This study attempts to capture one critical index of our nation's social health - the literacy of its major cities (population of 250,000 and above). This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

This set of factors measures people's use of their literacy and thus presents a large-scale portrait of our nation's cultural vitality. From this data we can better perceive the extent and quality of the long-term literacy essential to individual economic success, civic participation, and the quality of life in a community and a nation.

As I've mentioned before, the ranking is necessarily an interpretation of data. What matters most is not whether the rank ordering changes but what communities do to promote the kinds of literacy practices that the data track.

Critical Concerns

In addition to the rankings for 2008, I also examined two critical concerns. First, a point commonly made about the decline of newspaper circulation is that it is caused by the rise of reading newspapers online. The conventional wisdom here is similar to the claims about the decline in bookstores: it's caused by the rise in online book buying. And that is the same conventional wisdom that, pre-internet, claimed that library use and support of bookstores were mutually incompatible. More free book sources would be associated with fewer bookstores. And in all cases, the conventional wisdom is wrong. As the data for this and previous surveys indicates, cities ranked highly for having better-used libraries also have more booksellers; cities with more booksellers also have a higher proportion of people buying books online; and cities with newspapers with high per capita circulation rates also have a high proportion of people reading newspapers online. Cities that rank highly in one form of literate behavior are likely to rank highly in the other forms and practices of literacy. A literate society tends to practice many forms of literacy not just one or another.

I am currently working on a forthcoming similar study of international literacy, and my preliminary findings provide compelling insights about American literacy on the world stage. A common benchmark of literacy is newspaper circulation. Worldwide, the number of newspapers, paid circulation, and newspaper advertising have all gone up in recent years. Some 1.4 billion people throughout the world now read a daily newspaper. In terms of per capita paid circulation, the US ranks #31 in the world, while Japan exceeds US circulation rates by three times. The Republic of Korea, Singapore, Venezuela, Finland, Greece, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway, among others, all significantly surpass US circulation rates—often at a substantially higher cost to consumers. On average, newspapers in Japan cost twice what US papers cost. Papers in Denmark and Greece cost nearly four times the average daily US paper.

While it is too early in this study to draw conclusions, it is nevertheless striking that newspaper readership rates in the US's global economic competitors are significantly higher than in the US. Since literacy is generally regarded as a barometer of a nation's social, cultural, and economic health, perhaps these findings are cause for national concern.

Dr. Jack Miller,
Central Connecticut State University