Sunday, August 15, 2010

Who don't you trust? Newspapers and TV news, that's who

U.S. newspapers, along with local and national television news shows, have all seen their audiences decline for more than a decade. The decline in newspapers has been blamed primarily on the growth of the Internet and the availability of news on the web for free that was once only available for purchase in print. The decline of television news has been blamed largely on its aging audience. There's another reason for the declines, however, and it has nothing to do with the Internet or audience age.

The Gallop Organization released a poll last Friday that shows that confidence in newspapers and television news is nearly at an all-time low for newspapers, and is equal to the all-time low for television news. In the most recent poll, only 25% of respondents said that they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers, and only 22% have the same level of confidence in television news. The numbers have been flat since 2007. By comparison, in 1993, the first year that the survey covered both newspapers and television news, 31% of respondents had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers (that number was as high as 39% in 1990), and 46% had the same level of confidence in television news (the number has been generally going down ever since.)

You might think that 18-to-29-year-old respondents, who would likely be the most Internet savvy, would be the least interested in newspapers, but you'd be wrong. That age group trusts newspapers more than any other demographic category, with 49% saying that they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers, while their confidence in television news is only 22%. The political beliefs of the respondents also have an impact: People who consider themselves Republicans or Conservatives have the least confidence in both newspapers and television news. Democrats and Liberals have the most confidence in newspapers; when it comes to television news, Democrats also have the most confidence, but Liberals are slightly behind Moderates in their confidence. Independents are much closer to Republicans in their confidence in newspapers, while Moderates and Liberals are somewhat closer in their confidence in both newspapers and television news.

That's a lot of statistics, but here's the bottom line: If you don't trust a news source, you're very unlikely to pay for it. If three-quarters of the public has little or no confidence in newspapers, why would anyone expect them to pay for them when they can get the same content online for free? If almost 80% of the public has little or no confidence in television news, is it any wonder that they watch "The Daily Show", replay recordings from their DVRs or get on the web rather than watch the news on TV?

How are newspapers and television stations dealing with this problem? They're dumbing down their product even further. Rupert Murdoch has announced that News Corporation plans to launch a dumbed-down national newspaper specifically for tablets like the iPad. Tribune is experimenting with a dumbed-down television news format in Houston (as if television news hasn't already been dumbed down to insipid levels). If the big problem is lack of confidence, making the news even less credible isn't going to increase confidence, readership, or viewership.

In short, newspapers, television stations and networks can't blame their problems solely on extrinsic factors. The quality, accuracy and relevance of their reporting have at least as much to do with their present predicament as do the Internet and aging audiences.
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