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.