American papers skewing conservative; Trib writer says yup, it’s good business

There’s an interesting new report out from Media Matters showing that American newspapers run far more conservative syndicated columnists than they do progressives. Some findings:

  • Sixty percent of the nation’s daily newspapers print more conservative syndicated columnists every week than progressive syndicated columnists. Only 20 percent run more progressives than conservatives, while the remaining 20 percent are evenly balanced.
  • In a given week, nationally syndicated progressive columnists are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of 125 million. Conservative columnists, on the other hand, are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of more than 152 million.
  • The top 10 columnists as ranked by the number of papers in which they are carried include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.
  • The top 10 columnists as ranked by the total circulation of the papers in which they are published also include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.
  • In 38 states, the conservative voice is greater than the progressive voice — in other words, conservative columns reach more readers in total than progressive columns. In only 12 states is the progressive voice greater than the conservative voice.
  • In three out of the four broad regions of the country — the West, the South, and the Midwest — conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists. Only in the Northeast do progressives reach more readers, and only by a margin of 2 percent.
  • In eight of the nine divisions into which the U.S. Census Bureau divides the country, conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists in any given week. Only in the Middle Atlantic division do progressive columnists reach more readers each week.

While this isn’t a question I’ve pondered in any depth, I can’t say that I’m at all surprised by the findings. We live in fearful times, and under these circumstances I’d expect large numbers of people to be drawn to the sort of rhetoric we associate with conservative writers. I imagine if I put my mind to it I can come up with some other theories that would have varying degrees of merit.

Frank James, writing for the Tribune syndicate Washington Bureau, has a theory that may or may not be true, but that’s revealing either way.

There’s one explanation for MM’s results which has nothing to do with a nefarious conservative cabal running the newspaper industry.

Demographically, newspaper readers tend to be older than non-newspaper readers. An older audience is likely to be more conservative. Newspapers are generally in business to be profitable. That means, more often than not, providing consumers with products that reflect their tastes. Thus, more conservative syndicated columnists than not.

There’s no arguing that newspaper readers are skewing older, as this illustrates in a way that ought to scare the pants off a company like the Tribune.

And as James notes, other soures are becoming increasingly important in delivering information to the public.

To summarize, James (who’s certainly speaking on the company’s behalf, for good or ill) is arguing that readers are older, older people are more conservative, so papers should skew conservative. This is, as he explains, good business.

So be it. Now, three observations.

1) Can we now officially start hearing a smidge less about “the liberal media”? That frame has been a sad joke for a long time, but when news corps like this one start going on record with their conservative bias, maybe it’s time to find another lie to pander.

2) Do we read this as a surrender in the battle to attract to younger readers? There seems to be a choice being made here – serve the expectations of the existing (aging) base or work aggressively to attract new (younger) customers. The Trib appears to have chosen the former, which a cynical analyst might interpret as “we’re going to lay down and die over the next couple of decades.”

3) For those of you who have been wondering whether the Tribune papers are in the business of telling people what they need to know or telling them what they want to hear, I believe you have your answer.

17 replies »

  1. Hello, I just started my very first blog over here and I am still working on it. I really liked your data as it does confirm what I sort of imagined them to be.

    All the talk about “the liberal media” is in my opinion mostly propaganda to denigrate any voice opposed to this president’s actions. A bit like the propaganda Hitler worked on accusing the jews of starting world war II. I am not comparing Hitler to Bush, but I do feel their propaganda apparatus are very similar. A media that would repeatedly and endlessly use the word “heroes” during the initial invasion of Iraq, that would not stop, without investigating, fabricated cases like the Jessica Lynch one, or Kerry’s smeared vietnam record, while nothing was seriously done to criticize Bush’s inexistent record…Such media is clearly overwhelmingly conservative, in my opinion.

    I just created distortedrealities blog to discuss and target all these subjects, but for the time I am just learning all the tools, like how to appear on the search engines, for example…Any help will be appreciated..

  2. Bah. The Media Matters study matters little because it represents only a snapshot in time. If the think tank does the same content analysis 10, 20 and 30 years ago and compares findings with this study, then we might learn something.

    What is this study supposed to mean? That op-ed (versus editorial) pages, you know, the pages we use to line the bird cages and wrap fish, are dominating the thought process of readers? This study is a “media effects” analysis run amok.

    That said, the relevance of the gender, age, ethnicity and education of the columnists would make for a far more interesting discussion of the role of op-ed pages plays in the creation of public opinion and the survival of newspapers as a medium.

    In the meantime, pass me that George Will, please.

  3. I would even take the argument a step further and say that this phenomenon is partly to blame for the impending collapse of the newspaper industry. I don’t currently subscribe to any newspapers, partly because I prefer the convenience of reading online, but partly because I find the online versions of traditional newspapers lean too far to the right to take seriously.

  4. I have accepted that newspapers as we have known them are dead. I lament the loss of what they once were, but can’t say I’m going to miss what they have become.

  5. My computer went down for a week and I was forced to read my local paper — The Austin American Statesman — for that period. Frankly, I thought I was going to die!!

  6. Here’s what I’m talking about, from:

    “Carl Bernstein points out in his 1977 expose on the topic. “American publishers, like so many other corporate and institutional leaders at the time, were willing to commit the resources of their companies to the struggle against global Communism,” he writes. “Accordingly, the line separating the American press corps was often indistinguishable.”

  7. O.K. Why is this so hard to figure out? The MSM is 90% Libtard.
    If you don’t put a few Conservatives in Op Ed there will be none at all.

    -Why not just get all your news from a jar of Gerber’s?

  8. The Baltimore Sun had an editorial on the 9th about readers complaining that more and more of the Sun’s features were being moved online:,0,7723134.column?coll=bal-opinion-utility

    There’s definitely a connection between reader age, interests, and the corresponding outlet they use to find those interests. The older, conservative readers are being snubbed by the Sun in the hopes that it can fetch younger, hipper demographics–more likely just so it can save a few bucks. You could tell just from those quotes that the miffed subscribers were older.

    So that’s an interesting response to Frank James’ theory (which makes a lot of sense)–here you have a paper in a pretty solid working-class Democratic city that is moving to a pure online paradigm, and its older, less technical, and probably more conservative readers are up in arms as a result.

  9. “Doing the “Right Thing”

    To greater and lesser degrees, many journalists at the time shared the belief that relationships with the intelligence community were useful and that lending aid was the right thing to do. “Many (journalists working with the CIA) had gone to the same schools as their CIA handlers, moved in the same circles, shared fashionably liberal, anti-Communist political values, and were part of the ‘old boy’ network that constituted something of an establishment elite in the media, politics and academia of postwar America,” Bernstein writes. “The most valued lent themselves for reasons of national service, not money.”

  10. I find all that is going on in our once great country to be totally disgusting.

    Are you ready for another stolen election?

  11. Heytina, you and most “conservatives” (adults who have the mental capacity of seventh graders and base their ideology on bumper sticker logic and whatever nonsense talking points your AM radio brains give them) are hopelessly stupid. Smarter, richer, “conservatives” know most of what they say is nonsense, they just use the mindless talking points to mask the fact that they benefit economically from “conservative” policies at the expense of working people. They rely on idiots like you to say brain dead drivel, like what you did in your post. Hannity and the rest, while they’d never admit it, think their audience is dumber than a box of hammers and people like yourself try your best to prove him right. He laughs his ass of to the bank, and you pay for overpriced healthcare and are going to have to compete with workers in developing countries to provide the lowest cost labor for the corporations that pay his bills, thanks to

  12. elaine, that is an empty excuse. Did “doing the right thing” make these journalists look the other way as their CIA buddies destroyed country and country’s democracy and installed horrible dictatorships, all because (if you look at what the intelligence community was saying behind the scenes, not to the public) doing so was in America’s “best economic interest”? I can’t tell you how many democracies were destroyed by the CIA NOT because of communism (if you want me to post some quotes proving this I will) but because they were afraid of the influence certain economic policies would have on other developing countries, and this wouldn’t be ideal for US investors. Blind nationalism is no excuse for the foreign and economic policies of the US. I don’t think we are justified in taking out another countries democracy because I, as a citizen from another country, don’t like the country’s economic and social policies. Either you believe in democracy or you don’t. Stalin liked democracy in the same ways the CIA does. If democracy came up with policies that Stalin himself liked, then democracy was fine. The problem is when people decide on policies that elites don’t like. If you believe in democracy then you accept what the majority of people decide on. The CIA doesn’t and never has believed in democracy, they believe in naked self interest for the US. Would you think China would be justified in funding a coup in the US because who we decide on isn

  13. Well, is being stupid and cutting your own throat a requirement for being a ‘conservative’? Because it’s plain to see that conservatives think our economy will grow when everyone is working in a service-based economy making $9.00 an hour (who will have any money to ‘consume’ anything?). And, it’s clear that ‘conservatives’ think ‘older, older’ people will live forever to read their newspapers; when in fact, those older readers will die off soon enough, and there won’t be any market for their corporatized ‘infotainment’ product, so they’re really just milking their market dry until its demise. The fact is, all research shows that the country is shifting inexorably to the left politically. So, those corporate boards which own newspapers ought to consider how they might be broadening their markets, instead of limiting them to the ‘older, older’ set. Moreover, as I am one of those ‘older, older’ newspaper subscribers, I gotta tell you–even we oldsters are moving online for our news. We are sick of being fed the pablum we get on cable (whether its MSNBC, CNN or Fox) which is patently ludicrous most of the time. The Trib writer is a fatuous fool.

  14. Good post Brighid, one thing though. Since the main problem with the media is the fact that a small group of elite investors own the companies who give out the informaiton, how can we ever really get the news media to be in the public’s, and not their, interest? The corporation itself, under US law, cannot legally care about anything other than its bottom line (an outdated insitution if there ever was one). Is it in corporations’ best interest to be honest about the effects of NAFTA, “free trade”, fractional reserve banking and the Fed, healthcare, etc? Breaking up the monopolies won’t change a thing either. If we ever want the media to reflect the interests of the general population we will have to replace the corporate form, and not allow them to be in charge of what information you and I receive.