008) and Gen Y (from 24% to 33%).

Online News Source

The 2008 news consumption survey found that the familiar distinctions among news sources are breaking down. Online news consumers have access to a vast array of news sources — from traditional news organizations to web portals and internet-only news sites.

Notably, more online news consumers (50%) said they access news sites indirectly — by following links to specific stories – than by going directly to the home pages of news organizations (41%). Among online news consumers younger than 25, 64% said they more often follow links to stories, rather than going directly to the sites of news organizations.

When online news consumers were asked what websites they used most often for news and information, Web portals and familiar names dominated. However, while sizable minorities mentioned well-known sites — 28% cited Yahoo while 19% cited MSN/Microsoft — numerous sites were mentioned by 2% of respondents or less.

Newspapers, taken collectively, were mentioned by 13%, placing them behind the most popular news sites. In fact, fewer online news users cited any newspaper site than mentioned the most frequented television news site (CNN.com at 17%).

At the same time, several individual newspapers were included among the “long tail” of less frequently cited news websites: 4% cited the New York Times, while 2% each mentioned the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today websites. Another 7% mentioned local newspaper websites.

Newspaper websites are especially popular with highly educated online news consumers. More than a quarter of those who have attended graduate school (28%) cite a newspaper website as where they go most often for news and information. That compares with 16% of those with no more than a college degree and much smaller percentages of those with less education.


1. For comparability, long-term generational trends in newspaper readership include only those who said they read a newspaper yesterday (34% of the public). Previous figures also include those who said they did not read a newspaper yesterday, but said they got news online yesterday and while online visited a newspaper website, for a total of 39%.