Journalism needs an audience to survive, but isn’t sure how to earn its loyalty

Journalism is in the midst of an existential crisis: the profession has undergone decades of declines in readership, revenue and public trust, with no obvious end in sight.

Many in the industry believe that the best way for newsrooms to recover both revenue and public trust is to improve their relationship with their audiences.

News organizations once boasted huge profit margins, which left many feeling confident that they knew exactly what they needed to do in order to reach the public. As a result, journalists rarely sought feedback from their readers.

However, the advent of the internet brought huge drops in journalism revenue. Between 2000 and 2015, newspaper ad revenue in the U.S. fell, as an Atlantic article describes, “from about $60 billion to about $20 billion, wiping out the gains of the previous 50 years.”

As the news industry struggles to recapture this increasingly distant financial foothold, many within it are certain that the first step forward is to no longer take their audiences for granted. Instead, they have to be more deliberate about earning the audience’s loyalty.

Yet this newfound consensus within the industry has resulted in a lot of uncertainty: How, exactly, should journalists do this?

How should journalists reach their audience? Shutterstock/by Abscent

One goal, different methods

Newsroom strategies for better understanding and connecting with their readers, viewers and listeners differ from one organization to the next. These differences matter because journalism’s future, and the audience’s role in it, will depend in no small part on which of these strategies succeed.

Some rely on digital metrics to determine what their readers like and dislike, and use that information to give them more of the former and less of the latter. The news company BuzzFeed, for example, is legendary for its use of data to predict which of its stories will “go viral.”

Others rely on more qualitative information. City Bureau, a Chicago-based, nonprofit news organization, hosts weekly “public newsrooms” intended to “gather journalists and the public to discuss local issues and share resources and knowledge to foster better local reporting.”

What accounts for journalism’s varying approaches to the news audience?

I research the relationship between journalism and the public. In two recently published studies, my collaborators and I concluded that how journalists perceive their audiences powerfully affects what they do to reach them.

BuzzFeed used data to predict story popularity. AP/Richard Vogel, File

Making meaning from audience metrics

The first study, published in the academic journal Journalism Studies, drew on interview and observational data collected from a large daily newspaper.

My co-author Edson C. Tandoc Jr. and I examined how journalists use audience measurement data to understand who their work reaches.

We found that, when presented with a variety of sophisticated tools available for analyzing reader behavior, the newsroom’s staff tended to favor audience size measures above all others. They wanted to know which story got the most readers.

The journalists we spoke to explained their focus on audience size metrics in two ways.

The first was economic: Media companies depend on advertising and subscription revenue. The larger the audience, the more advertisers will pay to reach it and the more financially secure the organization.

The second related to the watchdog mission of the newspaper: The journalists argued that their stories can’t make an impact on their community if no one reads them.

The reliance on these metrics made clear an important assumption these journalists held about the nature of their audience. When they used metrics to observe that readers tended to click on “soft” news stories (e.g., lifestyle, sports, dining) and not “hard” news stories (e.g., city hall), many of the journalists we interviewed concluded that a majority of the public is simply not interested in what they deemed “important” public affairs news.

As one of the paper’s senior editors explained:

The mission journalism — the watchdog journalism, the covering city events, making sure that people aren’t getting screwed over, etc. … There’s not enough people reading those stories … to keep us where we are now. … The money does not exist there.