Getting more people to read more newspapers: Factors affecting newspaper reading

Wanta, Wayne

Mass communication researchers have long grappled with two important questions: How can the newspaper industry get more people to read newspapers? and How can the newspaper industry get people to read more newspapers? The first question, of course, addresses the problem of nonreaders who refuse to read any newspaper. The second question addresses the potential for luring current single newspaper readers into reading more than one newspaper a day.

The present study, through the use of a discriminant analysis, attempts to examine simultaneously these three distinctive groups of individuals: the nonreader, the single newspaper reader and the multiple newspaper reader. The findings could have important practical implications for the newspaper industry.

If this study can isolate differences among these three groups, the findings may offer suggestions to editors regarding how to get individuals to read more newspapers more often. Two trends in the newspaper industry underscore the importance of this information.

First, editors are becoming increasingly concerned with the decrease in newspaper penetration.(1) Thus, editors are examining ways to reverse this disturbing trend by luring nonreaders into a reading habit.

Second, while the number of cities with competing newspapers has steadily declined since 1910(2), about half the daily newspaper circulation in the United States is in cities in which more than one daily newspaper is published.(3) Thus, luring single newspaper readers into buying more than one newspaper could be one way for newspapers to increase circulation. As Gerald Stone(4) notes, if dual subscribers in a city such as Phoenix increased from 10 to 15 percent, circulation in this one city would rise by 20,000.

In addition, the potential for increasing the number of multiple newspaper readers could be even eater in areas where both local community newspapers — dailies and weeklies — and regional metropolitan newspapers are available. In these areas, residents might choose to take a local newspaper from their community and a metropolitan paper that also serves the area. This is the case in this study, in which the area surveyed is served by a local daily paper and two metropolitan papers.

Nonreaders, single newspaper readers and multiple newspaper readers could differ in a wide range of ways. Three areas are examined here: motivations for reading a newspaper, broadcast media usage patterns and demographics. Data come from a telephone survey of 378 respondents.

Newspaper nonreaders

The social profiles of daily newspaper nonreaders have been portrayed in several earlier studies. In general, nonreaders are found to be relatively low in socioeconomic status. Nonreaders also tend to be rural residents, are either quite old or quite young, and often seek to disassociate themselves from social activities. Low broadcasting media usage also is sometimes noted as another characteristic of newspaper nonreaders.(5)

In a state-wide newspaper readership survey conducted in Wisconsin, Bruce Westley and Werner Severin found that about 14 percent of their 1,055 respondents indicated they usually do not read a daily newspaper. Westley and Severin also found that these people are relatively low in educational and occupational status, live in rural areas, are newcomers to their residences, are younger than 20 or older than 60, have isolated themselves from social activities and interpersonal communications, and are relatively strongly committed to a specific political party. There is no evidence to show that nonreaders are more likely to be males or females. Neither do the researchers find any significant difference between readers and nonreaders concerning the hours they spend listening, watching or paying attention to broadcasting media.(6)

Jeanne Penrose, David Weaver, Richard Cole and Donald Shaw(7) partly replicated the Wisconsin study in North Carolina. Newspaper nonreaders were defined as those who offer a negative response to Have you read a newspaper yesterday or today? Similar to the findings of the Westley and Severin study, the North Carolina newspaper nonreaders were poorer and less educated. They also tended to be rural residents and either very young or very old.

While the Wisconsin study failed to find significant differences between readers and nonreaders in their broadcast media uses, the North Carolina study shows that those who did not watch television news yesterday or today were more likely to be newspaper nonreaders. This tendency is consistent with the so-called all or nothing inclination among audiences for their exposure to mass communications. Charles Wrights(8) in explaining the meaning of this term, notes that those who use one mass medium heavily also tend to use other media regularly. On the other hand, people avoiding one mass medium are likely to also reject other mass communications.

Some of the characteristics of newspaper nonreaders are also found in the sociological analyses of newspaper nonsubscribers. Galen Rarick,(9) for example, found that nonsubscription is associated with lower occupational and educational status. People who are inactive in social activities and interpersonal communications also tend to be nonsubscribers.

John Schweitzer(10) compared the social backgrounds of young subscribers and nonsubscribers to newspapers and found that subscribers are more likely to have professional-technical jobs than nonsubscribers. In addition, he found that those who have not married are more likely to be nonsubscribers. However, Schweitzer did not find significant associations between nonsubscription and several social and demographic factors. These factors include the amount of education, participation in social activities, length of residency, and ability of identifying public officials. Regarding the differences of media use between subscribers and nonsubscribers, his analyses show that subscribers watch more television news than nonsubscribers, but subscribers do not differ from nonsubscribers in the total time spent viewing television.

Jeremy Lipschultz(11) did a factor analysis of 12 avoidance items for readers and nonreaders. He found a three-factor solution suggesting that people’s reasons for nonreading consist of their dissatisfactions with the newspaper’s utility, readability and credibility.

These findings partially support the conclusions of Paula Poindexter,” who found that nonreaders avoid the newspaper because of newspaper content, use of other media, poor eyesight, bias and lack of time.

Maxwell McCombs and Poindexter(13) discovered another motivational variable that was related to newspaper reading habits. They found a four-item index measuring respondents’ perceived civic duty to keep informed was correlated with newspaper reading frequency. Nonreaders felt a low civic duty to keep informed.

Multiple newspaper readers

Several previous studies have found that multiple newspaper readers differ from single newspaper readers on many demographic variables. The Newspaper Advertising Bureau,(14) for example, concluded that higher income, education and social status were associated with readership of more than one paper a day.

Another NAB survey(15) also found age to be an important factor in multiple newspaper readership. This study found that individuals age 45 to 64 were nearly 50 percent more likely to read more than one paper a day than individuals in other age categories.

In a more recent study, however, Stone(16) found single and multiple newspaper subscribers were extremely similar. Stone, in fact, concludes that single subscribers and multiple subscribers were similar on virtually all traits and media use variables.

While demographic variables have been examined in several studies, fewer attempts examined motivational differences between single and multiple newspaper readers.

Lowndes Stephens,(17) in an examination of community attachments, found that some individuals are multiple newspaper readers because they are mobile and have ties to multiple communities. Thus, they depend upon the newspaper for information on their communities.

Keith Stamm and L. Fortini-Campbell(18) also linked community ties with multiple newspaper subscribing. They found that the more involved in community affairs individuals were, the more likely they were to be multiple subscribers.

Leo Bogart,(19) meanwhile, reported that multiple newspapers may perform different functions for readers. He argues that a second paper may be bought for particular features not found in the first.


A telephone survey was conducted in Jackson County, Illinois, in November 1991. The area has a population of about 50,000 and a wide range of residents, from coal miners and farmers to university students and professors.

The area surveyed also is ideal for a study examining multiple newspaper readership. Several newspapers are readily available. In addition to the local papers serving the area, most residents could receive home delivery of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Chicago Tribune. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today also are available.

Respondents were selected using a form of random digit dialing. The first four digits were randomly selected from the area telephone directory. This method ensured that local exchanges were included. Including the fourth digit increased the likelihood that working phone numbers would be included. The final three digits were then randomly selected. The response rate was 60 percent.

Interviewers were students at Southern Illinois University. All went through a training session before conducting interviews. The process yielded 378 completed surveys.

Two questions measured respondents’ reading habits. Respondents first were asked How often in a typical week do you read a newspaper ? If respondents answered zero, one or two days a week, they were placed in the nonreader category. Respondents answering that they read newspapers at least three times a week were then were asked What newspapers do you normally read at least twice in a typical week? If respondents listed only one newspaper, they were placed in the single newspaper reader category. If respondents listed more than one newspaper, they were placed in the multiple newspaper reader category.

Several motivational and demographic measures were employed to examine differences across the three groups. The motivational items involved the traditional uses and gratifications items.(20) Respondents were told:

Different people read newspapers for different reasons. I will read you a list of some of the reasons some people read newspapers. Tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, are undecided, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with each reason.

The motivations for reading were:

* to keep up with the latest events, to determine what is important,

* to obtain useful information for daily life,

* to help me form opinions about things going on around me,

* to help me make decisions on issues,

* just to pass the time,

* to understand what’s going on,

* to be entertained,

* to give me something to talk about with other people,

* to use in my discussions with friends,

* because I agree with editorial stands,

* to strengthen my arguments on issues,

* to feel I am participating in current events, and

* for information in advertisements.

A final motivation variable involved an index developed by McCombs and Poindexter.(21) This civic duty index was formed by adding responses of the strongly agree to strongly disagree scale for the following:

* We have a duty to keep ourselves informed about news and current events;

* It is important to be informed about news and current events;

* So many other people follow the news and keep informed about it that it doesn’t matter much whether I do or not;

* A good deal of news about current events isn’t important enough to keep informed about.

The Cronbach’s alpha for this index was .81.

Two items measured respondents’ broadcast media use. Respondents were asked how often in a typical week they watched local television news programs and how often in a typical week they watched national television news programs.

The demographic questions asked respondents their education level, age and income.

A discriminant analysis examined differences among the three groups. Discriminant analysis is “a statistical technique which allows the researcher to study the differences between two or more groups of objects with respect to several variables simultaneously”(22) — which is the purpose of the present study. “Discriminating variables” distinguish between groups. Thus, the motivational, media use and demographic variables mentioned above are examined with the intention of discovering which variables discriminate between which groups.


Among the 378 respondents, only 45 (12 percent) belong to the group of newspaper nonreaders, 220 (58.2 percent) belong to the group of single newspaper readers and 113 (29.9 percent) belong to the group of multiple newspaper readers.

Table 1 presents the Wilks’ Lambda and univariate F-ratio of the discriminating variables.(23) (Table 1 omitted) The tests o significance suggest that several variables distinguish between two or more of the three groups examined here. Four variables are significant at the p

Table 2 shows the group centroids of the two discriminating functions.(24) (Table 2 omitted) The centroids demonstrate that Function 1 distinguishes between Group 1 and Group 3, and Function 2 distinguishes between Group 2 and Group 3.(25) Thus, nonreaders and multiple newspaper readers differ on Function 1, and single readers and multiple readers differ on Function 2.)

Table 3 details the structure matrix of the discriminating variables.(26) (Table 3 omitted) The structure matrix for Function 1, the function that discriminates between nonreaders and multiple newspaper readers, mirrors the overall Wilks’ Lambda results presented in Table 1. Three motivational measures whether individuals use the newspaper to understand what’s going on, whether individuals use the paper to keep up with events, and whether individuals eel a strong civic duty — were the most powerful discriminating variables. Respondents’ education level and how often respondents watched national television news also were powerful discriminating variables for Function 1. Fifteen other variables — in fact all but one of the remaining discriminating variables — also were included on Function 1. Generalizations about these 15 other variables are dangerous, however. P.A. Lachenbruch(27) argues that usually no more than three to five variables can safely be selected on a function before noise factors enter in.

Only one variable, whether respondents used newspapers for information in advertisements, distinguished between groups on Function 2, the function that discriminated between single newspaper readers and multiple newspaper readers. Thus, the only difference found here between Groups 2 and 3 was that multiple newspaper readers professed to used newspapers for advertising information more than single newspaper readers.

Table 4 presents the results of group classifications. (Table 4 omitted) If the respondents were randomly classified into the subgroups of nonreader, single or multiple newspaper reader, the expected percentage of correct classifications is only 33 percent (a one in three chance of placing an individual in the correct category in which he or she belonged). However, based on the discriminant functions, the correct classification rate is 59.26 percent. The analysis had an especially difficult time classifying individuals in Group 3. The analysis placed multiple newspaper readers in Group 2 with the single newspaper readers 84.1 percent of the time.


The purpose of the present study was to simultaneously examine differences among three groups of individuals: nonreaders, or respondents who professed to typically read a newspaper two or fewer days a week; single newspaper readers, or respondents who typically read one newspaper at least twice a week; and multiple newspaper readers, or respondents who typically read two or more newspapers at least twice a week. A number of conclusions from the discriminant analysis can be drawn from the findings.

First, the results here support the conclusion of Stone(28) that single newspaper readers are very similar to multiple newspaper readers. In fact, only one variable discriminated between the two groups: the use of newspapers for advertising information.

While this finding on the surface appears puzzling, the result likely is de to the fact that newspaper contents do not differ greatly across different newspapers. Several studies, in fact, have found that the selection of news stories does not vary much from newspaper to newspaper. R.A. Lindeborg and Stone,(29) for example, found that news presented on the front pages of six New York state newspapers was remarkably similar. Similarly, the Newspaper Advertising Bureau,(30) in a content analysis of a sample of dailies in 1971 and 1977, found that the proportion of news content by category was substantially the same.

Thus, since newspapers offer readers such similar news story products, perhaps readers seek out more than one newspaper for information other than news — that is, advertising information. This explanation also supports the conclusion of Bogart,(31) who argued that a second paper may be bought for particular features not found in the first — in the case here, different advertising. Therefore, the findings here may have differed had the news content of the newspapers serving the area offered a wider variety of news content.

Second, while the discriminant analysis here found only one variable that distinguished between single newspaper readers and multiple newspaper readers, many variables were found to discriminate between nonreaders and multiple newspaper readers. The nonreaders and multiple newspaper readers surveyed here differed greatly on several variables, including many of the uses and gratifications measures. Nonreaders had an especially low motivation to use newspapers to help them understand what’s going on and to keep up with current events.

This finding, then, suggests that nonreaders also are looking for items other than news in the newspaper. Since keeping up with current events and gaining an understanding of what’s happening are of secondary importance to nonreaders, perhaps these individuals are not reading newspapers because they feel newspapers provide little of what interests them. Thus, one way of luring the nonreader into a reading habit may be for newspapers to increase non-news items — such as syndicated features or advice columns — which might help to increase the perceived utility of the newspaper for nonreaders. Nonreaders then may find that the newspaper does offer them something useful.

Third, demographics and media usage patterns appear to play a much less important role in distinguishing among the three groups examined here. Education was found to be a powerful discriminating variable on Function 1, which distinguished between the nonreader and multiple newspaper reader. But respondents’ income level, age and sex were the last three variables selected on Function 1. If, as Lachenbruch(32) argues, only three to five variables can be safely selected on each function, generalizations about these three demographic variables are inappropriate and dangerous.

The media use variables show a similar trend. How often respondents watched national television news was moderately powerful on Function 1 — the fifth most powerful discriminating variable. How often respondents watched local television news, however, was only the 15th most powerful variable on Function 1. Again, generalizability is limited. Thus, the findings here offer only mixed support the all or nothing notion — based on the assumption that individuals who do not read newspapers often also do not watch television news often.(33) Individuals who read more than one newspaper typically watch more national news programs than nonreaders, but the same cannot be said about local news viewing.

Overall, then, the findings here shed some light on the differences between nonreaders, single newspaper readers and multiple newspaper readers. The findings suggest nonreaders and multiple newspaper readers both are looking for elements beyond the typical news of the day stories in newspapers. Perhaps by increasing non-news items, editors will be offering both of these groups additional reasons to increase their newspaper usage.

Of course, by de-emphasizing news, editors run the risk of alienating their typical reader. Thus, this is not to suggest that editors eliminate — or even cut back — on their news coverage.

But by providing a variety of other elements, newspapers may offer items that are perceived to be useful by a wider variety of individuals. Thus, non-news items may be one factor that may help editors get more people to read more newspapers.


1. Times Mirror Center for The People & the Press, The American Media: Who Reads, Who Watches, Who Listens, Who Cares, report of research findings, 1990.

2. See Edwin Emery and Michael Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media, 5th ed.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

3. Gerald C. Stone , Do Dual Subscribers Differ From Single Subscribers? Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 1988, pp.31-47.

4. Stone, op. cit.

5. Gerald C. Stone, Examining Newspapers: What Research Reveals About America’s Newspapers. Newberry Park: Sage Publications, 1987.

6. Bruce H. Westley and Werner J. Severin, A Profile of the Daily Newspaper Nonreader. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1964, pp. 45-50, 156.

7. Jeanne Penrose, David H. Weaver, Richard R. Cole, and Donald L. Shaw, he Newspaper Nonreader 10 Years Later: A Partial Replication of Westley-Severin. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1974, pp. 631-638.

8. Charles R. Wright, Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective. New York: Random House, 1986.

9. Galen R. Rarick, Differences Between Daily Newspaper Subscribers and Nonsubscribers. Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1973, pp. 265-270.

10. John C. Schweitzer, Comparison of Young Subscribers and Nonsubscribers to Newspapers. Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1976, pp. 287-293.

11. Jeremy H. Lipschultz, The Nonreader Problem: A Closer Look at Avoiding the Newspaper. Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 1987, pp. 59-69.

1 2. Paula M. Poindexter, Daily Newspaper Nonreaders: Why They Don’t Read. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1979, pp. 764-770.

13. Maxwell E. McCombs and Paula M. Poindexter, The Duty to Keep Informed: News Exposure and Civic Obligation. Journal of Communication, Spring 1983), pp. 88-96.

14. Newspaper Advertising Bureau, The Daily Diet of News: Patterns of Exposure to News in the Mass Media, New York: NAB, 1978.

15. Newspaper Advertising Bureau, Older Adults, Older Readers: What We Know and Need to Find Out. New York: NAB., 1980

16. Stone, 1988, op cit.

17. Lowndes F. Stephens, The Influence of Community Attachment on Newspaper Reading Habits. ANPA News Research Report No. 17.

18. Keith R. Stamm and L. Fortini-Campbell, Community Ties and Newspaper Use. ANPA News Research Report No. 33, 1981.

19. Leo Bogart, Press and Public: Who Reads What, When, Where, Why in American Newspapers. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1981.

20. See Lee B. Becker, Measurement of Gratifications. Communication Research, Winter 1979, pp. 54-73.

21. McCombs and Poindexter, op cit.

22. William R. Klecka. Discriminant Analysis. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1980, p. 7.

23. Wilks’ Lambda is a multivariate measure of group differences. As the lambda increases toward its maximum value of 1.0, it indicates progressively less discrimination. Thus, when lambda equals 1.0, the groups are identical.

24. Mathematically, the maximum number of significant canonical discriminant functions is equal to the number of groups minus one. Thus, in the current study, the three groups are distinguished by two significant canonical discriminant functions.

25. The group centroids indicate which functions best serve to contrast differences between which two groups. A function discriminates between the two groups that have group centroid scores that are the most different. Since the group centroid is -1.13 for Group 1 and 0.39 for Group 3 on Function 1, this function discriminates between Group 1 and 3. Since the group centroid is -0.21 for Group 2 and 0.31 for Group 3 on Function 2, this function discriminates between Group 2 and 3. For a detailed explanation, see Margaret L. McLaughlin, Discriminant Analysis in Communication Research in Multivariate Techniques in Human Communication Research, Academic Press Inc., 1980

26. The structure coefficients indicate each variable’s relative importance in the two discriminant functions. Here, the larger the coefficient, the more important the variable is to the function In addition, Function 1 produced a Wilks’ Lambda of .785 (with a chi-square of 89.30, p

27. P.A. Lachenbruch, Discriminant Analysis. New York: Hafner Press. 1975.

28. Stone, 1988, op cit.

29. R.A. Lindeborg and Gerald C. Stone, News Values as Reflected in News Content Found Stable from 1950 to 1970. ANPA News Research Bulletin 7. 1974.

30. Newspaper Advertising Bureau, Changes in the Number of Newspapers Read from 1970 to 1977. New York: NAB, 1979.

31. Bogart, op cit.

32. Lachenbruch, op cit.

33. Wright, op cit.

Wanta is assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Hu teaches at National Taiwan Normal University and Wu at Fu-Jen Catholic University, both in Taipei, Taiwan.

Copyright Ohio University Winter 1995

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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