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Newspaper bane: Nobody reads the stories

  • The newspaper business stinks
  • Take a look at the product
  • People don't read, they skim
  • Readers trust peers, not institutions

Does anyone really "read" a newspaper anymore? Did they ever?

It's a pretty important question, given all the newspapers trading hands these days. The Washington Post and The Boston Globe are the latest.

(Read more: Red Sox owner buys Boston Globe for $70 million)

Of course, the deals seem to get cheaper. They're in the millions now, when not too long ago they were in the billions. Another sign of the industry's ongoing decline. That downward trend started with TV competition, was accelerated by the Internet and seems to have solidified with the mobile explosion of the last few years.

According to Gallup, 55 percent of Americans get their news from TV, 21 percent from the Internet, and 6 percent from radio. Print? 9 percent.

The latest raft of deals, particularly the entrance of digital titans like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is prompting talk about arresting the decline. But those discussions are centering on advances in distribution and advertising. No doubt those can help.

But no one is really talking about the product.

Once you take the movie times (Fandango) and the classified ads (Craigslist) out of the paper, you're pretty much left with news stories. (OK, and the comics.)

And those news stories haven't changed much.

But reading habits have.

"There is a lot of evidence in a variety of fields, including highly technical and sophisticated fields such as science and medicine, that there is more 'horizontal' reading [skimming] today because the volume of material has grown so dramatically," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, in an email.

"So, even the most expert readers, trying to keep up with all the developments in their fields, are struggling to sort through the titles and abstracts of articles and figuring out which ones they should read from beginning to end."

That change is likely here to stay. According to a recent study by the Pew Internet Project, fewer school kids are reading and writing in the traditional way. They are skimming and surfing, whether the material is on paper or on screen.

Of course we see that at the CNBC website, too. About half of our readers dump out of a story after the first three paragraphs. A handful might make it to the end. Others in our craft have noticed this. (In fact, it's likely that no more than 16 percent of people who started this article made it this far, based on typical reader behavior.)

Of course, people may have been skimming all along. But now, with our technology, it's more obvious.

Want an example? Check out this neat little feature we did a few weeks ago. About two-thirds of the way through it cites a book by Malcolm Gladwell. Now, check out the first comment for the story. It suggests we check out a book by … Malcolm Gladwell. Sigh.

You've seen some outfits respond. Bloomberg-Businessweek, for example, puts bullet points at the top of its articles and "bottom lines" at, appropriately, the bottom. Other magazines and papers have started featuring news summaries. And various outlets use boldface and other effects to make items stand out. (If you've been reading, and most of you probably haven't, I'm using some of these tricks in this story.)

But all these gimmicks aside, the "deep dive" news stories, much as us serious journalist types love them, seem to be on the way out. The premium seems to be on getting the who-what-where-when-why-how up high and hard.

"The inverted pyramid becomes much more important than ever before," said Chris Roush, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina. "We are emphasizing teaching the basics."

Of course, the news has to be informative and accurate—at least in the eye of the beholder. Apparently newspapers have an issue there, too. According to Gallup, only one in four Americans actually has any confidence in newspapers.

"Americans' confidence in newspapers and television news has been slowly eroding for many years, worsening further since 2007," Gallup researcher Elizabeth Mendes wrote in the report. "By that point, newspapers and television news had been struggling for years to figure out how to adjust their strategy for a growing Internet audience. It was also around that time that social networking sites truly began to proliferate, causing news outlets and journalists to work to find their place on them and serving to expand the role of citizen media and user-generated content."


So along with the change in reading habits, newspaper owners have to consider the change in the way people judge what to read.

"There is lots of interest … in people reading material [especially social media] by jumping into the 'flow' of information from time to time in the way that people might scoop up a pitcher of water from a river," said Pew's Rainie. "This makes sense to me and raises interesting questions about their strategies and the 'information gatekeepers' that are helping filter their information. 'Editors' of newspapers and other publications are certainly still very important, but peers in social networks are also rising in importance as they pass along articles from every conceivable kind of publishing platform."

Conclusion: Newspapers (like the Post and Globe) need to make stories skimmable and sharable. (And I'm pretty sure no one read that sentence.)

—Allen Wastler is managing editor of CNBC Digital. He can be followed at AWastler@twitter.com.

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