My friend Alan Mutter wrote something startling this week in his always thought-provoking blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur: “The population of people reading newspaper has aged dramatically in the last three years.”
By Mutter’s analysis, roughly three-quarters of newspaper readers are now over age 45. That, according to his calculations, is up dramatically from half in 2010 — a graying of newspaper readers by 50 percent in two years.
He based his analysis on data from the Pew Research Center that I was involved in producing from summer 2010 and summer 2012. (I left the Pew Research Center in December to take the helm of the American Press Institute).
The problem is, the analysis doesn’t reflect reality.
First, the numbers don’t track with any commensurate significant drop in newspaper readership in the Pew dataset. In the survey conducted in June 2012, 49 percent of adults said they read a newspaper “regularly,” the same percentage as in 2010. If you take the narrower number, the percentage of adults who read a newspaper “yesterday,” there is a slight change, a drop from 31 percent in 2010 to 29 percent in 2012, but nothing that would support the kind of dramatic structural shift Mutter estimates. Nor do recent circulation figures suggest it.
Mutter attempted to estimate the percentage of print newspaper readers by age cohort by comparing the Pew Research data with Census data. But the Pew data was a sample of adults. He compared that to the population overall, including children. So his percentages are not comparing the same populations.
The market research firm Scarborough Research produces analysis that covers the ground Mutter was trying to walk — the percentage of newspaper readers by age group. Scarborough’s data, which is based on a large sample of some 200,000 people, also find, like Pew Research’s data, relatively minor change in two years. According to that Scarborough data, 68 percent of the people who said they read a print newspaper “yesterday” were over 45, compared with 66 percent in 2010, a slight drop but also not an irrelevant one given long-term trends. (On the Newspaper Association of America site, where this data is publicly available, the numbers are broken out into slightly different age groupings.)
All this data, however, is for print newspaper reading.
If you take the broader number, the percentage of people who read newspapers in any form — digitally or on paper — in the last seven days, the audience overall is younger. The numbers also have changed relatively little in two years. By that count, 58 percent of newspaper readership was over 45 in 2012, compared with 57 percent in 2010 — a change that could be accounted for by demographic shifts rather than behavior.
From a financial standpoint, who read a newspaper “yesterday” matters a lot. That metric is also the most precise, because it is easier to recall one day than a week. From a sociological perspective, I am increasingly interested in these “regular” and “weekly” usage numbers as well. A growing number of Americans no longer have a “primary” source for all their news. Nor is our media consumption as routinized into daily patterns as it was when the paper arrived in the morning and television news appeared only at “appointment” viewing times. In a digital and social environment, we adjust our consumption to match our behavior — not the other way around.
The longitude on these broader numbers suggests that digital access on balance is extending the audience reach of familiar brands to new audiences — not the opposite — even if it has been a violent disrupter of the economic model.
Pew’s data suggests, for instance, that The New York Times’ audience is larger, younger and more diverse because of digital. While not all brands are growing, there is data to suggest that what we are seeing generally is more a migration to new platforms than a drift away from legacy sources. For instance, in 2012, according to Scarborough data, 68 percent of adults said they consumed newspaper content in the past seven days, digitally or in print. That is the same percentage that in 2000 said they had read a newspaper in print in the last seven days, according to survey data published by Newspaper Association of America back then.
Now, a growing body of data, from Reynolds, Pew and others, suggest that the rapid growth of tablets and smart phones may be further helping familiar news brands. With access to the Web more of the day, and by using touchscreen technology, people on mobile devices are consuming more in-depth content and turning from search to using bookmarks and apps.
There is less data on social media’s impact on news, which is also growing. According to Pew Research’s data, 20 percent of American adults regularly got news through social media as of last year.
Media disruption is real. The Web has devastated the economic model for content producers. There are questions about new oligarchical gatekeepers emerging in technology companies. There are critical questions about how to monetize the production of news. There are significant issues about values and ethics. Sorting out the nature of the disruption is difficult. Audience behavior is shifting as rapidly as new platforms are developed. And far too often the discussion over the future of news is more theological than empirical.
Mutter, with whom I share a passion for journalism and belief in numbers, wisely concludes that, “publishers have a shot at extending and protecting their valuable franchises by developing digitally native products that could – and should – be embraced by Digital Natives.”
There is little doubt this is the future. As we navigate our way, however, we need a cold, clear and accurate eye on the present and a discussion that avoids the Pollyannaish or Apocalyptic.
Tom Rosenstiel is an author, journalist, member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, and Executive Director of the American Press Institute.