As newsrooms seek new audiences, their perceptions of readers are slow to change

The conventional wisdom of the digital era is that journalists can now know about the people reading their stories in far more intimate detail than at any other time in the history of the profession. Previously, journalists based their audience knowledge primarily on their closest social circles. Now, new tools can help them solicit readers’ feedback, analyze and understand readers’ behavior, and open new channels for conversation. These new capabilities promise to make abstract audiences present, quantified and real.

Drawing on the existing literature and an original case study, this study for the Tow Center asks whether the new tools of the digital age have indeed influenced the “audience in the mind’s eye.” Our evidence indicates that for the most part, they have not. In reviewing findings from the case study, we were struck by how little seems to have changed since the print era. Although they seemed more open to audience knowledge, the ways in which these reporters thought about their audiences was remarkably similar to those reported in classic ethnographies of the 1970s.

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The Audience at Arm’s Length

While most newsroom decisions are made with a reader in mind, journalists usually resist consciously soliciting and incorporating audience preferences. They recognize obligations to reach an audience, but are wary of allowing readers to dictate newsworthiness. Still, an awareness of one’s potential readership is critical to effective writing; unread writing, after all, rarely changes the status quo. This audience thinking among journalists is often subconscious, expressing itself as “gut instinct.” But the images journalists use to describe their perceived audiences can be quite vivid, and these imagined audiences are a critical element of journalistic decision-making.

Studies from the print era —which, for our purposes, ends in 1995— indicate that journalists’ audience perceptions were based on four major groups:

  • Archetypes they knew well, such as the institutional audience of the publication they worked for — like the New York Daily News’s “Sweeney,” the embodiment of the paper’s target readership
  • Their professional peers
  • Their sources
  • Close acquaintances, including family members
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Strangers were often disregarded or dismissed. This instinctive bias toward “known” readers threatened to exclude other, less familiar reader segments, affecting the choices journalists made while selecting, reporting and crafting stories.

Case Study: Perceptions Slow To Change

Our case study of local education reporters in New York City suggests that while journalists are open to engaging with readers, the ways in which they form audience perceptions remain largely unchanged despite the rise of audience metrics and analytics. These journalists still find it difficult to determine whether their work resonates with the readers they seek.

We conclude that those hoping to bring journalists and audiences closer together must consider the “last-mile” problem of audience perception in the writer’s mind. It is not enough to simply convince journalists that engaging with their readers is important, or provide basic metrics to measure articles’ success. Instead, attention should be paid to how well a journalist’s imagined readership aligns with reality. At the very least, they should know how many of those readers there are, and whether they are actually being reached.

Despite the increasing availability of digital audience tools, this research suggests that personal proximity is a critical factor in influencing one’s audience perceptions. Analytical tools describe numbers, not people; and artificial constructs such as personas are often ignored. Given how deeply one’s peers and sources inform one’s perceived readership, increased newsroom diversity might be the most effective way to ensure that journalists’ perceptions of readers accurately reflect the audiences for their work.

Analytics and Audience Perceptions

Most audience thinking still seems to be unconscious, embodied in powerful print-era conventions. “I’m too busy to think about my audience” was a common refrain amongst the journalists we spoke with, but even this should not be interpreted as a wholesale rejection of the reader’s importance. Rather, it is an admission that expertise depends on deep-rooted, unconscious knowledge, and that a journalist seeking to serve an audience must slowly accumulate and apply insights about those readers until they become second nature. New “gut instincts” may simply take time to evolve.

Of course, depending on existing sources of audience knowledge is only a problem if a journalist’s perceived audiences do not align with their actual audiences — meaning their work is not reaching or resonating with those readers they ostensibly serve.

Absent an analytical framework that could quantify one’s actual and potential audience, there is no way to know this for sure. But this gap can be inferred. For instance, over half of the education reporters we spoke to cited parents of public school students as a key audience segment — a group numbering well over a million people — and yet the readership for any of their stories was just a small fraction of that total.

We propose that post-publication evaluation of journalists’ work should include more than just tallies of how many readers did this, and how many did that. Newsrooms should be able to quantify journalists’ intended audiences, and determine whether their work is actually reaching those readers. Otherwise it will be difficult to evaluate whether the choices they make are the right ones.

Even better, newsrooms could find ways to blend these quantitative measurements with qualitative insights, providing trusted attitudinal feedback from real readers at a newsroom’s pace.

Bringing Audiences Closer: Proximity and Diversity

Like an orator who learns and adapts from listeners’ cues, audience knowledge is best revealed by iteration, not just experimentation. It is not enough to just try new things; having the ability to observe and evaluate what worked is critical — what resonated with one’s readers, and why.

Three particular projects from The New York Times illustrate how journalists might involve audiences as they embark on a line of reporting. Elisabeth Rosenthal’s 2014 New York Times article on the high cost of healthcare solicited reader feedback; subsequent stories in the series drew on the experiences of those responding as sources. In 2016, Deborah Acosta of the New York Times invited Facebook Live viewers to participate as she investigated a mysterious trove of old slides found in a garbage bag. More recently, the tech columnist Farhad Manjoo announced that he would have weekly phone conversations with regular readers, since “even opinion columnists get sick of their own opinions.” There are surely a host of other examples from other news organizations as well.

Finally, if perceived audiences are largely based on one’s peers, colleagues, and social circle, encouraging newsroom diversity is critical in order to broaden that circle of trusted voices to include people outside the industry’s most common demographic groups. Not only do people of different backgrounds bring varied experiences (and those of their own trusted circles) to bear on their own work, their presence would seem to directly open their colleagues’ minds to new perspectives—and new audiences—in a direct and tangible way.

However, studies have shown diversity alone is not enough. “A diverse newsroom does not always equal better coverage of minorities,” asserts one paper, even though “the public and journalists view newsroom diversity as a good thing.” Our study indicates one reason why newsroom diversity itself may be insufficient: Uprooting deep-seated habits and preconceptions also requires a conscious reconsideration of one’s own audience perceptions.

It may well be that promoting diversity in the newsroom is as much about encouraging greater self-awareness as it is about counting sources, compiling lists of experts, or enforcing quotas. Those efforts will have limited effect until they shift one’s intuitive, subconscious sense of their readers.

But there are significant obstacles to expanding audience perceptions. Human nature, existing conventions and power structures, as well as ingrained habits all skew imagined audiences in significant and fundamental ways. To overcome this will require a deeper understanding of what it means to make the unconscious audience “real”—to actively confront, challenge, and develop the audience in the mind’s eye.

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James G. Robinson has spent over a decade in a variety of audience-focused roles at The New York Times, leading their web analytics team during the implementation of its digital subscription model and later pioneering the use of audience insights in the newsroom as the company’s first director of news analytics. He is also an adjunct professor and research fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

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