Harvard U.: Study Shows People Are Buying Newspapers — but Not to Read Them

(AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

While spending time on social media a few days ago, I happened to notice a recently-published article by a website maintained by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, Nieman Journalism Labs, which reports on digital media innovation.

And the piece had a striking title, to say the least: “Why do people still get print newspapers? Well, partly to start up the grill (seriously).”

I mean, it’s common knowledge that things in the journalism world are rough-going — across the board — right now. Lay-offs, consolidations of staff, closings. And that’s especially true in print media: newspapers, magazines, and sundry other publications made primarily of wood pulp and ink. It can’t help morale, then, to learn the very people you’re trying to reach with news content, and those important advertisements surrounding them, are instead using it to prep their weekend barbecue. It almost sounds worse than that long-standing insult about using some newspaper you dislike to line your birdcage.

But, as fun and striking as that headline is, there’s more than meets the eye in the Nieman Labs story. But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here’s the introduction of the study itself: (emphasis original)

A new study in the journal New Media & Society — involving interviews with 488 news consumers in Argentina, Finland, Israel, Japan, and the United States, representing one of the largest interview-based studies of its kind — suggests that we have been thinking about this question the wrong way.

[…]

The resulting analysis was organized around three dimensions of media reception that stood out from the interviews: accesssociality, and ritualization.

As with any study, there’s a lot you can delve into (and I encourage you to do that at your leisure, if it interests you). But what was piqued my interest, once I looked past the (pardon the pun) inflammatory headline, was in the latter two dimensions — sociality and ritual — and how the study found the ways people are coming in contact with physical newspapers are changing. And part of that change says something comforting, at least to me, about how families are spending their time together. (emphasis mine)

With regard to the second dimension — sociality — the study revealed “the presence of generational and gender dynamics concerning choice, and the prevalence of individual reading.”

Once again, these patterns are not the result of differences in content or technology. Rather, the authors write, they are byproducts of structural forces such as family traditions, national cultures, and, in some cases, “the persistence of larger patriarchal tendencies that shape media selection” (e.g., children reading what their father gives them to read). “This, in turn, helps put into broader conceptual perspective the common finding that age and gender influence newspaper consumption: the explanatory power of these factors derives from how they help structure daily life in general, instead of media reception in particular” (emphasis added).

[…]

As the study makes clear: “people visit coffee shops and read newspapers they encounter there as part of the experience — but they do not go to coffee shops primarily to do this. Similarly, young interviewees visit their parents as part of family routines and read the newspaper they encounter in their households — but do not visit their parents primarily to get the news.”

That struck a chord with me; it’s exactly how things went in my family growing up, too. My parents read the local, Sunday paper; my sister and I did the same. And it’s the kind of routine that makes someone into a lifetime news consumer — and I’d argue, someone who hungers for facts and knowledge outside their direct, life experiences.

But what’s the story with the people who were starting their grills with newspapers? Here ya go:

The authors — a multi-country team composed of Pablo J. Boczkowski, Facundo Suenzo, Eugenia Mitchelstein, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt, Kaori Hayashi, and Mikko Villi — open their article with anecdotes about two men, one in Argentina and the other in Finland, who regularly get the newspaper, but not really for the news: instead, it’s to start up a fire for the barbecue (in Argentina) or to begin warming the wood-fired sauna stove (in Finland).

“Despite the almost 13,000 km that (separates them),” the authors write, “there is a commonality between the practices by José and Antero: appropriating the newspaper is tied to non-news practices which are meaningful to the actors although they might seem trivial to some scholars. This commonality is crucial to answering the question of how and why people still get print newspapers in this age of mobile communication and social media.”

It turns out that the point the study’s authors, and the website’s writers, were trying to get across was that a certain percentage of newsprint readers find themselves coming in contact with the paper in new and intriguing ways. And while it might be entertaining to muse about fake news in the New York Times or the Washington Post going up in smoke — yes, usually, a part of that activity still involves readers turning past the front page and reading the articles within.