Journalists and media observers spend a lot of time exploring how the Internet and social networks are cutting into the readership of print publications like magazines and newspapers. I plead guilty as charged.
There is little doubt that digital communications is undermining print. The Pew Research Center noted in its “State of the News Media 2011″ report that newspaper circulation dropped 5 percent since 2010 and magazines number fell 8.9 percent while online news readership grew by 17.1 percent.
The report noted:
“The migration to the web also continued to gather speed. In 2010 every news platform saw audiences either stall or decline — except for the web… For the first time, too, more people said they got news from the web than newspapers. The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing.”
But there’s two other reasons why newspaper and magazine readership are plummeting that has nothing to do with a migration of readers to the Web and social networks:
1. A drastic increase in illiteracy rates in the United States.
2. An abandonment of reading by the younger generation.
As Apple CEO Steve Jobs said famously in 2008 when asked about Amazon’s Kindle (a digital reader): “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”
That’s scary, but he’s right. People aren’t reading because either they can’t or they won’t.
More than 30 million people in the United States don’t know how to read a simple sentence. And 50 million people can only read at the level of a 4th or 5th grader. As Chris Hedges points out in his book “Empire of Illusion”:
“Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate — figure that is growing by more than 2 million a year. A third of of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.”
These illiterate and semi-literate people – we can be sure – also aren’t buying newspapers and magazines. They are potential customers that journalists will never access through the written word.
Not only is illiteracy undermining news consumption, but there’s a growing argument that even people who can read aren’t able to digest long-form content – like books or lengthy magazine feature stories – anymore. This argument contends that digital communications undermines deep reading – or the ability to process and fully understand written content.
According to Mark Bauerlein the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)”:
“We’re about to turn our country over to a generation that doesn’t read much and doesn’t think much either. We have abysmal rates of civic knowledge and historical knowledge.”
Bauerlein argues that these young people can read – but just can’t focus enough to do it. They are much more attracted to moving images: TV, online videos and gaming platforms.
It’s difficult for the New York Times to compete with World of Warcraft or the Boston Globe to grab the attention of young people when Angry Birds is on their iPhone.
So while we spend a lot of time analyzing print vs. digital journalism – maybe more time should be spent devising ways to teach more people to read and enticing those who can but won’t the value of reading – on any platform.
What do you think?
Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2011″
Chris Hedges’ book “Empire of Illusion”
Mark Bauerlein’s book “The Dumbest Generation”