News cuts tilt coverage toward upscale

It is now widely recognized that daily newspapers, amid the upheaval that is occurring in the journalism business, have been cutting back on the origination of serious news coverage.

What is less widely appreciated, however, is that the axe has been falling more heavily on coverage of matters affecting roughly the lower two-thirds of the income distribution than it has on coverage that is aimed chiefly at serving the upper third.

This means that we are less likely to see stories about what life on the job is like for the majority of workers, who are neither managers nor professionals, or on what such workers can do to get out of the red and into the black. But we are more likely to see coverage of the latest in plastic surgery or of what’s new at the Natick Collection.

To say this isn’t to blame the news organizations themselves. If they felt able to continue to serve an economically diverse audience, they would probably do so. But it is hard for them to do it these days, because their economic circumstances make them so heavily dependent on the good will and hard cash of their remaining advertisers.

The economic plight of the newspapers has become famously difficult. Their paid circulations have been falling. A decade ago, classified advertising provided 40 percent of their revenue, but much of this business has moved to the Web. Though newspapers offer online versions of their print editions, their online versions aren’t attracting enough advertising revenue to offset the advertising dollars that have been lost by the print editions.

So the very survival of their newsrooms depends more and more on the patronage of those advertisers who are still willing to purchase display advertising in print. These are advertisers who want to reach the upper third of the income distribution and have found that buying ads in the print editions is an effective way to reach them. Thus, the newsrooms are under pressure to originate coverage that holds a distinctive appeal to upscale consumers, but doesn’t necessarily appeal as much to everybody else.

This shift in focus has helped to create the wide gap that now exists in the nature of news coverage. Serious coverage now reaches only about a third of the country. Nevertheless, even though members of the other two-thirds are now only poorly served by sources of serious news coverage, they still form a large majority of the electorate. They remain extremely important as voters and citizens and workers and members of the community — and many of them will find news coverage that they believe will serve them well. The answer to the question of where this news coverage will come from hasn’t yet been written. There is still time to write it. 


Ralph Whitehead Jr., is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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