Automotive advertising and newspaper struggles

Many city newspapers in North America are struggling.  A few months back in a post I suggested it was because they were not covering local topics, instead picking up on non-analytical wire copy and propaganda media releases rather than reporting actual events.

The Global Urbanist has another theory, suggesting in a recent e-mail that newspaper declines are actually linked to a decline in advertising dollars from car companies and the fact that automotive-based commuters simply don’t have time to read the paper.
So s/he asks:

Why do newspapers have an automotive section?

On reviewing the world’s largest newspapers, I realized they circulated in regions with high transit use.  Japanese newspapers hold the top five spots in circulation numbers.   Japanese are also the largest users of passenger rail services.  Almost half of Tokyo’s 30 million residents commute by rail everyday. In the United States the top newspapers also correlate with the top mass transit centres with the exception of USA Today.  That exception could be explained as being the airline’s newspaper.  Daily airline passenger traffic in the U.S. is equivalent to almost half of New York City transit user traffic.

This makes sense since a train ride or a flight is the ideal environment to read a newspaper as opposed to the attention demands of driving an automobile.  So why do North American newspapers spend so many resources promoting automobile culture, and hardly any promoting transit?  Does the decline of transit culture in North America equate to the decline in daily newspaper readership?

Of course the answer is newspapers are funded by advertising, not readership.  There are a lot of advertising dollars coming from the automobile culture.  Whether it is a classified ad to buy or sell a used vehicle, an auto dealership promoting new deals, or a manufacturer promoting the upcoming model; there’s a lot of revenue coming in from drivers.  When was the last time Bombardier or Siemens promoted their latest rail innovation in the newspaper?  So newspapers are initially drawn by the advertising revenue from the automotive industry that leads to the long term detriment of their readership.

Today North American newspapers find themselves on a road to extinction.  On-line options get much of the blame, but these options are also available to Japanese, Germans, and British, all of whom maintain substantial readership numbers among their major newspapers.  The lengthening of the North American driving commute is as responsible if not the key factor to the decline of the continent’s newspaper industry.  When cars drive themselves or there’s significant increase in mass transit traffic the industry might start to recover.  Metro International is the fastest growing newspaper in the world and there key success factor is that they distribute at transit hubs.

Your thoughts?
p.s. I’ve been busy with family and vacation, but have several big posts percolating that I hope to post in the next few days


  1. That the decline in newspapers is related to the rise in the automobile commute is a very interesting idea. Certainly the demise of the afternoon newspaper in the 1970s is directly related to the snarls in traffic–too hard to get the papers to homes in the suburbs–and to fewer people free to buy one on the way home.

    The seeming success of Metro-style transit give-aways in big markets also argues for the relation. And I’d say that the great popularity of the cell phone is also in large part due to car commutes: your work day is extended by an hour in each direction if you can work the phones from your car. Not as good as working from home or being able to walk to work, maybe–no, what did I say? For many people their car is their home!

  2. KenF says:

    Another problem with not reading newspapers because of driving is the quantity and quality of news one gets is lower. Someone in a car most likely gets their news via radio as part of an “entertainment package,” and it is likely limited to a few minutes of headlines every so often. Print tends to have a much higher density of information than radio. And most people do not listen to NPR, which in the US does a better than average job of presenting news during the rush hour times.

    As for online vs print for newspapers; reading online is difficult on transit, and requires a device such as the iPhone. And, unless you can preload the device before your trip, it will not work in most underground systems in this country. So, maybe that’s why the Europeans are sticking with print newspapers for now.

  3. Wendy Waters says:

    Great points. When I took the sky train (vancouver’s “metro”) to work, I often read the give aways in part because they were small enough to manage while standing. The Globe and Mail is not. My ride was only 8 minutes, plus the platform standing time. About the right time to read one of these — one of the papers had a couple good political columnists, so it was not all news wire drivel.

    In Europe, a lot of the papers are tabloid style, if I remember right, making them easier to read in close quarters on transit.

    Also, for what it’s worth I notice a lot of people at work reading the big daily newspaper at their desks at lunch time, or in the lunch room. That’s likely the only time of the day they have time to do so. This isn’t great for subscriptions because a dozen people will read the same newspaper, breaking it into sections.

  4. Dan Schauer says:

    Interesting idea, on a new victim to assign to the long auto commute. I also agree that the market could come back if ridership increases. As a Portland urban planning student who used to work in newspaper design here, I can tell you that many trend-setting design consultants have been pushing U.S. publishers for years to adopt the tabloid formats that are read by commuters in Britain. Instead, of course, U.S. papers trimmed their broadsheet pages’ widths to the minimum and came up with some ugly column widths.

    The single biggest blow to the bottom line of newspapers has been the loss of classified advertising revenue, sold by the line. Craigslist took it, it’s never coming back, and news executives are still grappling with how to recover. They are not the only industry figuring out how to monetize digital content (Facebook hasn’t turned a profit yet.) You are right in analyzing the news industry’s reliance on auto advertising, in classified lineage and in display ads, and the Siemens/Bombardier comment is telling. Plus, the dearth of intelligent local news and analysis. News publishers abandon this at their peril. But they are also drowning and have to cut to survive.

    A bleak time, that hopefully will pass. Someday I hope weekly or semi-weekly news tabloids, free or no, are popular with crowds of transit users, and those tabloids are “zoned” to local neighborhoods and districts. How cool would that be? As an advertiser, I’d want my product there in front of those eyeballs.

  5. The car companies are getting desperate, and the Main Stream Media (here in NYC) are in collusion with them, running fear-mongering ‘Special Reports’ on the dangers of not spending six hours a day in an otherwise empty SUV: witness CBS2′s ludicrous “Bicycle Bedlam” series last summer warning New Yorkers how dangerous bike lanes are. I think the media’s scared of plummeting revenue from car companies, and car companies are scared that Americans are slowly discovering that life is much more pleasant without a car. Any thoughts? There’s also a great blog covering this, called STREETSBLOG NYC.
    Jack E.

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