All politics is local. The same can be said of newspapers. While the Internet stretches its fiber-optic fingers into the far-flung corners of the world, successful newspapers are keeping both feet squarely on the ground in Boise, in Tuscaloosa, in Anytown, USA.
That's because in the places where a high percentage of people read their local newspaper, they're reading it for its local coverage. These readers are also more involved than the average citizen in civic organizations, churches, and neighborhood sports activities, a study of Social Capital conducted last spring for the Urban Institute finds. Compare, for example, the percentage of the local population buying The New York Times with that of its small-town opposite, The Pueblo Chieftain of Pueblo County, Colorado. The big-city daily is bought by only 12.5 percent of its New York City market, whereas the daily Chieftain commands 72.5 percent of its market-the highest local percentage of copies sold per population in the nation. And you can bet it's not because of its coverage of the Lewinsky debacle.
More likely, it's because of the Chieftain's coverage of the girls' high-school basketball league. One local values his paper, the Ithaca Journal in Ithaca, New York, because it is "our only source of local events-barbecues, book sales, and the like," says Drew Noden, a professor at Cornell University. "We have friends who read it to follow the school board, too. And as you get older you start looking for the names of people you know in the obituaries."
Covering local issues pays off for these small papers: A look at the top-50 newspapers in which a high percentage of local readers buy the paper shows that all have small circulation rates-only seven reach more than 100,000 households. But while total numbers are small, these papers are being bought by more than half of the citizens in their local target markets. One advertisement in Alaska's Anchorage News will reach almost 70 percent of the area's residents.
Readership is strong in the Northeast and Midwest, where civic organizations play a more crucial role in daily life, according to SRDS, which provides media rates and data for the advertising industry. Small, rural areas of the Plains states also boast a high number of readers per population, as do wealthy suburban counties across the country. In the South and in many counties of the Western states where there is less civic activity, circulation is low-where circulation is high, income and education are probably the principal factors, since these counties encompass large cities.
Newspaper readers are more likely to have higher levels of education and income-though not to the extent previously thought, the Urban Institute's study reveals. Based on an analysis that correlates newspaper readership, income and education levels by county, there is a 40 percent chance that a newspaper reader will live in a county with a high number of advanced degree holders. There is a 30 percent chance that a newspaper reader will live in a county with a higher than average per capita income.
Decline in circulation doesn't mean decline in ad dollars Newspaper circulation has declined steadily since 1964, when 80.8 percent of all American adults read the paper daily. In 1997, only 58.3 percent of American adults read a newspaper daily. But in raw numbers, newspaper readership has increased by 17 million people over the same period, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau. Across the country, nine out of ten advertisers who responded to a 1997 survey by Edison Media Research said that newspaper advertising was "vitally" or "somewhat" important in their media mix. Forty-three percent said that newspapers were the most important medium for their business. Newspapers are considered a good place to buy ads: In 1997, they earned $41,341 million in advertising revenues, according to preliminary results from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA).
Miles Groves, the chief economist at the NAA, believes that advertisers are getting a good return on their money because one newspaper ad can reach a greater number of people than one ad in either radio or television, both of which have become increasingly fragmented. And, he adds, circulation rates only reflect sales, not actual readership. "On an average week a newspaper will reach over 80 percent of all adults in the local target area," he says.