Journalism Transformations: Audience behaviour and the future of news

Staff Reporter

When Beyoncé released her latest album, Lemonade, exclusively on the music streaming service Tidal, new user sign-ups rose by 1.2 million. But since then, the service’s popularity has once again waned. The same effect can be applied to modern journalism, says Alex Watson, The Telegraph’s former head of product.

Events like elections and terrorist attacks can draw audiences to news sources, but they result in short bursts of engagement. Whereas significant, yet small, improvements in the interfaces and delivery systems of news organizations can result in long-term, generalized effects, says Watson, who recently took on a new role as the head of product at the BBC.

“[The product of news] is more than the journalism. The delivery system is doing far more than delivering content, it is shaping how people behave,” he said.

Audience behaviour was a central focus of Journalism Transformations, a recent colloquium organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. The day-long conference explored the major shifts taking place in journalism today in terms of audiences, education and technology. Researchers, academics and industry innovators from Europe, the United States and Canada gathered at the Ryerson School of Journalism in April to discuss these paradigm-shifting changes. (Click here for full coverage of the Journalism Transformations event.)

While the past decade has seen significant shifts in audience behaviour and interests, speaker Retha Hill, professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism, says the news industry is still not taking an audience-focused approach to journalism.

“If news or storytelling is our product and that’s what we’re supposed to be focused in on, we have to do a better job of understanding our clients,” Hill said during the colloquium’s opening session. “It seems to me to be critical that [if] we understand more of audience behaviour and analytics … we could be better at providing audiences with relevant, actionable content.”

While other industries are tapping into modern audience research tools to better sell their products Hill, who teaches media entrepreneurship and virtual-reality storytelling at Cronkite, says journalists are still slow to do so.

“We [should] use more of the tools that are currently available to us, tools that are serving our competitors well, all the other content providers that are competing for our audience’s attention. If the point is to get our audiences to consume news, isn’t it incumbent on us to pull out all of the stops to get them relevant information whenever and wherever they’re in a position to consume it?”

This resistance to giving the audience exactly what it wants is a long-held viewpoint, said panelist and media researcher Philip Napoli, a professor and associate dean at Rutgers University.

“Journalism, as a community, has tended to have an aloof detachment from its audience, this paternalistic notion that it’s our job to know what [the audience] needs and that we need to maintain some independence and autonomy from what the audience says it wants.”

Napoli says there has been a fundamental disconnect in journalists’ understanding of audience demand for news, pointing out that for decades newspapers were sources of much more content. Even in the “golden age of journalism,” when circulation was high and people subscribed to multiple newspapers, he noted, much of the demand stemmed from the other information papers provided, such as job listings, coupons, movie listings and apartment listings.

“We have a much better sense of [the audience] now and realize now that this was probably not a time when people were much more avid news consumers, but that it was easier to connect news with other products – exactly the kind of thing that eBay and and Craigslist ultimately decoupled.”

Armed with this better understanding of consumer behaviour, news organizations are in a unique position “to figure out how to better directly connect the nature of the content that is produced with the nature of consumer demand [after] the luxury of generations of not having to do that,” Napoli said.

Napoli’s presentation also touched on his recent research, which attempts to uncover what audiences want from their local news coverage and examines audience behaviour and engagement with journalism.

In his study of three New Jersey communities, he found that the kinds of news people want varied vastly by community. While bigger cities like Newark demanded hard-hitting journalism from their news sources, smaller, upper-middle class towns had fewer pressing concerns.

He said his work on the news behaviours of participants found that many were self-reliant news consumers: people who understood that news comes from multiple sources and felt it was up to them to be informed. Some people recognized the need to actively search for news, but in many cases did not do so, he said. The research also suggested most people aren’t interested in being citizen journalists and pointed to the continuing significance and relevance of interpersonal sharing of news.

“People [often] mentioned the street corner, the coffee shop, the dog walking. This emerged over and over again… as something quite prominent,” he said.

Panelist Kim Schrøder, a professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark, presented the results of his research on which media forms are most consumed by Danish audiences. Participants in the study were given 36 news platforms and formats to choose from and asked to rank them by importance.

Six news media repertoires emerged from the results:

  • “online quality omnivores”: those who primarily read quality online news content
  • hybrid public service lovers”: those who primarily rely on public news organizations
  • “light news snackers”: those who occasionally read tabloid newspapers or watch 24-hour news channels
  • “mainstream networkers”: those who use social media and quality news sources
  • “intellectual/professional networkers”: those who primarily use social media, in addition to current affairs programs and professional magazines
  • “print addicts”: those who rely on print newspapers for local and national news needs.

Schrøder says that the future of the news industry is dependent on the changing interests and news consumption habits of users.

“The future shape of the news landscape depends on which technologies, softwares and platforms users appropriate and domesticate,” he said. “It is my observation that the users are playing a tremendously important role here. Of course, there are other factors which determine what kinds of news people will get, but the users are the ultimate decision makers.”

A live-blog transcript of the presentations can be viewed here.