Future Tense

The Unknowable News Audience

Giant yellow question mark sitting at a computer desk reading the laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo bySeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This article was adapted from Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public by Jacob L. Nelson, and reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.

In the fall of 2018, Ezra Klein spoke with media critic Jay Rosen about journalism’s relationship with its audience: “There are a lot of ways somebody can tell you what they want,” the Vox.com founder and then editor-at-large said, “but the specific way journalists are learning what their audience wants is real-time analytics platforms.”

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Before the advent of digital news production and the online measurement tools that followed, journalists tended to decide among themselves what to report and publish, and assumed the audience would agree with their judgment. Now, journalists across the globe increasingly go through their daily routines while face-to-face with online measurement data that describe the audience’s reaction to their output as those reactions unfold.

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Perhaps the strangest thing about this development is how ineffective it appears to have been in improving journalism’s standing among the public. If journalists are finally listening to the audience, why is journalism so disdained? If news publishers can now determine exactly what the audience wants, why are so many struggling to survive? And if solving journalism’s ailments begins with giving the audience more of a say, why does it end with so much confusion?

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The answer is that, contrary to the notion that online metrics would lead to a “rationalization of audience understanding,” audience analytic data continue to leave plenty of room for interpretation.

Audience metrics show journalists how people behave, but not why. Journalists therefore use these data, which reflect what audiences do, to make educated guesses about what they want. These guesses reflect how journalists imagine the audience more than they do the actual audience.

News organizations—like all media companies—historically have invested a great deal of resources into identifying their audience’s demographic information and media preferences. In the past, news organizations relied on basic measures of exposure to determine audience interest (such as newspaper copies sold or news broadcasts watched). As news publishers have transitioned to a digital landscape, they have embraced online audience metrics that provide more granular information about the audience. These measures can track similar exposure data (such as the number of people who visit a site), as well as more specific information, such as the amount of time people spend on a site, the number of times the site is mentioned on social media, the path people took to get to the site, and the number of times they visited the site before deciding to become a subscriber.

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News industry stakeholders increasingly focus on audience measurement data not only because it has grown more granular, but also because they have grown more desperate. As many news publishers watched their economic stability evaporate throughout the past few decades, they lost confidence that their gut instincts alone would lead them to the large audiences necessary for their survival.

As a result, news publishers have become fixated on the accumulation of audience data that is typically collected internally as well as provided by online audience measurement firms such as Comscore and Nielsen. These data once were the sole responsibility of a news organization’s market research team, but have quickly captured the focus for most, if not all, of its employees. Now, monitors displaying in real time the number of people on an organization’s site are littered throughout their newsrooms for all to see.

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Although many news publications subscribe to at least one source of online audience measurement, they also exhibit uncertainty about how to best incorporate the data into editorial decisions. This uncertainty stems from the fact that even sophisticated measures of audience behavior paint an incomplete portrait of who the audience is and what they want from news. For example, a digital news site like Slate now can observe how its online audience interacts with its content, but remains limited when it comes to its understanding why they spent time with some stories but not others.

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The way that journalists react to the ambiguity of audience data varies across organizations, and depends in no small part on the underlying assumptions about the public held by the journalists within those organizations. Some might think that a news story failed to take off because of its packaging—a boring headline or a dull photo. Others may believe that it’s the result of an uninterested public. And still others might assume the journalism itself is the problem—people didn’t read the story because they didn’t like how it was written.

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The different ways that journalists make sense of their audiences also reveals that audience data have become a complement to—rather than a substitute for—intuition. Journalism’s imagined audience continues to stem not solely from its practitioners’ hard data, nor from their own firsthand experience, but from a confluence of the two.

The limits of audience data are apparent in the way that journalists interpret them—or sometimes reject them entirely. For example, some journalists are skeptical when it comes to self-reported audience data like reader surveys or letters to the editor, because audiences tend to exaggerate their news exposure generally and their interest in political news specifically. As the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote, “Ask audiences what they want, and they’ll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they’ll mostly eat candy.”

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Yet others view audience analytic data with a similar level of skepticism. These metrics tend to privilege clicks above all else, despite the fact that clicks do not necessarily reflect whether people actually read the story or how much they enjoyed it. This leads some journalists to prefer more qualitative forms of audience research that rely on focus groups and in-person discussions to better understand what audiences want—and expect—from journalism. While some believe audience metric data offer journalists a cold, hard dose of reality, others think that these data mislead journalists by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These differences in interpretations affect how journalists ultimately pursue their audiences. In my own research, I looked into how journalists at two Chicago-based news outlets, the Chicago Tribune and the local news nonprofit City Bureau, think about and pursue their audiences. I found that Tribune journalists—specifically the newspaper’s digital editors—used analytic data to evaluate how audiences responded to the headlines, photos, and descriptions the editors used to accompany online news stories. To them, the obstacle to success was not a lack of audience interest, but the struggle to attract audience attention in a crowded digital media environment. City Bureau’s editors, on the other hand, believe the issue is a lack of trust. So while the Tribune devotes resources to perfecting online article headlines and social media distribution, City Bureau organizes public events to cultivate conversations between journalists and community members.

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In short, for the Tribune, the pursuit of the audience is a battle for attention. At City Bureau, it’s a quest for connection. Neither of these approaches is necessarily right or wrong—they instead illustrate journalism researcher Angèle Christin’s conclusion about journalists’ approach to audience measurement data: “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for handling metrics.”

The perseverance of distinct, contradictory imagined audiences at a time when journalists within many newsrooms routinely receive detailed audience measurement reports indicates that no amount of audience data are likely to succeed in lifting the cloud of uncertainty that journalists face when it comes to interpreting audience behavior. Consequently, even if the world continues to shift toward one where such data are even more easily and readily available, there still will be lingering questions, such as who gets counted as “the audience,” and who is left out.

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Journalists will likely continue addressing these questions the same way that they always have: by drawing on their own gut instincts and assumptions about the people they aspire to reach.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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