Who Reads the News?

by Reihan Salam

As avid news and opinion consumers, we are a deeply, deeply unrepresentative bunch, as evidenced by a new study from Sharad Goel, Seth Flaxman, and Justin Rao of Microsoft Research. Tim Wu recently summarized their findings:

Out of a sample of 1.2 million American users, just over fifty thousand, or four per cent, were “active news customers” of “front section” news. The other ninety-six per cent found other things to read.

The authors defined an active news customer as someone who read at least ten substantive news articles and two opinion pieces in a three-month period—if you remove the requirement of reading opinion pieces, the number of news readers climbs to fourteen per cent. The authors studied U.S.-based Web users who, between March and May of 2013, accumulated a total of 2.3 billion page views.

News can be a vague category; the authors defined by collecting news sites with appreciable traffic (the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Fox News), blogs (Daily Kos and Breitbart), and regional dailies (the Seattle Times and the Denver Post). Using “machine learning” algorithms, the authors separated what, based on word usage, they considered front-section news from the other content on news sites, like sports, weather, life style, and entertainment. What’s left is the narrow, classical news article, about, say, the State of the Union, as opposed to one about the latest adventures of Justin Bieber or Farrah Abraham.

Various influences shaped the study. The data was collected only from Internet Explorer users (who, the authors say, tend to be slightly older), and it represents only those who agreed to make their Web-browsing history available. Additionally, just because people don’t surf news Web sites doesn’t mean that they don’t get news from other sources, like physical newspapers, talk radio, Twitter, “The Colbert Report,” or the evening news.

The study has a number of limitations, yet its chief virtue, as Wu makes clear, is that it measures not what readers say they do but rather what they actually do. And Wu’s conclusion is that politics junkies are best understood as one of many subcultures:

To be sure, twelve to forty-two million potential readers is a respectable audience; it’s more than that of mixed martial arts, say, even if it’s not at the level of N.F.L. football. But, mainly, it suggests that attention to politics, once a basic mandate of citizenship, is now an entertainment option, in fierce competition with other forms of entertainment. Politicians’ awareness that they don’t have a guaranteed audience may also account for the increased use of reality-TV strategies in politics. We can see the congressional shutdown, in part, as an effort to move the numbers.

This isn’t a particularly discomfiting conclusion for conservatives, who are less inclined to think of political pursuits as ennobling than liberals. See, for example, Julian Sanchez’s essay on why intellectuals tend to favor government solutions to social problems. One take is that those of us who pay close attention to policymaking and policymakers are the deluded ones, as at least professional sports fans are generally aware that they have no influence on the outcomes of sporting events, with the possible, partial exception of screaming Seattle Seahawks fans (AKA “The 12th Man”). But for those of us who are interested in effecting political change, the findings of Goel et al. are a useful reminder that we have to find ways to connect with people outside of our bubble. In his 2008 essay “Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism,” Conor Friedersdorf argued that “a political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone,” a statement that is strangely apposite in light of the fact that so few Americans regularly read things that we would recognize as commentary and analysis:

Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project. The nation’s English departments, journalism schools, and mainstream publications teem with talented young liberal reporters who, for all their biases and blind spots, regularly produce stunning narrative writing. It certainly persuades me to embrace certain of their positions on occasion, or at least to modify my own. Will the next generation of left-leaning journalists continue to dominate the stories we tell ourselves as a society, as surely as their ideological cohorts dominate The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Newsweek today? Will liberals continue to produce the bulk of reportage in America, to pen the most ambitious literary non-fiction, and to miss relevant facts and narratives that a reporter more versed in right-leaning political philosophy would’ve caught?

Things have improved since 2008, as I think Friedersdorf would agree. But it’s not clear that they’ve improved enough. The 2012 presidential campaign was a perfect distillation of how the narrative sophistication of left-liberals can flummox the right. With the help of Steven Spielberg and other compelling storytellers, the president’s allies were able to leverage relatively modest Super PAC resources to spread outlandish, discredited stories about the alleged perfidy of Mitt Romney. Conservatives struggled to respond in similarly resonant fashion, and tens of millions of dollars thus went to waste.