Why do we care?
Newspaper readership is important because of the nature of the New Jersey news market. Sandwiched between Philadelphia and New York, the state’s major television and radio broadcasts come from those two cities. While their national and international news is of general interest, their local news focuses on issues facing the cities rather than those facing New Jersey. Consequently, New Jersey newspapers are the major source of information about what is going on within the state.
Reading local and regional newspapers fosters community awareness, and encourages people to take ownership of and engage with their towns. Local papers help people know who their neighbors are, and what their elected officials are doing. They provide the information to enable people to get involved with local decision-making and disputes.
How are we doing?
Per capita newspaper readership in New Jersey has declined steadily since the 1980s, as television viewing has gone up. Figure 10.1 provides data based on the newspapers’ estimates of their own circulation. We do not have updated data on this indicator, as they are no longer publicly available.
What is behind these figures?
A recent Star-Ledger/Eagleton poll sheds additional light on the consequences of lack of newspaper readership.(1) The poll, which is documented further in Indicator 17, found that people who read newspapers know more about local events than those who do not. This is based on asking which party controls key positions in state government. Only 43 percent of those who do not read newspapers knew that the governor is a Democrat, whereas between 64 and 76 percent of those who read a newspaper knew his party; the more often they read the paper, the more likely they were to know. Among non-readers, watching more television news does not increase the chance of knowing the governor’s party. These results suggest that the decline in newspaper readership is associated with a decreased awareness of public affairs in New Jersey.
To some extent, the internet may be replacing newspapers as a source of information. However, local governments and citizen associations are often less effective than state or national ones in using the internet to get out their messages. Moreover, the poll found that many of the people who have replaced newspapers with television are less educated, and therefore less likely to have internet access. While the internet can provide an incredible wealth of information to those interested and sophisticated enough to seek it out, it is not likely to provide the broad awareness of public affairs that newspapers did in the past.
What else would we like to know?
Updated information about newspaper readership would, of course, be of considerable interest, as would be a better understanding of how corporate ownership of local newspapers affects their coverage and presentation of local issues. Beyond this, however, what we are really interested in is an indicator of public awareness of and engagement with the community. Designing such an indicator will be a challenge for the future.
Targets with which to assess state progress have not yet been established for this indicator.
(1) The Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll, June 2003. “Political Knowledge in New Jersey or If Ignorance Is Bliss, We’re One Happy State.” Eagleton Institute of Politics. Cliff Zukin and Patrick Murray. http://slerp.rutgers.edu/releases/143-7.pdf