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Cronkite Professor’s Book Offers Solutions to Journalism’s Transition into New Media Environment

February 2, 2021

Jacob Nelson

By Dzevida Sadikovic

A Cronkite professor has published a new book that examines the relationship between journalists and their audiences in a new media environment, and explores how journalists’ efforts to improve that relationship will affect the future of journalism.

“Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public” by Jacob L. Nelson will be released on Feb.15 by Oxford University Press. The book combines research on journalists’ perceptions of their audiences with research of news audience behavior.

Nelson is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where he teaches Digital Audience Analysis and the Business and Future of Journalism. Before coming to Arizona, he received his doctorate from Northwestern University’s Media, Technology, and Society program. Prior to that he worked as an editor for Patch, a local online news organization, for which he covered a suburb of Chicago.

The book is based on Nelson’s dissertation, in which he interviewed journalists at the Chicago Tribune, the audience engagement company Hearken and the local news nonprofit City Bureau to learn how the employees of each understand and approach their audiences. His book complements this research with a review of audience studies scholarship, in an effort to compare how journalists think about their audiences and how audiences actually behave.

Nelson’s findings suggest that the way that journalists approach their audiences is changing. Historically, journalists saw themselves as the professionals who produced news and audiences as the people expected to passively consume it.

“Now there is this expectation within journalism that journalists should be working more closely with and even alongside the people who they are trying to reach with their news,” Nelson said.

He also argues that journalists’ ability to influence patterns of news consumption is more limited than they might think. Drawing on audience studies research, he suggests that structural factors – such as social media platforms, the amount of time people devote to news, the language people speak, and the place where they live – play a significant role in shaping news audience behavior.

“Interest in the news is only one variable that shapes news audience behavior. Other variables include how you come across that story," he said. “The circumstances that determine what stories you are exposed to play an important role.”

Nelson wants people to understand that the problems of journalism’s quality and its sustainability are two different issues. However, those issues are often treated the same when it comes to finding the solution.

“By making news better and more trustworthy, and by making it more engaging by having a diverse newsroom to reflect the audience that they are trying to reach will make the quality of the news,” Nelson said. “But the quality of journalism and sustainability are two different problems.”

Journalism’s sustainability problem is less a result of quality and more connected to these structural factors that comprise the media environment in which the journalism exists. These structures tend to promote content that’s already popular. For that reason, big familiar news brands like The New York Times and The Washington Post have continued to grow in the last few years while smaller outlets have suffered.

In order to change this winner-take-all media environment, Nelson concludes that journalism’s stakeholders need to equalize the playing field, so the smaller outlets have a greater chance to succeed financially. Without changing these larger, structural conditions, better news might not necessarily lead to larger, more loyal audiences.

“Journalism is in such an ongoing struggle and I hope this book offers clarity to the conversation about what those problems are so that we hopefully work more constructively to find solutions that might work,” Nelson said.