Population vs. news rank

On Wikipedia you can find a list of cities or metropolitan areas in the U.S. ranked by population. You can also find a list of newspapers in the U.S. ranked by circulation. It doesn’t take long to notice that they’re not the same list! Sure, they’re both dominated by New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but after that the order can vary. Why? What does it say about a city if its newspaper is more or less widely read than you’d expect from its size? That’s a good question, and we’ll get to it, but first let’s compare the size and circulation rankings.

For the city side of this comparison, I used the Census Bureau’s July 2011 population estimates for Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs), which is the new technical term the Census has just rolled out to replace “metropolitan areas.” Suffice it to say that the CBSA includes a core city or two and the associated smaller cities, towns, and suburbs that are bound to it by commuting patterns and other socioeconomic ties. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just refer to CBSAs as “metro areas.”

For the newspaper side, I looked only at daily newspapers, and specifically only at the 100 highest-circulation dailies. I used the official weekday circulation figures for the six month period ending on March 31, 2012, which include both print and electronic editions—but only of newspapers that do have a print edition, so papers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (once printed, now online-only) and the St. Louis Beacon (online-only from the beginning) aren’t counted. When a metro area included two or more papers from the top 100 highest-circulation dailies, I added their circulation figures together to come up with the metro area’s combined circulation. The “news rank” is the rank of this combined circulation figure. I ignored the three truly national papers in the top 100 dailies: the Wall Street Journal (ranked #1 in this period), USA Today (#2), and Investor’s Business Daily (#62).

Without further ado, here’s the table:

Population rank Metro area Combined circulation Paper(s) News rank
1 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 3,128,192 NY Times (#3), NY Daily News (#7), NY Post (#8), Newsday (#16), Newark Star-Ledger (#24), Hackensack Record (#45) 1
2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 1,063,682 LA Times (#4), Orange County Register (#37), La Opinión (#79), LA Daily News (#85), Long Beach Press-Telegram (#100) 2
3 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 940,978 Chicago Tribune (#9), Chicago Sun-Times (#10), Daily Herald (#78) 3
4 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 557,102 Dallas Morning News (#11), Fort Worth Star-Telegram (#50) 5
5 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 384,007 Houston Chronicle (#12) 12
6 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 413,374 Philadelphia Inquirer (#13), Wilmington News-Journal (#90) 9
7 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 507,615 Washington Post (#6) 6
8 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 348,196 South FL Sun-Sentinel (#40), Miami Herald (#41) 14
9 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 183,415 Atlanta Journal-Constitution (#36) 28
10 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 343,025 Boston Globe (#25), Boston Herald (#63) 15
11 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 235,350 SF Chronicle (#23) 20
12 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 121,825 Riverside Press-Enterprise (#64) 47
13 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 387,837 Detroit Free Press (#22), Detroit News (#54) 11
14 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 321,600 Arizona Republic (#14) 17
15 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 336,941 Seattle Times (#21), Tacoma News Tribune (#96) 16
16 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 490,154 Minneapolis Star-Tribune (#17), St. Paul Pioneer Press (#32) 7
17 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 218,614 San Diego Union-Tribune (#26) 21
18 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 457,009 Tampa Bay Times (#18), Tampa Tribune (#43) 8
19 St. Louis, MO-IL 196,232 St. Louis Post-Dispatch (#29) 24
20 Baltimore-Towson, MD 195,561 Baltimore Sun (#30) 25

A few observations:

  • You may notice that not all the news ranks are accounted for here; for example, where’s the #4 ranked metro area, between Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth? It is in fact San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA, the 32nd-most populous metro area in the country, also known as Silicon Valley, which happens to contain the San Jose Mercury-News, the fifth-highest-circulation newspaper in the country. How does Silicon Valley have such a well-read newspaper with so few people? I’m not sure, but the Mercury-News owns several other papers in the Bay Area, most notably the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune, and recently their editorial content has been mostly merged, so it’s likely that their readers are all being counted together. This would also explain why the San Francisco metro area (#11 in population, including Contra Costa County and Oakland) has a disproportionately low news rank of 20, despite being well educated and uncommonly literate.
  • Some other metro areas that aren’t in the top 20 by population but are by news rank are Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO (population rank 21, news rank 10), Pittsburgh, PA (population rank 23, news rank 13), Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA (population rank 24, news rank 18), and Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH (population rank 29, news rank 19). Pittsburgh has two major dailies, the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review, while the others have one each.
  • If you omit Orange County (as I initially did by accident) Chicagoland actually beats out Greater Los Angeles in news rank. As it is, the two metro areas are pretty close—a lot closer in news rank than in population.
  • The top-20 metro area with the lowest news rank by far is Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA, which is also surely the most obscure. Its news rank of 47 is far lower than that of its nearest competitor, Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA, which ranked 28. Other metro areas less populous but more newspaper-happy than Riverside-etc. include Kansas City, KS-MO (population rank 30, news rank 23), Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY (population rank 50, news rank 34), and Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA (population rank 59, news rank 39). I imagine the Riverside-area papers fare so poorly in part because the Inland Empire, as that metro area is known, is close enough to Los Angeles as to be L.A. Times turf. I suspect it may also have something to do with the dominant landform in the Inland Empire, endless suburban sprawl; newspapers, I’d hypothesize, thrive on centralization.
  • Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR, though not in the top 20 metro areas, had by far the largest disparity between population rank and news rank of all the areas I calculated. Though the region is 73rd in population, it has a news rank of 29 thanks to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which must be a pretty great paper or something.
  • For some reason I’d expected those metro areas known for being disproportionately well-educated and hip to have higher combined circulations than their population size would predict. This did not turn out to be particularly true. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA, as mentioned, punched in below its weight, with a population rank of 11 and a news rank of 20. The Portland area did have a higher news rank than population rank, it’s true, but the difference wasn’t too dramatic: 18 vs. 24. Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX, had a population rank of 35 but a disappointing news rank of 41.
  • Right now, the Seattle area’s population rank, 15, and news rank, 16, are almost the same. But things looked different before the Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication in 2009. If we were to add the P-I’s 2007 circulation to Seattle’s combined circulation, the metro area’s news rank would jump from 16 to 8.
  • The news rank seems to reflect a metro area’s historical circumstances better than the population rank does; in this sense, the news rank is a sort of lagging indicator of cultural and economic conditions. Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI, for example, which lost 3.5% of its population between 2000 and 2010, has a population rank of 13 but a news rank of 11. Unlike the newer, on-the-rise Sun Belt areas ranked just above and below it, Detroit has two major daily newspapers, each of which dates back well over a century. Newspapers are formidable institutions; they neither rise nor fall instantaneously.

It’s tempting to read this comparison for conclusions about metro areas, but ultimately I think it’s more accurate to read it as revealing something about newspapers. The Tampa Bay area, for example, happens to be blessed with both an average-quality daily, the Tampa Tribune, and an extremely high-quality, multi-Pulitzer-winning, nonprofit-owned paper, the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). That probably explains why Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL has a population rank of 18 but a news rank of 8.

If we did want to draw conclusions about the metro areas themselves from this table, we’d need to first control for a number of factors, such as various education and income indicators and the presence of other print and online media (weekly papers, magazines, local news sites, etc.). Only if those variables didn’t explain the discrepancies between population rank and news rank could we begin to consider less concrete cultural explanations. But that’s a project for another day.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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