Percentage of US adults who read a newspaper "every day" declines from 69% in 1972 to 20% in 2021

the decline of the daily newspaper and public knowledge of politics

A city or town newspaper was nicely designed to keep people informed about their own elected representatives. Traditionally, it appeared on your doorstep, offering a mix of features that might encourage you to open it up. Election news would often appear above the fold on the main page. Elections in your own community would be emphasized. You didn’t have to be curious about politics to receive the most relevant political news.

As the chart with this post shows, most Americans (69.3%) claimed they read a newspaper “every day” in 1972, but that proportion has been around 20% since 2016, mirroring a 50% decline in the number of paid journalists. People still consume news, but cable television is national, local television tends to skip politics, and online sources require you to seek them out. (They mainly reach those with prior interests.) Besides, very few people are paid to report factual information about local politics.

I wish I could test whether the decline in daily newspaper journalism and readership explains current low levels of political knowledge. Perhaps that can be shown, but I have not found a long-lasting survey that asks about both news consumption and political knowledge in consistent ways.

The American National Election Survey (ANES) did ask individuals how often they read the newspaper and whether they recalled the names of the congressional candidates in their district. That series lasted from 1984 to 2000. Each year, just about twice as many of the regular newspaper readers recalled the candidates’ names correctly. For instance, in 2000, 51.8% of the regular readers and 24.2% of non-readers got that knowledge question right.

I’d conjecture that if these survey questions had continued, the proportion of news readers would have fallen in the ANES, and with it, knowledge of people’s own local political candidates. But I can’t quite prove it.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.