Partnering with the Public: The Pursuit of Audience Engagement in Journalism

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Journalism professionals and researchers have recently argued that newsrooms adopt audience engagement as one of their chief pursuits. This term has many interpretations that stem from one underlying belief: journalists better serve their audiences when they explicitly focus on how their audiences interact with and respond to the news in the first place. Yet those who hope to make audience engagement normative must overcome news industry confusion surrounding how engagement itself should be defined and measured. Their efforts therefore present an opportunity to learn how journalism is changing, who within the field has the power to change it, and why they believe it should change. This dissertation investigates two such efforts with ethnographic case studies of Hearken and City Bureau, organizations that aspire to make the audience a larger part of the news production process. An additional case study of The Chicago Tribune reveals how audience engagement advocates and legacy journalists differ in their assumptions about journalism and the public, and how they act on those differences. Although the staff of all three sites acknowledge that the news audience avoids political news, Tribune employees attribute this avoidance to a lack of audience interest, while those at City Bureau and Hearken attribute it to a lack of audience trust. This leads the Tribune to approach the news audience one way, and City Bureau and Hearken another. Drawing on Giddens structuration theory, I argue that the Tribune reproduces traditional notions of journalistic practice, while Hearken and City Bureau attempt to transform them. However, their attempts are constrained by the news industry structure for monitoring and responding to the marketplace its market information regime which privileges measures of audience size rather than audience engagement. As a result, Hearken and City Bureau are unable to quantify the value of audience engagement to other journalism stakeholders. Instead, they rely on appeals to intuition. Their initial success suggests that that many in journalism innately believe the profession should improve its relationship with the audience. More importantly, it shows that the gut feelings of individual agents can prove more powerful than the structures constraining them, at least during periods of institutional uncertainty. This dissertation therefore illustrates what the future of journalism might look like should an audience-focused approach to news production become the norm, and exposes the obstacles that may prevent such a transformation from occurring.

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  • 11/24/2019
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