Newspaper reading choices by college students

Newspaper reading choices by college students

Schlagheck, Carol

This survey of college students finds more interest in news and newspapers than is usually assumed about young adults.

For more than 35 years, the news about newspapers and young readers has been mostly bad for the newspaper industry. Long before any competition from cable television or Nintendo, American newspaper publishers were worrying about declining readership among the young.

As early as 1960, at least 20 years prior to Music Television (MTV) or the Internet, media research scholars1 began to focus their studies on young adult readers’ decreasing interest in newspaper content. The concern over a declining youth market preceded and perhaps foreshadowed today’s fretting over market penetration. Even where circulation has grown or stayed stable, there is rising concern over penetration, defined as the percentage of occupied households in a geographic market that are served by a newspaper.2 Simply put, population growth is occurring more rapidly than newspaper readership in most communities.

This study looks at trends in newspaper readership among the 18-to-34 age group and examines some of the choices young adults make when reading newspapers.

Literature review

Traditionally, young people could be depended upon to grow up, mature and become newspaper readers.3 But, according to Leo Bogart, “(i)t has therefore always been true that people in the early years of adulthood read newspapers with less regularity than those in their 30s and 40s.”4 Today, the age at which young people form attachments with newspapers appears to be moving upward.

Circulation and population figures indicate that overall newspaper readership in the United States has been declining since the 1960s.5 Nancy Davis noted that newspaper circulation could increase by up to 16 percent during the 1990s if baby boomers bought and read newspapers at the same rate that generations before them did.6 A 1980 study of the 35-to-44 age group found that 66 percent read a newspaper every day. By 1990, that figure dropped to 60 percent.

The readership decline has been more pronounced among younger readers as compared to those over the age of 35.7 The Newspaper Association of America reported8 that, in 1972, nearly 50 percent of men aged 18-29 and 38 percent of women in that age bracket read a newspaper every day. In 1991, the figures were 32 percent for young men and 22 percent for young women.

Bogart found that college students who continue to live with their parents read newspapers with greater frequency than those who go to out-oftown colleges, but that only 8 percent of those ages 18-24 were frequent newspaper readers.9 Another 22 percent were infrequent (or occasional) readers, whereas the majority reported that they did not read the newspaper at all. G.L. Thurlow and K.J. Milo found readership among college students ages 1825 to be even lower than Bogart had reported.10 The researchers determined 77 percent of college students studied had read the most recent issue of their college newspaper, but that they had not read the local daily newspaper.

Kevin Barnhurst and Ellen Wartella explored what the newspaper means to young adults, asking 164 college students to write autobiographies about their newspaper experiences.11 They found that 70 percent said the newspaper was a constant in their family backgrounds, and nearly half (46 percent) linked newspaper reading with maturity. However, these same students did not see their reading participation as helping them perform as citizens. In contrast, the college students said that their newspaper reading did contribute to their roles as consumers.

A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors identified men and women under age 30 as being most at risk of not reading newspapers.12 Everett Dennis noted that newspapers are seeing increases in circulation only among those over 40, who already are the age group most likely to read newspapers.13 Yet, some of the trends associated with young readers are beginning to emerge in adult readership studies. This downward trend in readership has implications for further declines in circulation.

Taken together, numerous studies have painted a gloomy picture of a declining relationship between young readers and newspapers. But not all reports about youth and newspaper reading have been negative. The American Society of Newspaper Editors found that reading a newspaper at least once a week is a firmly imbedded habit of young adults in this country.14 A recent study by the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors showed that members of the so-called Generation X – ages 16 to 29 – do read newspapers. Nearly two-thirds read both weekday and Sunday newspapers every week, while another 15 percent read only Sunday newspapers.15

Perhaps the extent to which younger readers have abandoned newspapers has been overemphasized in recent years, though readership and circulation declines are real – and newspapers have been unable to turn around the trend within the under35 age group. The industry is struggling to understand younger readers and their needs.

One of the underlying concerns behind the decline in youth newspaper reading is the question of how young people view the newspaper. A number of studies explored how young readers evaluate and use newspaper content.

Comparing reader content preferences over a 10-year period, Gerald Stone and Timothy Boudreau found differences between readers ages 18-34 and those 35-plus.16 Younger readers showed increased interest in national news, weather, sports, and classified advertisements over the decade between 1984 and 1994, while older readers ranked weather, editorials, and food advertisements higher. Interest in international news and letters to the editor was less among younger readers, while older readers showed less interest in reports of births, obituaries, and marriages.

David Atkin explored the influence of telecommunication technology on newspaper readership among students in undergraduate media courses.17 He reported that computer-related technologies, including electronic mail and computer networks, were unrelated to newspaper readership. The study found that newspaper subscribers preferred print formats over electronic. In a study of younger, school-age children, Brian Brooks and James Kropp found that electronic newspapers could persuade children to become news consumers, but that young readers would choose an electronic newspaper over a printed one.18

In an exploration of leisure reading among college students, Leo Jeffres and Atkin assessed dimensions of interest in newspapers, magazines, and books,19 exploring the influence of media use, non-media leisure, and academic major on newspaper content preferences. The study discovered that overall newspaper readership was positively related to students’ focus on entertainment, job / travel information, and public affairs. However, the students’ preference for reading as a leisure-time activity was related only to a public affairs focus. Content preferences for newspapers and other print media were related. The researchers found no significant differences in readership among various academic majors, or by gender, though there was a slight correlation between age and the public affairs readership index, with older readers more interested in news about public affairs.

The majority of studies that have explored the newspaper reading by college students have resulted in similar findings. To varying degrees, these studies have indicated that younger readers – those under age 35 – represent a different type of newspaper consumer than do their parents.

A gap exists in the literature about young readers’ use and rejection of newspapers. Specifically, academic studies are limited in regards to investigating how young readers use the newspaper – what readership choices they are making and how they feel about these choices.

Research questions

Specifically, this study advances two research questions.

What are the newspaper reading choices of young adults in the 1990s?

What changes could be made to newspaper content to make it more desirable reading for young adults?



Participants in this study (N=267) were students enrolled in 100- and 200-level English courses at a midwestern public university. Courses that comprise the framework for this sample were selected because they could fulfill basic studies requirements for all majors. A basic studies course is one that is listed within the core curriculum required for all students. The researcher obtained permission from seven professors to distribute questionnaires in the eight classes during regularly scheduled class periods. The students’ participation was voluntary; two students declined. The goal of this sampling procedure was to reach a cross-section of students representing various fields of study. In all, 53 majors were represented.

Of the 267 students who participated in the study, 65 (24.3 percent) were male and 177 (66.3 percent) were female. A total of 25 participants chose not to divulge their genders. Ages ranged from 17 to 56, with a mean age of 23.6 years. This mean does not include the 32 respondents who declined to give their ages. A total of 157 participants (58.8 percent) said they were of the Caucasian race, 59 (22.1 percent) African American, 10 (3.8 percent) Asian, five (1.9 percent) African/Native American, two (.8 percent) Hispanic, two (.8 percent) Native American, and one (.4 percent) Arabic. Most (214) of the students were enrolled full time, whereas a few (28) were part-time students. The class rank breakdown was: freshmen, 45 (16.9 percent); sophomores, 15 (5.6 percent); juniors, 33 (12.4 percent); seniors, 133 (49.8 percent); and graduate students, 16 (6 percent).


After two pre-tests and revisions, questionnaires were distributed and collected by the investigator. In each of the eight classes, the researcher introduced herself to the students as a journalism professor who was conducting a study on students’ use of newspapers and other media. Each questionnaire included a cover letter with the researcher’s name, address, and phone number. The researcher provided pencils and was available to answer questions if anyone needed further assistance. The average time spent on the questionnaires was 20 minutes, with some individual students taking as long as an hour. Approximately six students asked to take the questionnaires home to finish. They returned the questionnaires to the researcher’s mailbox within a couple of days.

The purpose of the questionnaire was to gather young adults’ selfreport responses to inquiries about their newspaper use. The first two questions asked the respondents to please write the date (as close as you can estimate) when you last read a newspaper and please write the name of that newspaper.

Another set of three questions queried the participants about the specific content of the newspapers they read. The first question asked the young adults to list the general topic of any stories / photos / other items they had looked at in that newspaper. A second question asked was there anything you read or saw in that newspaper that you wanted more information about? If so, what? The third question about newspaper content asked was there anything in the newspaper that you were looking for and did not find? If so, what?

The third segment of questions asked the respondents to speculate about their newspaper reading. The first asked can you think of any ways in which a newspaper helps you live your life, make decisions, teach you how to do things, etc.? The question that followed was, can you think of any ways a newspaper could help you live your life, make decisions, teach you how to do things, etc.? The final question, which asked the participants to speculate about their newspaper reading, was, what information (on any topic) would help you make choices and decisions in your life?

Another question analyzed newspaper reading in the Information Age. This question asked, if you use a computer to obtain news or information, what types of news or information do you access via computer?

Amid various demographic questions, respondents were asked whether they subscribe to newspapers, and, if so, which ones.


This study demonstrates that young adults are reading newspapers. The majority of students (68.4 percent) participating in the study had read a newspaper within the past week. (see Table 1) The most frequent response given for the last time they read a newspaper was yesterday, which was cited by 63 of the 267 respondents. Another 25 had read a newspaper today. Four students said it had been a year since they had read a newspaper.

The top three newspapers read by the students were metropolitan dailies. (see Table 2) The Detroit News, Ann Arbor News, and Detroit Free Press garnered the highest readership. Under their Joint Operating Agreement, the two Detroit newspapers publish a combined Sunday edition. If readership totals for the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, and their Sunday edition are combined, the Detroit metros were read by 43.9 percent (118) of the students. This is despite the fact that the Detroit newspapers were a year into a labor strike at the time of this study.

As shown in Table 2, USA Today was the most recent newspaper read by 3.6 percent (10) of the students, while another 3.2 percent (9) said they had read the campus newspaper most recently. A total of 58 students listed other metropolitan newspapers (including Flint Journal, Lansing State Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer) and community newspapers (Livonia Observer, Sandusky Register) as the ones they had read most recently.

Of the total respondents, 22.8 percent said they subscribe to a newspaper. The top three newspapers subscribed to were the Ann Arbor News (5.6 percent), Detroit News(5.2 percent), and Detroit Free Press(4.5 percent). A large number of subscriptions were to local, presumably hometown newspapers in nearby communities and other areas of the state.

Five students reported that they subscribe to electronic newspapers. However, when asked to identify those newspapers, four listed online services (America Online, Netscape, and Prodigy), while the fifth student said he/she subscribed to the “one I wanted at that time.”

Participants responded to open-ended questions asking what general topic(s) of stories / photos / other items they had read / looked at in the most recent newspaper they read. Sports was the leading topic with 31.1 percent mentioning it, followed by comics with 23.6 percent and classified ads with 22.5 percent. Next came front-page news with 22.1 percent and local news with 16.5 percent.

This interest in news does seem to indicate that students are not skipping the newspaper’s front page. A comment from one participant supported this contention. The student said the most interesting part of the paper was “the front page. I like reading about headlines and top news in my community.” Another professed the most interest in “local news, because it’s local.”

More than a third of the young adults participating in the study said they read the advertisements. They read the classifieds and the sale circulars. Again, this is information they can use. In several cases, it was information the respondents felt they needed. They said they read “auto sales because I’m in the market for a new car,” “store advertisements because I was currently getting ready to shop for some stuff and I was looking for some deals,” and “classifieds because I need a job very badly!”

Twenty-seven percent of the respondents said they wanted more information on something they had read or seen. Ten percent wanted more detail or followup on a news event and 6 percent wanted more information on entertainment. Some said they wanted to know “how to contact someone for more information” and “the entire story.” One requested “more in-depth coverage of business trends and local markets, also with other sports coverage (not football, basketball, and baseball)” and another, “a better weather page.” One student commented, “A lot of times I see stories of people who went in hospitals or are recovering. How are they now?”

The respondents also were asked whether they had been looking for something in the newspaper and had not found it . Only 14.2 percent said they had.

Describing ways a newspaper “helps you live your life, make decisions, teach(es) you how to do things, etc.,” students said it informs them about issues, helps them make purchase decisions, informs them about entertainment events, and helps them make weather- and health-related decisions. (see Table 4) In a similar vein, students said that a newspaper could help them live their lives primarily by giving advice / information on decisions. (see Table 5) Specifically, the information that respondents said would be helpful to them includes that on health, money, political views of candidates, and other decision-filled areas of their lives. (see Table 6) While seeking advice, several students suggested that newspapers need to be more balanced in their presentation of news and information, giving many viewpoints. “I suppose political information could help if I wasn’t so concerned about the source of the information,” one student wrote.

A total of 132 of the 267 respondents said they use a computer to access information. (see Table 7) Of those, 45 said they use the computer to do research for school / work and another 24 said they use it to obtain news.


Both research questions – investigating what newspaper readership choices young adults are making and what changes newspapers might make to better appeal to young adults – generated interesting results.

Amid widespread reports that college-aged adults are not forming relationships with newspapers, this study indicates that many at least are giving newspapers a chance. They are picking them up, looking at them, and, sometimes, subscribing to them. More than two-thirds of the young adults surveyed read a newspaper within the past week. Nearly a quarter read a newspaper yesterday. One-fifth are subscribing to newspapers.

This investigation does show “yesterday” readership among college students to be down from the levels Bogart recorded in 1987. However, this study supports the 1996 findings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which indicated that two-thirds of 16- to 29-year-olds do read newspapers.

Clearly, the news about young readers is not all negative.

In addition to looking at whether college students are reading newspapers, the first Research Question opened an exploration of what the young adults are reading. Topping the list were major newspapers of nearby metropolitan areas. However, a sizable number of students said that community newspapers -both dailies and weeklies – were the last papers they had read. The diversity in the newspapers named by students suggests that college students remain readers of their hometown newspapers even when attending a university in another city. Very few of the respondents said the last paper they read was USA Today. This is interesting considering USA Today’s purported popularity with younger readers.

Within the newspapers they read, young adults are looking first at hard news. This study was conducted during a presidential election year which saw numerous other big news stories, including the TWA Flight 800 crash in New York, the 1996 Olympics, the bombing in Atlanta during the Olympics, and a local Ku Klux Klan rally. Those stories were read by this college audience.

Entertainment stories – often touted as the way to lure younger readers – placed second to news. Also, the study offered some evidence that young adults look to entertainment news to supplement their information, but not to replace hard news. “The entertainment section was interesting. Talking about new music groups, TV shows, and what they are about,” one student wrote, before adding, “Also I love the nation/world section. It’s really interesting to know what’s going around in other parts of the world.”

These rankings are consistent with those of Stone and Boudreau, who found that readers 18-24 had increased interest in news, weather, sports, and advertisements over the decade between 1984 and 1994.20

One surprise in this study is that readership of advertising eclipsed that of sports, despite the fact that the 1996 Olympics were underway. There were a few comments about Olympic burnout, and some evidence that the Atlanta bombing had taken attention away from the Olympics’ sporting events.

Sometimes, the students opened their newspapers looking for information and did not find it. The respondents wanted followup details on yesterday’s story, or they wanted to see a certain retailer’s ad, and they expected to be able to find it in their newspaper.

Two themes emerged when students were asked how a newspaper helps them live their lives – and how it could help them. The students indicated that they look to newspapers to inform them about issues and to help them make decisions. They said they could use some advice about health issues, money, politics, and consumer issues, for example. This lends support to the Newspaper Research Project contention that some of the news young readers want may lie outside traditional newspaper beats.21

In summary, these responses indicate that young adult readers are turning to newspapers for news and information, though they sometimes turn away with unanswered questions. Students are looking to newspapers for information about living their lives, but they often feel they are not getting this help. This may be good news for newspapers. These trends seem to offer opportunities for newspapers to expand their role within a competitive media market by further developing their longstanding strengths as providers of news and information.


1. Peter Clark, Parental Socialization Values and Children’s Newspaper Reading. Journalism Quarterly, Spring1960, pp. 539-546; Wilbur Schramm, et al, Television in the lives of our children. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1961; Wilbur Schramm, et al, Patterns in children’s reading of newspapers. Journalism Quarterly, Spring 1960, pp. 35-40.

2. F. Dennis Hale, The response of newspaper circulation in the 1980s to economic and other community demographics. Paper presented to the Media Management and Economics Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Kansas City, Missouri, August 1993; Steve Lacy and Todd Simon, The Economics and Regulation of United States Newspapers. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corp.,1993; R. L. Stevenson, The Disappearing Reader. Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 1994, pp. 22-31.

3. Leo Bogart, Press and Public: Who Reads What, When, Where and Why in American Newspapers. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,1989. 4. Ibid, p. 136

5. Steve Lacy and Todd Simon, op cit.; Gerald C. Stone and R. V. Wetherington, Confirming the Newspaper Reading Habit. Journalism Quarterly, Autumn 1979, pp. 554-61; J. G. Udell, Recent and Future Economic Status of U.S. Newspapers. Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1990, pp. 331-339.

6. Nancy M. Davis, Three Trends Pose Peril for Publishers. presstime, April 1991, pp. 10-12.

7. R. Dellabough and J. Berry, See Dick Not Read. News Inc., Summer 1993, pp.1823.

8. M. L. Simms, How to Get Kids, ‘Tweens, Teens and Twentysomethings to Find Value in Our Papers. ASNE Bulletin, 747, 1993, pp.14-15. 9. Bogart, op cit.

10. G. L. Thurlow and K. J. Milo, Newspaper Readership: Can the Bleeding Be Stopped, or Do We Have the Wrong Patient? Newspaper Research Journal, Summer-Fall 1993, pp. 34-44.

11. Kevin G. Barnhurst and Ellen Wartella, Newspapers and Citizenship: Young Adults’ Subjective Experience of Newspapers. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8, 1991, pp.195-209.

12. American Society of Newspaper Editors, Keys to our Survival. Minneapolis: MORI Research in conjunction with ASNE Readership & Research Committee and ASNE Future of Newspapers Committee, 1990.

13. E. E. Dennis, A Prescription for Economic Health. presstime, January 1990, pp. 2021.

14. American Society of Newspaper Editors, Reading Newspapers: The Practices of America’s Young Adults. Washington, D.C.: I.S. Kirsch, A. Jungeblut, & D.A. Rock, in conjunction with the ASNE Literacy Committee, April 1988. 15. R. R. Albers, Good News about Gen X. presstime, May 1996, pp. 32-33. 16. Gerald C. Stone and Timothy Boudreau, Comparison of Reader content Preferences. Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1995, pp. 13-28. 17. David J. Atkin, Newspaper Readership Among College Students in the Information Age: The Influence of Telecommunication Technology. Journal of the Association for Communication Administration, 56(20), 1994, pp. 95-103. 18. Brian S. Brooks and James Kropp, Persuading Children to Read: A Test of Electronic Newspapers. Paper presented to the Newspaper Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Atlanta, August 1994. 19. Leo W. Jeffres and David J. Atkin, Dimensions of Student Interest in Reading Newspapers. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 1996, pp.15-23. 20. Bogart, op cit.

21. Leo Jeffres and David Atkin, op cit, Gerald Stone and Timothy Boudreau, op cit.

Schlagheck is assistant professor of communication at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

Copyright E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Spring 1998

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