On the other hand
Two weeks ago, I recited in this space the results of the 2005 First Amendment Survey, conducted in the spring by the First Amendment Center and the American Journalism Review. Depressingly, the results called into question the exalted opinion we newspaper types have of ourselves and the work we do. The use of unnamed sources in news reports, the accuracy of news articles, and indeed the broad view of the First Amendment's protection of the press and the press's use of that valuable franchise were all criticized by a heart-stoppingly large number of survey respondents.
But naturally, there's more to be said on the subject, and there's some good news to offset the gloominess of the national survey. The New England Press Association (NEPA), of which The Times is a member, in a survey conducted this year by American Opinion Research (AOR) of Princeton, New Jersey for the 400 or so papers in the association, discovered that in our six-state region, people place a high value on newspapers. This is not to say that New Englanders don't have the same skeptical view of the national media as their peers elsewhere in the country. Of course, New England newspaper readers have profound misgivings about the accuracy, fairness, balance, and practices of journalists everywhere. But what the AOR survey found is that, nevertheless, we depend on newspapers. For instance, nine out of 10 New Englanders read a newspaper during the week. That includes 85 percent of 18-24 year olds, 85 percent of 25-34 year olds, 93 percent of 35-44 year olds and those 65 and older, 91 percent of 45-54 year olds, and 94 percent of 55-64 year olds. That's good penetration across the board, and while newspapers nationally are struggling with circulation declines and the fear that young people will not grow up to be newspaper readers, newspapers in New England — and most of these NEPA members are weeklies and small dailies — are finding ways to hammer out committed relationships with their readers.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said they read a daily newspaper, compared with 53 percent nationwide. For weeklies, the news was even better: 74 percent of respondents read a weekly in their town or region, in some cases (for instance, ours) more than one.
Where do New Englanders turn for news? In the AOR survey, newspapers slammed television, radio, and the Internet as the preferred source for community news coverage, believable advertising, shopping info, retail sales, and things to do. More than 61 percent of respondents said they relied on newspapers, double or better the share of respondents who turn to the other information sources.
And, concerning their patriotic duty to vote, 87 percent of New England adults are registered voters, although only 58 percent said they voted in the most recent local and state elections. Ninety-six percent of the registered voters said they read newspapers before voting, and 70 percent said newspapers are the main source of information on voting choices. Could be, I suppose, that after reading the pre-election coverage in the paper, voters said, "Ah, the heck with it, I'm not going to vote, it only encourages ‘em," and that's why the tally of actual voters fell off on election day, according to AOR's numbers.
Why are New Englanders more favorably inclined toward newspapers than folks are nationwide? Naturally, I don't know, but here are two or three possible contributors to the love affair you all seem to have with us. (It may be going too far to put it that way, but you'll correct me.) Bigger newspapers, especially dailies, network and cable news, even the bloggers, focus their attention on national and international, even global topics — political, diplomatic, environmental, and on and on. All important, of course, but all familiar to their readers and viewers. You can watch the hurricane devastation, or the Congressional devastation, or the executive branch devastation on network news, cable news, or on the front page of nearly every daily, large or small, regional or national. You've seen one, you've seen them all. In New England, many of the newspapers that readers favor are small, narrowly focused weeklies, whose portfolios are the lives of their readers and the small or medium-sized communities in which they live. It's their niche, and it's an expensive niche to cover thoroughly, especially when huge national advertisers aren't interested in placing expensive full-page advertisements in papers whose readership may reach 4,500 on a good week. Plus, there are no cheap news services to provide reports about the selectman's meeting or the zoning board hearing, or the upcoming election in the next town over. All this stuff is the stuff of which small New England newspapers are made.
The same readers who want to know what happened in the high school lacrosse match want to know when the hardware store or nursery is having its fall sale. They want to know if there's a good, cheap 18-foot outboard for sale nearby, or a used Gravely with life left in it. They won't find that info on the network or cable news, or in the New York Times, the Globe, or USA Today. Ditto for the foreclosure notices, requests for proposals, or planning board meeting notices. These are the bits of commercial info that small New England newspapers live on.
And lastly, when the newspaper gets something wrong, as we do from time to time, readers of small New England newspapers can write to the editor about it. Of course, they can write to the editor of the big newspapers too, but the response may be disappointing. More satisfying, they can march right into the newspaper office, go up to the editor's office and have it out with him right then and there. If the editor is nowhere to be found, well, the grocery store on Sunday morning is a good place to look. Catch the editorial wretch in front of the frozen food case, or pin the slippery eel up against the pork loins. One way or another, the reader gets satisfaction. And, as in the case with every long-term relationship, the reader-newspaper partnership is strengthened by getting these things out in the open, hammering out an accommodation, and moving on warily.
I forgot to add forgiveness. That's important too.