Editorial: The troubling outlook for democracy when reading declines

A San Diego State University survey of more than a million teens found the percentage of high school seniors who read a book, magazine or newspaper every day has plummeted from 60 percent in the 1970s to 16 percent in 2016.

Teens, not surprisingly, instead are picking up snippets of knowledge (and other things) on social media and streaming entertainment. Such a habit can have serious implications for our democracy.

Gabrielle Martin, one of the co-authors of the study led by SDSU psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, told the university's news center, "Scrolling through social media platforms can be a passive way of taking in information, or misinformation, and it requires a shorter attention span. I worry that this doesn't help develop critical thinking skills in the same way reading traditional media would."

Kids in increasing numbers are not reading for pleasure anymore, the study concludes. The report reveals that in the early 1990s, 33% of 10th-graders said they read newspapers almost every day.By 2016, only 2% did.

This naturally concerns those of us in the newspaper business. It should concern you as well, for an increasing body of research points to two worrisome consequences when newspapers are not used or available - a decline in civic engagement and an increase in questionable government behaviors.

A 2018 report in The Journal of Politics suggested that voters without access to newspapers get less information and less substantive information, and they are less well-informed about candidates. A 2018 Swiss study found that voter participation is higher in communities with access to strong local newspaper coverage. A team of researchers including two University of Illinois professors published findings in July 2018 that communities with reduced access to newspapers saw costs of local government borrowing rise as much as 11 basis points.

In addition to all this, a study published last November in the Journal of Communications found that voters become more partisan when their access to a local newspaper declines.

"The more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government," said Johanna Dunaway, professor of communications at Texas A&M University, a co-author of that study.

These reports did not differentiate subjects according to age, but it is easy to see how the findings will translate to future generations if they do not make use of the comprehensive, in-depth resource for local and government news that newspapers provide. Without newspapers, a significant percentage of investigative journalism - the type of reporting that uncovers graft, exposes polluters, finds waste in government and protects underrepresented people, withers and dies.

Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen and Opinion Editor Jim Slusher will discuss these issues in more detail Wednesday in the kickoff of a series of news-related programs hosted by Northwest Suburban High School District 214. The free program begins at 7 p.m. at Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights. To register, call (847) 718-7700 or go online to

For more than a century, newspapers have been adapting to technology-related shifts in reader behavior, and they continue to make adjustments to remain relevant and essential in the Digital Age. The research shows that goal is important not just for newspapers but for all our communities.

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