People have debated for some time what is the average age of a daily newspaper reader in the U.S. Eric Alterman said it’s 55 in a 2008 piece in The New Yorker, and the consensus is in that range. Now Alan Mutter has run some Pew Research numbers and looks at the number another way.
According to Pew, less than 10% of people under the age of 30 reported that they had read a newspaper the previous day. In comparison, nearly 50% of adults over 65 had done so. Seventy-four percent of U.S. newspaper readership is concentrated in people over the age of 45, while that age demographic group represents only 39% of the population. And that group is getting older and dying while the under-45s are not.
What do all the numbers mean? “The industry is failing to replace older readers with younger individuals,” Mutter writes. “At some point, the newspaper audience may contract so severely that (a) publishers cannot attract enough advertisers, (b) publishers no longer enjoy the economies of scale necessary to print profitably or (c) both of the above.”
Few advertisers want to reach people over the age of 50, and almost no one wants to reach 65-year-olds. People in that age group often live on fixed incomes, have no children at home and very modest spending needs. They buy very little. Yet this is the core audience newspaper publishers have to sell to their advertisers.
A few years ago, Golin Harris CEO Fred Cook quoted an unidentified Chicago Sun-Times columnist as saying, “Newspapers aren’t dying; our readers are.” Whether a columnist actually said that or not, it’s an apt summary of the problem all mainstream media face. Watch the 6 p.m. network evening news some evening and look at the ads. They’re for pharmaceuticals, insurance and erectile dysfunction aids. Those advertisers know who the audience is. In 2010, the average age of a regular evening news consumer was 53, according to Pew. Where is that audience in 20 years? Where will the advertisers be?
The news industry’s challenge is to find products that appeal to young readers, but that requires taking risks, which is not something news executives are wired to do. The one saving grace could be that a lot of news organizations have laid off expensive senior staff and replaced them with young reporters. Perhaps those people will bring forth the ideas that enable the industry to grow again.
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