The term audience refers to the individuals and groups to whom products and services, like journalism, are produced for or in the service of. Within the space of journalism, this would typically be the readers, listeners, viewers, and so on that a journalistic outlet seeks to serve.

News audiences in particular are sometimes interchangeably called “the public” or citizens. Those designations typically imply a civic objective: they are individuals that journalists should seek to inform so that they may participate intelligently in democratic processes. However, audiences may also be referred to as news consumers, which sometimes implies a more commercial logic — after all, the consumption of a product is what is highlighted — and thus emphasizes the organization’s economic objectives over its social ones. More recently, the term “news users” has received attention because it moves away from the passive connotation of consumption and instead offers audiences more agency by suggesting that they can actively participate in media use.

Although these terms differ, they all orient themselves toward something we can call “news audiences.”

News Audiences Over Time

Although journalistic outlets often depend on their audiences for their financial success — whether directly through subscriptions or indirectly through advertisements — the newsrooms within those organizations have historically wanted little to do with their audiences.

News audiences have historically been treated in a fairly passive sense, as recipients of media or commodities. Put another way, they were often thought about as just people who consumed the work of journalists, and with whom the journalists rarely ever interacted — save for the occasional letter or phone call that a journalist might receive.

Going back to the 1930s, much of the thinking about mass media (which includes journalism) was oriented around a hypodermic needle model wherein ‘the audience’ was seen as a passive, monolithic group that simply accepted media messages as intended by the sender — in this case, the journalist. This view became progressively less influential throughout the 1950s.

Today, audiences are typically seen as having more agency in how they encounter and interpret media messages. Put another way, they are seen as being more able to determine how they find news, being more able to participate in how news is produced and distributed, and having greater ability to interpret news through their own filters, which in turn are shaped by their individual background and beliefs. This has profoundly changed how news audiences are thought about, both professionally and academically.

Additionally, there are now greater commercial pressures on journalists and journalistic outlets to think about their audiences as potential active participants in news production and distribution, and to enlist their help in order to lower news production costs and increase the organization’s reach. As advertising revenue declined for many traditional media sectors and in many parts of the world, commercial journalistic outlets have begun relying more on audience subscription revenue, which generally increase when audiences feel more engaged (and thus see greater value in a subscription). Even among state-supported and non-profit journalistic outlets, audience engagement is becoming an increasingly important marker for legitimizing those outlets’ requests for funding.

News Audiences and Participation

However, just because audiences can participate does not mean that news producers will seek or even want their participation.

It has been argued that part of what gives a journalist a professional sense of identity is that they have a ‘sixth-sense’ for news, and the training needed to produce it well. Journalists have thus historically rejected high degrees of audience participation in news production because they perceived such participation to be an affront to their independence and expertise, and thus to the quality of the news content they produced.

In recent years, however, there has been a cultural shift within the industry toward welcoming participation — and doing so in ways that are not simply optimized toward economic benefits. Journalists today are generally more open to the idea of co-production with audiences since they have seen first-hand the quality of the work that citizen journalists have been able to produce. They also now have access to technological actants that make it easier to enlist the help of audiences to engage in certain tasks, like reviewing large troves of public documents released by whistleblowers and activists. Furthermore, there is greater acceptance of the idea that audiences have more to offer journalism — whether through story ideas or their own social networks — than they have been able to contribute in the past.

However, just because audience participation is welcomed does not mean that audiences will themselves want to participate. This is especially true if there is no incentive for participation, or if they’re treated as an appendix of sorts in the broad scheme of things. Put differently, audiences are attune to exploitation — such as being asked to simply do grunt work for free — and participatory forms of journalism are therefore most successful when the relationships are perceived as being reciprocal, with both journalists and audiences feeling like they have gained something as a result. As such, discussions about “participatory journalism” now also include terms like “reciprocal journalism.”

Fragmentation of News Audiences

Today’s media ecology has also complicated ideas about audiences and the experiences they have. For one, the rapid growth of media choices people have and the ease with which they may access those choices has resulted in the fragmentation of news audiences. No longer do tens of millions of people in the U.S. tune in to see a single news broadcast at the same time, as was the case for CBS Evening News in the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, news audiences are no longer bound to the handful of channels their TV or radio antennas might pick up, to the delivery zones of their local newspapers, or even to the cultural tastes of the owners of local stores that distribute magazines.

Instead, news audiences today can easily navigate their way to the New York Times’ website for national news, the Boston Globe’s website for regional news, ESPN’s website for sports news, and SCOTUSblog for news about the Supreme Court. If they want to stream local news from the National Public Radio member station in Minneapolis in the morning, and then download a recorded broadcast from its Miami affiliate in the evening, they can do that, too. If they want to see how the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC, covered a particular issue, they can likely find that on YouTube or the BBC’s website.

In short, news audiences have access to far more news content, and far more sources, than ever before — and the cost of switching between journalistic outlets, in terms of both money and convenience, is also lower than ever before in many regards. This makes it difficult for a single journalistic outlet to gain a near-monopoly on audiences. However, it has resulted in a media ecosystem wherein a few large organizations are able to capture fairly large audiences due to brand recognition, followed by a steep drop-off to a long tail made up of tens of thousands of journalistic outlets that can only capture niche audiences and are, in many cases, deemed to be interchangeable by users.

Furthermore, not only do audiences now have access to more options for news but they also have more options for other media. This includes entertainment media, such as a popular show on Netflix or a streamer on Twitch. Such media compete with news for a finite amount of audience time and attention. That, in turn, can further fragment audiences as they turn to many different organizations to satisfy particular media desires instead of relying on a single source, like CBS or NBC, to single-handedly satisfy their want for news, culture, and entertainment.

Technological Actants and Audiences

Although news audiences now have more agency, it is also important to be aware that technological actants play an important role in mediating the interactions between news audiences and journalistic actors, including journalistic outlets. For example, when an individual searches for news about a recent event on YouTube, algorithms developed by engineers at YouTube decide how to order the presentation of the search results. Crucially, those algorithms are optimized to promote certain kinds of content, including provocative or controversial content that will keep users on the platform longer. Thus, news audiences are sometimes given a false sense of control, as the search algorithms work invisibly to promote certain kinds of content while deliberately obfuscating alternatives.

Similarly, the experiences that news audiences have may be personalized in small but important ways. Consider the following example: Dr. Zamith goes to the New York Times’ website and finds that the first opinion piece listed is about climate change, an issue he cares deeply about. Other users might be shown a different opinion piece, but Dr. Zamith is shown one about climate change because a technological actant’s analysis of his past browsing behavior estimated that he’s interested in that particular topic. When Dr. Zamith clicks on that opinion piece, he finds that the third paragraph of the story is tailored to describe the average highs and lows over the past few decades in Amherst. That’s because a different technological actant guessed Dr. Zamith’s location based on his IP address, and yet another actant looked up the climate information in that area and generated a paragraph of text describing it. Then, as Dr. Zamith scrolls to the middle of the article, he encounters an image of a map-based data visualization that is automatically zoomed into Amherst. That’s because yet another technological actant determined that Dr. Zamith is using his phone to access the story. Had he used a device with a larger screen, like a laptop, Dr. Zamith would have been shown an interactive map of the entire United States, which casts a broader lens on the issue.

Throughout that example, a series of technological actants intervened in Dr. Zamith’s news experience in fairly invisible ways. These interventions may be seen as positive. By personalizing the news experience, the story may feel more engaging to Dr. Zamith and get him to care more about the issue. However, such personalization can be highly problematic if the technological actants are used to mediate experiences by offering audiences highly different stories based on characteristics like political ideology, race and ethnicity, or economic status. In the extreme, such interventions would make it harder for a public to have a shared sense of reality — something that scholars have argued is important for democratic deliberation.

Technological actants have also altered the way news audiences and journalistic actors communicate with one another, and thus the kinds of relationships they tend to develop. For example, audience members are now more likely to give feedback on a story through brief, immediate, public exchanges directed at the journalist using a platform like Twitter, as opposed to longer, slower, private exchanges like a letter or e-mail. This can result in more meaningful and direct audience participation. However, it can likewise promote negative forms of participation, such as ‘brigading’ and strategic harassment of journalists.

Key Takeaways

  • Audiences are the individuals and groups to whom products and services, like journalism, are produced for or in the service of.

  • Historically, journalistic audiences have generally been thought about as passive recipients of media or commodities. In more recent times, journalistic audiences have gained greater ability (and recognition) as active participants in media production and distribution.

  • Just because audiences can participate does not mean that producers will want or seek their participation, or that audiences will themselves want to participate.

  • Today’s diffuse media ecology permits greater news audience fragmentation, as audiences not only have more choices but also tend to consume different kinds of news from different journalistic outlets. Additionally, journalistic media are competing with even more (non-journalistic) media than ever before for a finite amount of time and attention.

  • The relationships between journalistic actors and audiences are mediated to a great extent today by technological actants.