Talk about stale news! The substance of the story on the Oct.1 front page of the New York Times business section about shunning unwanted readers, “Why Big Newspapers Applaud Some Declines in Circulation,” has been kicking around, in one form or another, for years. Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company, the book that a couple of colleagues and I wrote, described and decried in 2001 what newspapers were doing to avoid downscale readers. We quoted editors and academics to similar effect. A 1997 book we cited, The Newspaper Publishing Industry, by Robert G. Picard and Jeffrey H. Brody, put it succinctly:
“The practice of cutting circulation has increased in the past two decades, with papers halting circulation in areas where readers don’t interest advertisers – such as inner cities or districts with lower incomes or other unwanted demographics – or where distribution costs are higher. Although these practices may serve the interests of the economic role of newspapers, they are harmful to newspapers’ social role of conveying information and providing the communication links necessary for a healthy society.”
Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, said essentially the same thing in a 1993 book, Read All About It!, that fell on deaf ears. Certainly his colleagues in the American Society of Newspaper Editors paid no attention. They filled their annual meetings with repeated pleas to put more minorities in newsrooms, but said and did nothing about circulation practices that virtually declared, “No minorities or other low-income readers wanted.”
To be sure, shunning low-income neighborhoods is qualitatively different, and much less defensible, than cutting off circulation that’s too distant to be served economically.
With the demographically-challenged in mind, Squires wrote, “With few exceptions, the profitability of newspapers in monopoly markets has come to depend on an economic formula that is ethically bankrupt and embarrassing for a business that has always claimed to rest on public trust.”
So what the Times refers to as “the surprising attitude” of papers nowadays toward potential readers is no surprise at all. It’s worth knowing, however, that a business that never spent adequately on promotion has “sharply curtailed” such spending, apparently to avoid inadvertently snagging customers who don’t interest advertisers and, worse, waste newsprint. It’s helpful to know, also, that instead of eliminating what amounts to a form of redlining, newspapers have become, if anything, more blatant and cold-blooded about their preference for the affluent and distaste for low-income readers.
Once upon a time, circulation gains were regarded as a plus because they meant more people had access to the news and information that greased the wheels of democracy; readers were thought of as assets. But that was before the ascendance of newspaper numbers-crunchers who decided there were “quality readers” with upscale demographics they wanted to keep and those from the wrong side of the tracks who were seen, not as readers to be served, but as drags on the bottom line. Never mind that children in those households were written off, probably forever, as potential newspaper readers.
“Ethically bankrupt and embarrassing.” Jim Squires was exactly right. So maybe I shouldn’t have been so critical of the Times for serving up old news with just a few fresh trimmings. There cannot be enough reminders of the wrong road newspapers took when they elected to turn their backs on readers.