The Audience in the Mind's Eye: How Journalists Imagine Their Readers

Robinson, James G.

The conventional wisdom of the digital era is that journalists can now know their audiences in far more intimate detail than at any other time in the history of the profession. Previously, journalists based their audience knowledge primarily on their closest social circles. Now, new tools can help them solicit readers’ feedback, analyze and understand readers’ behavior, and open new channels for conversation. These new capabilities promise to shine a light on the abstract audience—making one’s readers present, quantified and real.

Drawing on the existing literature and an original case study, this paper asks whether the new tools of the digital age have indeed influenced the “audience in the mind’s eye.” Our evidence indicates that for the most part, they have not. In reviewing findings from the case study, we were struck by how little seems to have changed since the print era. Although they seemed more open to audience knowledge, the ways in which these reporters thought about their audiences was remarkably similar to those reported in classic ethnographies of the 1970s.

The paper concludes with some hypotheses about why this may be so, and offers some possible approaches to improve audience awareness in the newsroom—in particular, a new perspective on the necessity (and difficulty) of diversity. It is our hope that this paper will inspire future research and experimentation—to narrow the gap between the audiences journalists have in mind and the audiences they serve.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University
Tow Center for Digital Journalism Publications
Published Here
September 11, 2019