June 28, 2006

The Audience for Journalism

One reason newspapers and other traditional journalism organizations have trouble embracing change is for them certitude is a treasured value and the changing future of news media offers nothing but uncertainty.

One thing is knowable, though, and Jay Rosen expresses it thoroughly in this piece about the changing nature of "audience": The power of publishing has shifted. Once only the privilege of institutions and individuals who had the means, digital technology has devolved publishing into a commodity activity. Jay writes (emphasis added):

"The 'former audience' is Dan Gillmor's term for us. … It refers to the owners and operators of tools that were one exclusively used by media people to capture and hold their attention."


"… You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us."

You've heard the numbers - MySpace has an estimated 48 million users, Flickr reportedly hosts 100 million photos, and a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study found "48 million Americans -- mostly those with high-speed at home -- have posted content to the internet."

The corollary of online media creation, of course, is online media consumption - not only are people spending time pushing things out onto the web, they are spending more time reading them, watching them, and interacting with their fellow "publishers." Metaphorically, they sit at their keyboards, switching hats during their digital days - publisher, audience, publisher, audience, etc.

In a world of such media agility, the role of - and the expectations for - professional journalism change. People who, as Jay puts it, "were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way," are not content to be fed whatever comes down the journalistic pipe in whatever form journalists want to send it.

That does not mean there is no appetite for journalism and for news. There is, but journalism now must be conceived, executed and delivered in a social, economic and technical environment in which traditional journalists find themselves uncomfortable.

This discomfort can be allayed through better understanding of the new rules of media. Ask these questions: Which community are we writing for? What matters to them? What matters to us? Where do these interests overlap? How can we connect to them and them to us? What skills do we need that we don't have now? How do we get them?

I am not sure, as Jay suggests, that journalists - traditional news media - think an audience who speaks (and thinks) on its own is a "problem." No doubt there is frustration, confusion and, still, anger, among many journalists about this flattening of the playing field, but there is also recognition, acceptance and embrace in many circles of this change. [Read: The Conversation About Change Has Changed.]

Also, while I agree that the "people formerly known as the audience" are now also publishers, the concept of audience remains valid. We are all each other's audience. A good listener is an audience. So is a critic. Or someone who clicks on someone else's Flickr photo. The publisher-audience relationship remains, but today it is a loop, not a pipe.

Related: The Online Audience Gap

Yesterday, in commenting on Jack Shafer's column about newspaper downsizing, I cited a number he used to indicate the growth in online news audience - the New York Times' 25 million unique online readers in April. Howard Owens, in the comments, adds some context to that. He asks:

"How many of those unique visitors came back the next day, or within the next three days or even in the same week? I'm not sure this stat proves anything."

And points out that the user gap between the national news sites and the regional/local sites is gargantuan:

"The best surveys, if they are too believed, say that 9 percent of the online adults in the US visited a local news site yesterday. If you surf around to various newspaper site media kits, you'll be hard pressed to find more than a couple who are reporting anything near that level of traffic (that would be about 54,000 unique visitors each day (just for local users) in a DMA with 1 million adults and 60 percent online access). A regional newspaper site is keeping up with its peers if it's doing 2 to 4 percent of the local online audience on a daily basis.

"The size of engaged audience has certainly exploded the past few years, and there is no doubt national news is big business online, but where does that leave the regional/local papers? There's a big hole in audience growth that newspapers need to get serious about plugging."

Exactly right. The "audience" is out there. Journalists need to be out there, too.

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 28, 2006 09:02 AM
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