The pictures told much of the story. As the networks beamed in live coverage of Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s gatherings on election nights, their anchors made similar observations — some gingerly, some more prominently.
The Romney crowd was overwhelmingly white and older. The Obama crowd was mixed in color and younger in age.
The presidential vote bore out the videography. The numbers picked off the assembly line of news stories have been astoundingly, and properly, reflective of the new state of America (all data via CNN):
Here’s the kicker: Of all votes cast for Romney, 88 percent came from white voters. Yet the white vote declined to 72 percent of the total vote, down two points in four years and 11 points in 20 years.
A Politico headline: “GOP soul-searching: ‘Too old, too white, too male?’”
Around noon Wednesday, I started hearing a voice inside my election-addled head: Where else had I seen numbers like these? Where had I heard that Politico description? Who else was getting a really good market share of a smaller and smaller slice of the population?
Ah, yes: the newspaper industry.
In what seems like another lifetime, I co-chaired a Knight-Ridder (b. 1974, d. 2006, rest in peace) task force on young readers. This was in the early ’90s, I recall. Yes, all those elusive audiences: “young people” (meaning those under 50), women, ethnic “minorities.” The industry has always had problems with those “underserved” groups. For reasons of both business success and doing the right thing, newspaper companies announced effort after effort to do better.
I’d lost track of how they’d done, in the great washout of digital disruption. I checked in with Scarborough Research, the U.S. newspaper industry’s go-to source for readership, both print and digital.
The Scarborough data paints an unmistakable portrait: When it comes to audience, the American newspaper industry looks a lot like the Republican Party. Consequently, its business reversals parallel the deepening Republican national electoral woes. The newspaper audience looks remarkably like the arithmetic that put Mitt Romney on the losing end Tuesday and is forcing Republicans to self-assess how to move forward. The math is the math.
We can look at the data in three segments: print audience, digital audience, and combined audience.
The print audience — the audience that still responsible for 80 percent or more of almost all newspaper companies’ revenue — strongly parallels the Romney vote in almost every category: age, ethnicity, and gender. Older, White, and male.
In the digital audience, there’s some across-the-board strength in age, but then strong parallels to the Republican dilemma in gender and ethnicity.
What we see in the combined audience is that the print usage — still hugely dominant in time spent — overwhelms the digital usage. Consequently, newspapers underperform in age, gender, and ethnicity, when print and digital are added together.
The following chart displays the print, digital, and combined. I’ve simplified the data to focus on one number, what Scarborough calls the “index” number. If the index number for the first demographic group on the list, 18- to 20-year-olds, were to be 100, that would mean that newspapers captured their even share of that target population. Yet, the numbers — 72 for print, 91 for digital, and 74 for combined — show that newspapers are underperforming with this age group.
Here are the newspaper demographics. They are drawn from the wide Scarborough net of research, during the period August 2011 to March 2012. The readership measured here is print and/or digital during a seven-day period. In areas colored red, newspaper companies underperform with these demographic cohorts; in areas that are colored green, they overperform. The red overwhelms the green.
|18 – 20||72||91||74|
|21 – 24||73||97||76|
|25 – 29||75||120||82|
|30 – 34||75||128||85|
|45 – 49||103||122||106|
|50 – 54||110||110||108|
|55 – 59||116||98||113|
|60 – 64||121||88||114|
|65 – 69||125||71||116|
|70 or older||135||31||120|
The conclusion: The daily industry is doing okay with older, white people — mildly overperforming in print, digital, and combined.
Among all other ethnic groups except Asian-Americans — off the charts with high overperformance for online news usage — newspapers are underperforming. They, like Mitt Romney, aren’t getting their share of the fastest growing population slices in the U.S.
That’s where the newsonomics of this issue comes in. Milk the older, white, and male readership — as Advance has been accused of doing in New Orleans and elsewhere with its new strategy (“The newsonomics of Advance’s New Orleans strategy”) — and newspaper companies may stabilize profits in the short term. But fail to come to grips with the changing complexion of America, and revenues — circulation and advertising — will continue to dwindle. In fact, the changing demographics, in addition to digital disruption, help explain the sorry state of newspapering, both print and digital.
Scarborough’s Gary Meo, senior vice president for print and digital services, takes the savvy, long view here. On age, for instance, “If you go back 20 years, you would see similar patterns — as young people got older, got married, and bought homes, and cared about what the school board was doing what the city council was doing, they started becoming news readers.
“That dynamic has gone away. They grow up in a digital environment. And so when they get married and settle down, they don’t buy a paper to do that, to learn about the city council. They have so many other outlets to choose from. That’s why the printed newspaper audience is getting older and older. Websites appeal to younger adults, but newspaper websites don’t necessarily, given the other choices they have.”
Consequently, says Meo: “Print has been declining. Websites are flat. They grew in the early years and have flattened out. The total audience is going down. When you combine the two, what we call the integrated audience, the online audience cannot make it for the losses in print.”
Newspapers played the old game well, but haven’t adjusted to new demographic realities, just like the GOP.
“The newspaper industry has always done a great job of reaching rich, white, well-educated adults and never really has reached younger ethnic adults. I worked at the L.A. Times and we worked at creating a publication for the Hispanic community for 10 years, and we never succeeded in doing it,” Meo says.
National Journal’s editorial director Ron Brownstein well described the winning Obama “minority blueprint” in February. If the vaunted Obama ground game won this election, then we’re left to apply that blueprint to the news industry, and ask: What is its ground game going forward? How will it appeal — after decades of efforts that plainly haven’t worked — to the New America?
In brief, I think we can apply three immediate lessons from the Obama campaign:
The American Society of News Editors, in trying to shine a spotlight on newsroom diversity, has been keeping annual tabs on minority employment. Its April finding: “New ASNE figures show percentage of minorities in newspaper newsrooms continues to decline.” Down from a peak of 13.73 percent in 2006, it now stands at 12.32 percent. Census data tells us the equivalent figure for the broader U.S. population is 36.6 percent. Despite many well-intentioned efforts over the years, the people creating the news look less and less like the communities they cover.
So what kinds of product should newspapers create for audiences that aren’t white, affluent, and male? They’ve tried a host of print products over the years with little ongoing success. We’ve seen relatively little digital niche innovation, like the Orange County Register’s young adult-oriented tablet product The Peel, which ceased publishing with the recent change in ownership there. Of course, there have been numerous Spanish-language products, in cities from L.A. to Dallas to Miami to New York. Publishing veteran Arturo Duran, former CEO of Impremedia Digital and now chief digital officer for Digital First Media, notes how much nuance must be brought to the Latino market.
“One of the main issues in ethnic media is language. The publications in the original language tail down over time, over 10 to 15 years” as new generations of English-speaking Latinos grow up. Duran makes the point that while entertainment — telenovelas, for instance — continue in Spanish as part of the nature of the product for bilingual audiences, news is different.
For Latinos who are adopting new technologies, “that adoption comes with English” for news consumption, says Duran. He notes the popularity of anchors like CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, who delivers the news in English, but brings a native understanding of her audience to her work. He also points to The Huffington Post’s Latino Voices.
As Duran notes, the Latino market has taken strongly to mobile, so new opportunities abound there; that’s where the smartest news companies will concentrate Latino product testing.
Staffing is one thing and niche product is another. More elusive to pin down is position. Take immigration, for instance. It’s a hot topic, on and off, in America. Newspapers cover it, but unfortunately, usually in response to some political bloviation. (One of a number of noteworthy exceptions is Leslie Berestein Rojas’ Multi-American blog at KPCC, originally part of NPR’s Project Argo). When immigration does get covered, the coverage is too often about “them.” It’s a majority-white perspective on “the other.” As I wrote last week, about aggressive public-minded journalism, how journalists approach topics will determine their success in this digital age. Readers don’t want bias, but they do want truth-seeking. Immigration is such a hot topic because it affects millions of families in the U.S.; to many, it’s more of a family issue, than a geopolitical one. News organizations that act with the spirit of that understanding — as they dispassionately work through the complex issues involved with their readers — will be rewarded with readership. The others will continue to fall into irrelevance.
Photo of Obama campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio used under a Creative Commons license.