Unread and Unsubscribing

By George F. Will
Sunday, April 24, 2005

If you awake before dawn you probably hear a daily sound that may become as anachronistic as the clatter of horses' hooves on urban cobblestones. The sound is the slap of the morning paper on the sidewalk.

The circulation of daily U.S. newspapers is 55.2 million, down from 62.3 million in 1990. The percentages of adults who say they read a paper "yesterday" are ominous:

? 65 and older -- 60 percent.

? 50-64 -- 52 percent.

? 30-49 -- 39 percent.

? 18-29 -- 23 percent.

Americans ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 6 hours and 21 minutes a day with media of all sorts but just 43 minutes with print media.

The combined viewership of the network evening newscasts is 28.8 million, down from 52.1 million in 1980. The median age of viewers is 60. Hence the sponsorship of news programming by Metamucil and Fixodent. Perhaps we are entering what David T.Z. Mindich, formerly of CNN, calls "a post-journalism age."

Writing in the Wilson Quarterly, in a section on "the collapse of big media," he rejects the opinion of a CBS official that "time is on our side in that as you get older, you tend to get more interested in the world around you." Mindich cites research showing that "a particular age cohort's reading habits do not change much with time."

Baby boomers who became adults in the 1970s consume less journalism than their parents did. And although in 1972 nearly half of those 18 to 22 read a newspaper every day, now less than a quarter do. In 1972 nearly three-quarters of those 34 to 37 read a paper daily; now only about a third do. This means, Mindich says, "fewer kids are growing up in households in which newspapers matter."

The young are voracious consumers of media, but not of journalism. Sixty-eight percent of children 8 to 18 have televisions in their rooms; 33 percent have computers. And if they could have only one entertainment medium, a third would choose the computer, a quarter would choose television. They carry their media around with them: 79 percent of young people ages 8 to 18 have portable CD, tape or MP3 players. Fifty-five percent have hand-held video game players. Sony's PlayStation Portable, which plays music, games and movies, sold more than 500,000 units in the first two days after its March debut.

Also writing in the Wilson Quarterly, Terry Eastland, publisher of the Weekly Standard, notes that the old media establishment "emerged at a time when Americans generally respected those in authority." When that respect began to recede, establishment media actually gained strength. But the liberal coloration of the big media provoked the emergence of such rivals as Rush Limbaugh (1988) and Fox News (1996).


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