Young people are reading

Young people are reading – everything but newspapers

Kohut, Andrew

VOICES THE AUDIENCE The Pew Research Center’s latest news media habits survey has some familiar results about newspaper reading. Once again, fewer people are reading newspapers, and the declines in readership are greatest among young adults and the younger segment of the baby boom generation. But the same survey shows that young people are reading books and magazines at least as much as older Americans. So it is not that the young don’t read, it is that newspapers are not what they choose to read.

As it does every two years, the center asked a representative sample of approximately 3,000 adults detailed questions about what they had read the day before the interview. Four-in-ten (41 percent) said they had read a newspaper, more than the number who read books (34 percent) or magazines (23 percent). But the trend in newspaper reading remains negative – in 2000, 47 percent read a paper the previous day and as many as 58 percent did so in 1994.

The generation gap here is what is important. Newspapers were the most popular choice among people fifty years of age and older – 54 percent vs. 34 percent for books and 24 percent for magazines. Among the under fifties, however, as many read books as newspapers (34 percent books vs. 32 percent newspapers), while 22 percent read magazines.

On average, Americans under fifty spent eleven minutes reading a newspaper the day before the interview, nine minutes reading magazines, and eighteen minutes reading books. Older people, on average, devoted twenty-three minutes to newspapers, nineteen to books, and eleven to magazines.

Not surprisingly, education plays a role in these statistics. Young college graduates read more than young people with less education. But there is a gender gap that is as important as education. Younger men are more likely to be nonreaders than women. But if they do read, men under fifty favor newspapers more often than women. Women in that age group prefer books to newspapers (38 percent to 30 percent). Surprisingly, the gender gap in newspaper reading has little to do with working moms or the presence of children in the household.

Newspaper readers simply express much greater interest in national and international news than young people who read other things. But it’s not just an interest in hard news that attracts younger readers. Those under fifty who still read newspapers show strong interest in many of the topics that are a newspaper’s bread-and-butter, such as community news, sports, culture and the arts, and consumer news.

So the challenge for newspapers is to find other subjects that push the buttons of young readers who are shunning newspapers. The good news is that almost as many of them express interest in religion, entertainment, business, and health news as newspaper readers. Many have a commitment to news – they read news magazines, watch the morning shows, and 63 percent say they wish they had more time to devote to the news. So there is an opening for newspapers to exploit.

It is no exaggeration to say that the future vitality of newspapers depends on attracting these younger readers. The new study presents a bleak demographic picture: just a quarter of those under thirty said they read a paper the day before the survey. Less than a third of people in their thirties (30 percent) read a newspaper the previous day. Compare that with a decade ago, when 53 percent of those in their thirties said they had read a paper on the previous day. And when today’s thirty-somethings were tracked back to 1991, when they were in their twenties, a far greater number (48 percent) typically read a paper.

Newspapers have seen far less fall-off among older generations. Among those now in their forties and fifties (born between 1942 and 1961) readership has decreased, but only modestly. Newspaper readership among those born before 1942 has remained relatively steady over the past eleven years, with significant declines only among those over age seventy. Newspapers have done a better job than the evening network newscasts in hanging on to their older audiences – but that is a dubious distinction.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, writes regularly for CJR about public attitudes toward the media.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jul/Aug 2002

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