15. Mainstream Newspapers Ignore Inner City Low-income Communities and Rural “Fringe Areas”

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW Title: “Trimming the Fringe: How Newspapers Shun Low-Income Readers, “ Date: March/April 1997, Author: Gilbert Cranberg

SSU Censored Researchers: Judith Westfall and Catherine Hickinbotham SSU
Faculty Evaluator: Melinda Barnard, Ph.D.

Mainstream newspapers around the United States are changing how they measure success. “Market effectiveness,” instead of high circulation levels, is the new criteria. Upper-class, high-income readers attract high-paying advertisers, leaving low-income subscribers with a diminished voice.

Supporting what amounts to a drive for higher-class readers, a 1995 report by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) recommended these strategies to mainstream papers:

* Focus on the “good” customer who pays on time, and who, in contrast to the “marginal subscriber” doesn’t need to be lured with discounts;

* Concentrate on aggressive consumer pricing;

* Eliminate “fringe circulation” which is “of little value to advertisers.”

The “fringe circulation” issue has received some public attention, as papers such as The Rocky Mountain News and The Des Moines Register have cut service to readers who were deemed “too distant.” But fringe circulation has another, less-discussed meaning, one that raises troubling questions. According to Miles Groves, the NAA’s chief economist, “fringe circulation” has a socio-economic dimension. “We’re basically delivering eyeballs to advertisers,” said Groves, who added that “newspapers have to serve the whole community which is their franchise.” Neverthe-less, “low-income areas are not where you concentrate efforts,” he said. When asked about inner-city readers’ disadvantage by aggressive pricing and fewer discounts, Grove’s response was, “Isn’t that the American way, for the poor to pay more?”

Is this a sort of, “If you can afford it, we report it” mandate? If so, then low-income inner-city families—large numbers of whom are people of color—are being ignored by major newspapers throughout the United States. Newspapers, instead, are zeroing in on would-be subscribers with attractive demographics: homeowners with good jobs, educations, and incomes. Papers are now using “precision marketing systems” and database technologies to more effectively reach these specific populations.

In an August 1996 column, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser noted that unlike the Post, “many newspapers have essentially adopted redlining: they simply cease to serve areas of little interest to advertisers.” Thus, according to author Gilbert Cranberg, with few exceptions, the profitability of newspapers in monopoly markets has come to rely on an ethically bankrupt formula that should be embarrassing for a business that has always claimed to rest on a public trust.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR GILBERT CRANBERG: “The gist of my article, ‘Trimming the Fringe,’ is that the demographically-challenged are of minimal interest to mainstream newspaper circulation departments; consequently, scant efforts are made to market to them. The implications are, to say the least, unhealthy, both for a press with an increasingly elite, rather than mass readership, and for a society in which the news and information needs of the inner city—and the less affluent—receive short shrift.

“I am unaware of any challenge to the facts and conclusions in the piece. Nonetheless, if discussion of this issue has appeared in the mainstream press, it has escaped my notice.

“Interestingly, it was a non journalist, Randall Bezanson, former dean of the School of Law at Washington and Lee, a First Amendment authority who teaches communications law at the University of Iowa, who called attention to the article and the issue. He did so in a paper at a symposium of leading communications law scholars, The Hutchins Commission Fifty Years Later, October 10-11, 1997, at the University of Illinois. Bezanson’s paper, ‘The Atomization of the Newspaper,’ to be published in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Communication Law and Policy, relied significantly on ‘Trimming the Fringe’ as compelling evidence of market-driven decision-making in journalism.

“Newspaper Association of America publications are rich sources of information about newspaper circulation strategies. Especially revealing for me was 1995 Circulation Facts, Figures and Logic. This publication is updated periodically. The most recent issue, obtainable from the association, would be useful to anyone interested in pursuing the subject.”