Audience Fragmentation


The term audience fragmentation describes a process whereby a mass audience (or few audiences) is broken up into many small audiences by virtue of divergent media consumption habits. With the proliferation of online journalism and digital devices, audiences have become empowered to access more content from more publishers and on the audiences’ terms. Consequently, individual news consumers have developed more specific tastes and consumption patterns.

Consider asking your friends where they get their political news from. There’s a good chance they’ll each list a different set of sources. (There will likely be some overlap, since people generally befriend individuals who share their interests, but it is unlikely to be a uniform set of outlets.) Then, consider asking your parents and their friends where they get their political news from. There’s a good chance they will not only list an even more distinct set of sources but also a different set of media vehicles (e.g., television vs. online) and on a different schedule (e.g., live at a certain time vs. on-demand). If you were to swing by a retirement community a few towns away, you’ll likely find an even more distinct media diet from your own.

In short, today’s news audiences have fragmented from a few mass audiences to many small audiences. And while that fragmentation may immediately sound like a net positive — after all, more choices should be a good thing, right? — it has introduced important challenges not only to the journalism industry but to democratic institutions.

Civic Implications of Fragmentation

The explosion of media options is still a relatively new phenomenon. For example, back in the 1960s, the majority of Americans regularly turned to one of just three evening TV newscasts (from ABC, CBS, and NBC). Broadcast news was so pervasive that 96% of the American population watched TV news coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

That level of concentration and small number of options is hard to fathom today given the present array of broadcast news options (and even wider spectrum of media vehicles and journalistic outlets). Today’s audiences can seek news from text-based, broadcast, radio, and digital outlets. They can watch the news through live video, social video, 360 video, and even virtual and augmented reality. They can turn to mainstream or independent outlets and partisan or non-partisan outlets. They can choose between international, national, local, and even hyper-local coverage of a topic. They can often consume those news products live or on-demand. The list goes on and on.

However, having access to so many options has a major downside. The paradox of choice can make it tough for news consumers to leave their comfort zones or even avoid news altogether. For example, how often do you sign on to Netflix to watch something, only to realize that you’ve spent 10 minutes browsing and are no longer in the mood to watch anything at all? A similar process of fatigue occurs in what can sometimes feel like an over-saturated news ecosystem.

Having so many options also allows people to more easily turn to slanted news sources that support their existing points of view. This phenomenon is called selective exposure and involves people actively choosing to pursue a fraction of the available information or information sources, typically along some lines of preference (e.g., political preferences). This can trap news consumers in echo chambers that limit their exposure to new and divergent perspectives. That, in turn, can also lead to increased polarization within societies, particularly when it comes to political affairs. Such polarization can make it difficult for citizens to engage with one another because not only do they approach opposing viewpoints with greater antipathy but they also tend to draw on very different bodies of information about the world. This makes dialogue, debate, and compromise — the cornerstones of democratic society — difficult.

Professional Implications of Fragmentation

Audience fragmentation also poses economic and professional challenges for journalists and the organizations that employ them. It provides incentives for journalistic actors to specialize. Generalist outlets that provide overviews of many different topics are less desirable to audiences that know what they want and want in-depth or exclusive information about that topic. By specializing in niche areas, journalistic outlets can capture smaller but loyal audiences. While generalist outlets will still continue to exist, there are likely to be fewer of them in the future than in the past.

The fragmentation of audiences and increased availability of options also place even more pressures on journalistic outlets to stand out within an attention economy. Outlets must compete furiously with one another because there is a greater supply of news content than there is attention to take it in. This competition is magnified exponentially when you also factor in non-news media competitors, such as beauty vlogs, video game streams, and history podcasts. (Consider that in 2019, 500 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube alone every minute.) Consequently, journalistic outlets are not only competing against one another to produce good journalism, they are also competing with one another (and other media organizations) to have their content capture the attention of a sufficiently large number of increasingly fragmented audiences.

It is unlikely that the processes underlying the fragmentation of audiences in recent decades will be reversed in the coming years. In fact, the opposite is more likely: Audiences will probably become even more fragmented as new technologies give audiences more agency and as technological actants further personalize audiences’ news experiences. This will require journalistic outlets and society at large to continue to adapt to the existence of niche audiences that frequently draw upon divergent bodies of knowledge about current affairs and the broader world.

Key Takeaways

  • The term audience fragmentation refers to a process whereby a mass audience (or few audiences) is broken up into many small audiences by virtue of divergent media consumption habits.

  • The paradox of choice can make it tough for news consumers to leave their comfort zones. More choices also make it easier for people to turn to news that supports their existing points of view through selective exposure.

  • Audience fragmentation has required journalistic outlets to adapt to an attention economy, which involves increased competition from many media options and promotes professional specialization.