The news industry is now two decades into a period defined by instability and confusion. Publishers have grown uncomfortably aware that they can no longer assume they will maintain a readership robust enough to generate revenue or affect public policy. News stakeholders and scholars have proposed many solutions, one of the most popular being a more active pursuit of “audience engagement.”
Advocates of audience engagement argue that journalists must consider and communicate with their audiences to better understand and serve them. These advocates believe this will produce news that incorporates a wider variety of viewpoints, which will make those audiences more loyal—and, newsrooms hope, more likely to pay subscription fees. “Engagement”-focused jobs have proliferated within newsrooms and a cottage industry has emerged to offer those same newsrooms engagement-related services. A growing number of researchers and practitioners have embraced audience engagement as a key measure of journalism’s success, though there is no agreed-upon definition of the term itself.
What do audience engagement advocates believe “successful” journalism should look like? Is this explicit pursuit of the audience something new, or have we seen it before? In the academic journal Journalism, I set out to answer these questions. I argue that the current open-arms approach to the news audience—and the ambiguity surrounding this approach—is part of journalism’s transition to a model that is still emerging.
A narrow view of the audience
In the past, journalists chose to report on topics that appealed to them and their editors, as well as those that have been covered by their competitors. The audience was seen as passive. Daily journalism produced in the 20th century was a one-way conversation that privileged information gleaned from political elites, unconcerned with “audience engagement.”
But the advertising revenue that newspapers have long depended on has declined sharply, first with the migration of print media to the internet at the turn of the century, and then with the financial recession that began in 2008. Publishers have learned to embrace online audience metrics, and many subscribe to multiple online audience measurement services, though they are uncertain about how to use these data into coverage decisions. Scholars have argued that popularity metrics don’t indicate audience preferences, but for now, success or failure is often measured by clicks.
The result is an environment in which journalists routinely confront direct evidence that public affairs news is apparently unpopular. If media relies on clicks and pageviews to generate ad revenue, the news that most journalists consider “important” is conspicuously unprofitable. There is a growing divide between how this evidence is interpreted: traditional journalists tend to blame the audience, which they perceive as innately uninterested in some topics. Audience engagement advocates blame the journalism, which they see as insufficiently considerate of the audience’s experiences and perspectives.
“By refocusing attention on the audiences we serve, newsrooms will develop deep, sustaining relationships that will begin to repair the outdated, broken business models,” wrote the staff of Hearken, an audience engagement company, in a prediction post on NiemanLab last year. “What was produced will take a back seat to the all-important question of who was informed and how it served them.”
Defining ‘audience engagement’
But what exactly is audience engagement? The term has been used to describe everything from the way audiences respond to already-published news to the way they participate in the production of that news. In my research, I define audience engagement as the means by which audiences consume and participate in the news.
To understand the way that different news publishers approach their relationship with the audience, “audience engagement” needs an additional distinction: reception-oriented and production-oriented. Production-oriented engagement refers to the ways that journalists attend to their audiences, while reception-oriented engagement refers to the ways that audiences attend to the news.
Reception-oriented definitions emphasize the audience’s reception: How much time did they spend with a story? How many times did they tweet about it or comment on it? These definitions are especially useful to publishers who view news as a commodity and the audience as customers, since these definitions can establish quantities that may be purchased by advertisers, or correlated with subscription rates. “Advertisers crave engagement: readers who linger on content and who return repeatedly,” read a recent report about the New York Times’ online strategy.
Production-oriented definitions focus on news production: How many potential readers, viewers, or listeners participated in the creation of this story? How many marginalized voices were its sources? How much of the audience asked for this coverage in the first place? These definitions matter more for nonprofit outlets, where donors measure success by how much the audience feels empowered by their beneficiaries’ reporting. These definitions also dominate discussions about journalism practice among those who believe production-oriented engagement techniques offer a path forward for improving the profession’s outreach to and inclusion of communities of color.
These distinctions are not absolute. As for-profit newsrooms consider revenue models funded by subscriptions, rather than ads, they are likely to use production-oriented tactics to pursue audience revenue. And in a news media environment that privileges audience metrics, even organizations that advocate for production-oriented engagement techniques have turned to reception-oriented measures to demonstrate their monetary value to other newsrooms.
Changing methods, changing goals?
Though journalists increasingly believe more focused efforts to connect with audiences will lead to better, more sustainable journalism, there remains ambiguity surrounding what “better” journalism means. Consequently, the impulse to include more local voices and community advocacy stems from a deceptively simple question: who should journalism reach? Audience engagement tends to work better with narrower audiences, which means its pursuit might encourage newsrooms to more deliberately focus on specific groups of people.
Journalism has never lived up to its standard of universal appeal. Newsrooms that aspired to reach a mass audience have typically ended up focusing instead on people like their own ranks —white, middle-class, and male. However, the growing popularity of audience engagement poses new issues for journalists: What groups will they prioritize? Why?
The pursuit of audience engagement raises another question: What should journalism accomplish? Should it provide useful information to as many people as possible? Should it advocate for social or political policy change for the sake of marginalized communities? Should it pursue some combination of the two? Should it make a profit? As the scholar C.W. Anderson writes in his analysis of Philadelphia’s local news ecosystem, “Journalists must begin the hard process of rethinking who they are, what they do, and who their work is actually for.” The excitement around audience engagement presents an opportunity to discover how journalism is changing and predict what it might look like going forward.
To accomplish this, scholars must examine how journalists attempt to adapt to today’s media environment, and must question assumptions about journalism, community, and democracy underlying these efforts. Uncovering these larger assumptions is necessary for journalism researchers trying to understand where the industry is trying to go, how likely it is to get there, and what the implications of success and failure are for publishers, audiences, and civic life.
If journalists have embraced new methods to accomplish the same old goals, it is worth understanding why they think these new methods will work so that we can more accurately predict whether or not they will be successful. And if these new methods have been embraced in pursuit of entirely new goals, it is important to understand what this means for our idea of journalism, and the role we expect it to play in society.
Journalism is slowly making its way from one model to the next. More research focused on the news industry’s changing relationship with the audience will shed light on what the field will look like when the dust settles.Jacob L. Nelson is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is also the author of Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public (Oxford University Press, 2021).