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How the New York Times Makes Local Papers Dumber

That’s only a slight exaggeration.

The New York Times is a force so great it could only be used for good or evil. That is just one of many thoughts that came to me as I read the paper titled “The New York Times and the Market for Local Newspapers” by Lisa M. George and Joel Waldfogel in the March 2006 issue of the American Economic Review. (A prepublication version of the article can be found here.)

George and Waldfogel examine the long march of the Times into national markets, which reached blitzkrieg velocity in the years between 1996 and 2000 as the paper commenced or expanded home delivery in more than 100 cities. George, an economist at Hunter College, and Waldfogel, a Wharton School professor (and sometimes Slate contributor), investigated the changes wrought on local newspapers by Times expansion. How does it affect circulation of local papers? How do local papers compete editorially?

The New York Times Co.’s assault on local markets is a lot like Wal-Mart’s: From a regional stronghold, it spiraled out to battle for national market share. The Times Co. revealed its imperial designs in its 2003 annual report, which George and Waldfogel quote:

[O]ur long-term strategy is to operate the leading news and advertising media in each of the markets in which we compete—both nationally and locally. The centerpiece of this strategy is extending the reach of the New York Times’s high-quality journalism into homes and businesses in every city, town, village and hamlet of this country.

A better analogy than Wal-Mart would be the hypothetical expansion of Tiffany & Co. into every burg and hamlet in the nation, but you get the idea.

George and Waldfogel relied on Audit Bureau of Circulations data to plot circulation changes for the Times and 600 local and regional newspapers in 11,612 ZIP codes from 1996 to 2000. To measure changes in local coverage, they drew on Burrelle’s Media Directory, which maps 30,000 editors and reporters at U.S. dailies to about 150 beats. Increases in local beats were interpreted as evidence of greater local content.

They found that the increased availability of the Times cut into the circulation of local newspapers among “targeted readers”—that is, well-educated readers—but that local newspaper readership increased among those not targeted by the Times—the less-educated. Finally, they found reason to believe local newspapers become more local wherever the Times invades.

A brief note about my provocative headline: George and Waldfogel never describe local newspaper adaptation as “dumbing-down.” That’s my personal interpretation of what it means to become more local while targeting a less-educated audience, and I’m sticking to it. George and Waldfogel put it more gingerly: “The defection of Times-consumers from local dailies, however, induces changes in local newspaper coverage that may benefit some consumers while harming others.” Sort of like the arrival of Wal-Mart!

Besides making local newspapers dumber, the invasion of the Times may make them less desirable to advertisers, who prefer educated readers over less educated ones because education is an excellent marker of affluence. By extension, the arrival may even erode the value of some local papers.

In “Does the New York Times Spread Ignorance and Apathy?” a cheeky draft of their paper from 2002, George and Waldfogel uncovered another possible effect of Times expansion: “[A]s Times penetration increases, these readers are less likely to vote in local elections.”

Never mind Times print expansion for a moment. What about the great Web incursion, which is looting educated readers from local newspapers everywhere? The Web editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, CNN, the Guardian, and many other news sites appeal to the same demographic that defects to the Times. And the Web isn’t the only invasive media species stealing local audiences. Since I bought a DVR, I’ve whittled my video news consumption down to the BBC World News at the expense of local TV news.

I put my question to Waldfogel, who agrees that the Web and cable put similar pressures on local papers. Maybe I should change my headline to: “How the New York Times and the Web (Especially Slate) Make Local Newspapers Dumber While Spreading Ignorance and Apathy.”


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