Print Covers Its Own Woes, TV Does Not: Preliminary Research from Annenberg Suggests Dichotomy in Coverage

If you watch television news regularly, then you probably saw stories about fewer people reading newspapers. What you didn’t see, however, are stories about how fewer people are watching TV news, too.

Looking at print, broadcast, and cable news stories over a nine-year span, researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found there were 900 stories on the declining readership that appeared in newspapers, but only 22 stories on declining news viewing that appeared on television.

The team was examining the frequency with which major daily newspapers and national television news networks have covered the decline in their readers and viewers. The results showed that while newspapers do cover the drop in their own readership and the drops in viewership of TV news, national television news outlets have largely ignored the story.

The research team comprised Michael X. Delli Carpini, Ph.D., Professor of Communication and Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, and doctoral students Elizabeth Roodhouse, Angela M. Lee, and Olesya Venger. In their report, “Coverage of the Decline in Newspaper Readership and Television National News: A Preliminary Analysis,” they noted that while more analysis is needed, “it is not too great a leap to say that for all intents and purposes national television news has ignored its drop in viewership. Indeed, we found that newspapers were more likely to cover the decline in television news viewing than was television news itself, and that national television news was slightly more likely to cover the decline in newspaper readership than its own audiences.”

In the study, the Annenberg team looked at 2,060 news stories about the decline in readership/viewership. These stories appeared in print or aired on broadcast television between January 1, 2000 and March 12, 2009 in the top 25 circulation daily newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer (as reported by Editor & Publisher magazine), plus two wire services (Associated Press and Reuters). Since they were looking at The Philadelphia Inquirer, they added the Philadelphia Daily News to the analysis. The team also selected the national news broadcast of ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, the Fox News Network, CNN, and CNBC. They developed search queries that identified relevant articles and news segments in order to select only stories specifically about the decline in readership/viewership. Their sources included LexisNexis, Newsbank, and Factiva.

More than half of the stories (56 percent or 1,160) were wire service stories, most of which never found their way into the daily newspapers in the study. The remaining 900 appeared in the sample newspapers, with The Wall Street Journal (163) and The New York Times (154) carrying the most. (The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a total of 50 stories in that time frame.)

In comparison, during the same nine-year time frame, the seven national networks, which includes over 100 specific weekly or nightly news shows, carried only 22 total reports that were relevant to declining news audiences in general, and only six reports that were relevant to the decline in network news viewing specifically. An additional 45 reports were more generally related to declines in audiences for television networks generally.            

While television ignored its own drop in viewership, it did report on loss of print readers. There were 38 national television news broadcast devoted to declines in newspaper readership, mostly on CNBC and FOX News. Newspapers, in comparison, ran 95 stories on the decline of television news viewing; over half of these coming from three sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.            

“More detailed analyses need to be done to better determine why these patterns exist,” the team said in its report. For example, perhaps events such as the closing of a newspaper may explain the disparity in stories. Also, more analysis is needed of story placement (front page, business section, commentary) and, most important, the content of stories.            

“There is of course no ‘objective’ way to say if the amount and distribution of newspaper coverage … is appropriate, though the fact that the wire services released more stories than (what was) actually published suggests editorial decisions at newspapers ‘devalued’ this topic to some degree,” the team wrote.            

“Nonetheless, compared to national television news coverage of its own decline, newspaper coverage looks quite extensive.”            

The idea for the study was first suggested by Philadelphia Inquirer Publisher Brian Tierney in a discussion with Dean Delli Carpini. However, The Inquirer had no role in the research or the conclusions of the study, nor did it pay for the study to be done.