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Journalism and Its Audience: The Re-Figuration of a Relationship and Its Influence on News Production

Journalism and Its Audience: The Re-Figuration of a Relationship and Its Influence on News Production

Different forms of "measuring" the audience – for instance, through circulation figures – and letting audience members participate – for example through letters to the editor – have long been part of journalistic routines. The current re-figuration of journalism's relationship to its audience, however, is characterised by a new complexity, increasingly involves external actors, and signifies a fundamental expansion of journalists' job and function: The contact with the audience now takes place in real-time and via a multitude of different channels (e.g., e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, events); web analytics companies, social media, and their algorithms shape journalists' encounters with and images of their audience; and, in addition to the production and distribution of content, journalists perform tasks, such as the management of follow-up communication, networking, interaction with or even collaboration by users. This has a lasting influence on how journalism, its products, its societal function and its audience are "thought of", created, disseminated, used and judged. However, this re-figuration does not take place simultaneously and uniformly in all journalistic organizations or among all journalists. For journalistic start-ups in particular, a new understanding of their audience relationship often seems to be at the centre of their ideas and "doing" of journalism. The project captures this diversity of change and its respective significance for journalists' work and reporting.
The project, which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), was developed within the framework of the research network Communicative Figurations and is based on the project "(Re-)Discovering the Audience." We consider the abovementioned phenomena to be interrelated and take this into account in an empirical-analytical three-step process: first, we reconstruct journalists' audience relations in all their facets (the journalists' understanding of their societal, their audience image, forms of audience participation, "datafication" of the audience, etc.). Second, we analyse how these relationships influence the journalists' everyday work and their reporting, for instance, if they trigger research on a topic, add to journalistic contributions, or change a journalist's view of a story. Third, we examine both these aspects in established media organisations as well as in journalistic start-ups, in order to compare what the different organisational contexts in which journalists work mean for their audience relationship and its influence on news (work). To this end, we conduct interviews with journalists on how they produced particular news stories and combine this with a diary app in which they document and evaluate relevant audience contacts. In addition, we analyse the journalists' stories for "traces of the audience", the corresponding audience feedback (user comments, social media posts, emails etc.) as well as how the audience contributes to the dissemination of the stories in social networks.

Together with the projects on "Pioneer Journalism" and "Public Connection", the project forms a research package that will offer a broad and detailed insight into the re-figuration of public communication in times of "deep mediatisation."
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Project Description

Crucial for the re-figuration of journalism in general and journalism-audience relationship in particular are the following trends of a changing media landscape in times of "deep mediatisation", as identified within the research network Communicative Figurations:
  • the differentiation of a vast array of media (devices),
  • their increasing connectivity through the infrastructure of the internet,
  • the omnipresence of digital media through mobile communications,
  • the rapid pace of innovation of forms of content, platforms, and (mobile) devices, and
  • the increasing datafication of everyday life made possible by digitalisation and the increasing use of algorithms.
These trends have enabled new actors – including non-human ones such as algorithms and social bots – to participate in the field of public communication. They have created a media environment that is as fragmented as it is networked, allowing political, commercial and other entities to bypass journalism and address their audiences directly. Thereby, they have also promoted new norms and nurtured expectations of journalism in terms of greater transparency, responsiveness and openness to participation. In sum, these and related developments have led to a multi-layered crisis of the journalism-audience relationship in the form of declining reach, trust, and revenues. At the same time, however, the new media environment also provides potential solutions to these problems as it offers journalists and their audiences extended communicative options. By focusing on the re-figuration of the journalism/audience-relationship, we can observe these reflexive processes.
Against this background, we combine different strands of journalism research: first, we draw on investigations into the journalism-audience relationship and its media-related transformation, for instance our own case studies conducted in the project "(Re-)Discovering the Audience." Second, we take into account research on the influence these transformations exert on journalists' everyday practice and output. In the last ten years, both topics have developed into more or less coherent and separate strands of research. Initially, they focused on ‘participatory journalism,’ and more recently, turned towards a more fundamental rethinking of the journalism/audience-relationship, addressing such diverse issues as re-building trust, establishing new business models, and refashioning how to address the audience and present news.
Our review of this research revealed a rich body of empirical evidence that demonstrates how journalists’ relationships with their audiences are currently being transformed and redefined, yielding considerable consequences for their work and output. This is because ‘the audience’ is one of journalism’s fundamental constituents and plays a crucial role in shaping news(work).
However, research on these developments is fragmented, with most studies focusing on individual phenomena such as the implementation of participatory options for users, the adaptation of content for distribution on different platforms, the impact that new exposure and engagement metrics have on journalists’ perception of their audiences, or the attempts to (re-)establish trust and long-term relationships. So far, research has neglected to address the ways in which journalists cope with the increasing complexity, contingency, and ambivalence of an increasingly fragmented, ‘diversified’ audience in the context of multi-platform journalism. We have little to no knowledge of how media professionals make sense of the quantitative and qualitative information on their often-diverse audience subgroups, or how they reconcile the different, even contradicting expectations of these groups. We remain in the dark on how these aspects are interrelated, and perhaps most importantly, how this affects journalists’ work and their output.
These questions become even more pressing when seen in the light of journalism studies’ predominant focus on how news is constructed in established media. In contrast, research ‘beyond the legacy newsroom’ is still at a very early stage and tends to concentrate on individual case studies of startups, entrepreneurs, participatory news initiatives, crowdfunded projects, fact-checking sites, non-profits, or cooperatives.
The lack of comparative studies that contrast traditional organizations with their more recent counterparts is at odds with the immense importance attributed to an organization’s structure and workflows, its specific approach towards journalism, and its economic goals, which are all considered key contextual factors that shape journalists’ audience-relationships, their work, and their output. This conflict has particular resonance if we consider that new understandings and presumably more profound re-figurations of the journalism/audience-relationship are more likely to form in these new organizational environments and, at the same time, stimulate their emergence. These new approaches to relating to the audience are likely to gradually diffuse from journalism’s periphery into the broader field, and into the everyday practices of established news organizations at its centre – as occurred, for instance, with the once-novel practices of blogging and tweeting.
Against this backdrop, the main objective of this project is to bring these important research strands together and investigate the ‘missing links’ by clarifying systematically and comprehensively
a) how (deeply) the re-figuration of journalists’ relationship to their audience is progressing in all its different facets (journalistic role conceptions, perception of audiences, participation, datafication etc.);
b) how, and to what extent journalists’ shifting conceptions of their audience-relationship influence what kind of content they produce (e.g., ‘objective’ information for ‘passive recipients’ vs. opinionated contributions to a debate among ‘partners in dialogue’; newsletters vs. podcasts vs. virtual reality stories) and how they create it (e.g., to what extent it is based on data, metrics-driven, or automated; if audience members can contribute to or even co-produce it); as well as
c) how this interrelates with and is shaped by different organizational settings (e.g., in new vs. established media organizations).

Project Information


Duration: 2019-2022

Research programme:
RP1 - Transformation of Public Communication

Third party

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)

Cooperation Partner

Contact person

Prof. Dr. Wiebke Loosen
Senior Researcher Journalism Research

Prof. Dr. Wiebke Loosen

Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI)
Rothenbaumchaussee 36
20148 Hamburg

Tel. +49 (0)40 45 02 17 - 91
Fax +49 (0)40 45 02 17 - 77

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