How Perceptions of the News Audience Shape Pursuits of the News Audience

Journalism stakeholders and researchers increasingly argue that the news industry should take a stronger interest in the audience. But which kinds of news publishers are answering that call? And how do their perceptions of the news audience affect their pursuit of the news audience?

Over the past year, I investigated these questions through in-depth interviews with reporters and editors at two local news organizations in Chicago: a traditional newspaper (The Chicago Tribune), and a news nonprofit (City Bureau). My analysis, which was recently published in the academic journal Journalism Practice, concludes that both news organizations are pursuing stronger, more collaborative relationships with the news audience. Yet this pursuit occurs differently, and with different levels of success, depending on how each news organization conceptualizes the audience in the first place.

City Bureau editors see Chicago as a composition of multiple audiences separated by geography and socioeconomic conditions. As a result, they focus specifically on cultivating close ties with several of these groups. Tribune editors and reporters, on the other hand, generally conceive of their readers as one enormous and loosely collected mass of people. The paper’s larger, more varied readership makes pursuing a more participatory relationship with the audience less intuitive and often more frustrating.

These findings suggest that journalism’s shift from ignoring to embracing audience input is not relegated to one type of news organization, but is instead occurring throughout the profession as a whole. More importantly, they indicate that striving for a more collaborative relationship with the news audience is ill suited to a traditional mass audience approach to news production.

What follows is a summary of my analysis, describing the sites I studied, my results, and my conclusions.

The sites

The Chicago Tribune is the 11th largest daily paper in the country. I chose to focus on the Tribune for this study because, as a renowned news institution, it exemplifies a traditional, commercial newspaper. I interviewed 25 Tribune employees, including its associate editor, digital editors, section editors, columnists, and investigative and beat reporters. I also interviewed two members of the Tribune’s marketing team, which conducts internal audience research to persuade advertisers to partner with the paper.

The local news nonprofit City Bureau is a collective of news professionals that seeks to provide “responsible” and “responsive” reporting to minority communities in Chicago. City Bureau began in early 2016 with a grant from the McCormick Foundation. Its model involves a core staff that oversees a rotating group of reporters as they produce investigative stories focused primarily on Chicago’s South and West Side communities — areas that comprise an overwhelming portion of Chicago’s black and Hispanic citizens (the South Side is over 90 percent black, and the West Side is 80 percent black or Hispanic) and that City Bureau’s founders believe to be underreported by bigger name Chicago presses like the Tribune. City Bureau editors then partner with other outlets to co-publish these stories.

I chose City Bureau because of its stated interest in working alongside its audience, as well its success thus far. Since it was founded, City Bureau has won prestigious journalism awards, and has been profiled in journalism blogs like NiemanLab, Columbia Journalism Review, and Mediashift. Most recently, the staff successfully raised over $10,000 to build a “public newsroom” on Chicago’s South Side and expand its operations, and received a $50,000 grant from Democracy Fund. As a small nonprofit, City Bureau has only four principal staff members, all of whom are also founders. I interviewed all four.

Tribune pursues a mass audience, but struggles to engage it

My interviews with Tribune reporters revealed that they generally do not write with a specific audience in mind. Instead they hope to reach as wide an audience as possible. They also revealed that reporters receive little guidance from managers about what the ideal journalist/audience relationship should look like and how it should or should not be pursued. As a result, only some described taking steps to communicate with readers via in-person events or social media platforms.

One such example was columnist Heidi Stevens, who said she used social media to answer readers’ questions about how stories were reported, or to clarify a point she felt had been lost. “It’s a waste of the potential to tweet your stuff and Facebook post your stuff and then not go in there and answer for people’s comments and questions,” Stevens said. “My Facebook page, under any of my columns, it’s a conversation.”

Yet the Tribune journalists who discussed taking steps to interact with the audience also volunteered examples where the audience angered or scared them. Columnist Rex Huppke described how a political column he’d written inspired the ire of political extremists who came across the article when it was relinked on a blog. They responded by aggressively bombarding Huppke with threats and vitriol. “It can make you gun shy sometimes,” he said, “Because you’re like, ‘Do I want to walk into this shit storm? This is going to suck.’”

This anecdote gets at a disconcerting and often overlooked consequence of what happens when news organizations make it easier for the audience to contact journalists, and a reason why journalists writing for publications with a large, widespread readership may not want to interact with the audiences who are reading their work. As Higher Education Reporter Dawn Rhodes explained, drawing on her own experience interacting with angry readers via Twitter, “We’re kind of fighting this, almost like fighting a mob in a way.”

City Bureau finds better luck engaging with smaller, niche audiences

City Bureau editors conceptualize their audience as a much smaller group of people living in Chicago’s South and West Side communities, and aspire to build strong, collaborative relationships with them.

They do so in a variety of ways. For example, City Bureau hosts events like its weekly Public Newsrooms, which invite community members to hear from and interact with City Bureau journalists as well as other news media professionals. Because City Bureau’s newsroom is located in the South Side neighborhood Hyde Park, these events occur within one of the communities that City Bureau is attempting to engage with and report on.

Furthermore, when City Bureau publishes an article, its staff also works with the reporters of the story to coordinate events within the community the story is focused in an attempt to oversee an in-person conversation about the story’s topic. “What stories look like when they involve the community I think is — it involves being in person and it involves having a meeting, a workshop, an event and saying, ‘Please come,’” said Editorial Director Darryl Holliday.

City Bureau staff did not appear to face the same vitriol described by Tribune reporters. Instead, they seemed moved and excited by the conversations they’d had with South and West Side community members during their events. However, City Bureau staff also said they hoped these events would lure out South and West Side residents who had previously been disengaged with civic life. So far this has not been the case, according to Editor Bettina Chang. Instead, attendees tend to be people who are already very engaged in public life on behalf of these communities. For now it seems that City Bureau’s attempt to build a more collaborative relationship with its audience is more likely to succeed with those already invested in City Bureau’s mission and the communities it has chosen to focus on. Expanding the audience to include disengaged citizens poses a more difficult challenge.

From one, many?

Two decades ago, media scholar Elihu Katz sounded the alarm for what audience segmentation would do to democratic society. He worried that increasing media choice would lead to the disappearance of a shared cultural space where citizens could gather to hear and discuss the same information. Yet, my findings suggest that segmentation might be the key to building strong bonds between news media providers and the audience. News publishers pursuing this goal will find more incentive to segment their audience into distinct groups rather than pursue the audience as one loosely connected mass.

This raises an important question: What will civil society lose when journalism’s understanding of the public changes to one that is more narrow, involved, and community focused? On the one hand, there are some who believe this change will restore public trust in journalism and give agency to marginalized communities who until now have felt excluded from their own news stories. Doing so, however, might further polarize society by leaving citizens no opportunity to interact with those of differing backgrounds or perspectives. Many assume that improving the relationship between journalism will have nothing but positive consequences for civic engagement and democracy. The truth may be more complicated.