Audiences for Journalism: Perception and Reality

Image: Tara Hunt/flickr

The audiences for journalism are increasingly fluid. Whether by search or social media, every story can now find its own readership, beyond that of its parent publication. But while journalists now have more ways than ever to interact with their readers, it’s still hard for them to know exactly who their stories are reaching.

Most of the decisions editors and reporters make are done with a typical reader in mind. Academics call these “imaginary audiences”—a mental image of the people who surround us, formed by a blend of experience, observation and imagination. These audiences affect how we present ourselves to the world. Likewise, they influence what stories journalists pursue, and how.

I’m delighted to be leading a research project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that is exploring the ways writers and editors see and understand their audiences. The work, we believe, raises questions vital for journalism’s survival: How do I find an audience? How do keep them engaged in my work? How do I know my work has impact? Who am I missing? How do I connect with them?

The analytics tools available in newsrooms report the basics: how many people read a given story, where they came from, and how long they stick around before “bouncing” away. But that data reveals very little about who those readers are, and nothing at all about who they could be.

We’re starting our project by focusing on a single line of reporting—education in New York City. The education beat is important but not over-saturated. It is covered by diverse media outlets (from large national papers to small single-subject websites) and read by large, well-defined audience segments. We’re hoping to use this as a case study with findings applicable across journalism.

Research for the project is well underway, and will culminate in a paper to be published by Tow in the near future.  Assisting me will be Efrat Nechushtai, a PhD candidate at Columbia School of Journalism with nearly a decade’s experience as a working reporter and editor.

Along the way, we’re hoping to get to know the audience for our own work. So if you find this interesting, we’d love to hear from you. Take our brief survey or drop us a line at and we’ll keep you posted. 

James G. Robinson