Poll Dancing

A request, of Jack Shafer and anyone else who refers to the recent Pew survey—the one studying people’s opinions about the loss of local newspapers—as evidence of Americans’ declining concern for papers as civic institutions: if you’re going to cite the poll, could you please at least get its findings correct?

Shafer wrote on Friday that, per the poll, “a majority of Americans don’t care whether their local newspaper lives or dies.” Which is…incorrect. While, yes, only 33 percent of respondents said they’d miss their paper “a lot” were it to fold, an additional 25 percent said they’d miss it “some.” That’s 58 percent of people who’d be doing some missing—not anything to write home about, granted, give-a-damn-wise…but, still: the majority is on the side of the carers in this case.

And, by that token, if Shafer is defining “caring” not according to people’s personal opinions about newspapers, but rather to the aggregate metric of papers’ influence on civic life…then his claim is even more incorrect: 74 percent of respondents said that their local newspaper closing would hurt civic life. (In addition to the 43 percent who said that it would hurt civic life “a lot,” 31 percent said it would hurt civic life “some.”)

Now, perhaps the muddiness here is a question of semantics (does saying that you care “some” really indicate caring…or is it more suggestive of apathy?) as much as anything else. And with numbers that skew this close to the 50-percent mark when it comes to citizens’ concern about newspapers, the overall takeaway of the poll, for everyone involved in newspaper journalism—online or in print, on the business side or the editorial—should be that we need to do a much better job of explaining the civic value of the kind of systematized local, beat-focused reporting on which most newspapers, currently, focus.

In the meantime, though: more clarity is in order when it comes to citing the Pew study. As Eric Boehlert, who’s been covering the poll and its (mis)use over at Media Matters, put it, “Personally, I just don’t get this mini-push to claim that readers don’t care about newspapers. But please, let’s not use phony numbers to prop up the soggy claim.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.