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Imagined AudiencesHow Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public$

Jacob L. Nelson

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780197542590

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2021

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197542590.001.0001

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The Promise of Audience Engagement

The Promise of Audience Engagement

(p.27) 2 The Promise of Audience Engagement
Imagined Audiences

Jacob L. Nelson

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Though there is widespread agreement surrounding the problems journalism faces, there also is a growing rift among journalism professionals and researchers about how best to solve them. A growing number of journalism stakeholders argue that the news should focus more on “audience engagement,” a loosely defined term that generally involves journalists’ incorporating more audience input in news production to more accurately reflect their lived experiences. Those at City Bureau and Hearken believe this more collaborative form of news production will increase the audience’s trust in news as well as the amount of value they derive from it. Others, including many at the Chicago Tribune, disagree. In addition to offering a comprehensive definition of audience engagement, this chapter also traces the disagreement surrounding it to enduring differences in how journalists perceive the public.

Keywords:   journalism, engagement, news, audience, metrics, Hearken, City Bureau, Chicago Tribune, ethnography

Colin McMahon has worked at the Chicago Tribune for more than 30 years. His career is the kind that barely exists in journalism anymore—one where you land a job at a news organization and remain there for the rest of your professional life. He was first hired in 1987 as a copy editor, and he has since worked as a metro reporter, a foreign editor, and the Baghdad bureau chief. When I interviewed him in 2016, he was the paper’s associate editor—one of the most senior positions, just below the paper’s publisher and its editor-in-chief. He was promoted to the newspaper’s top editor position in 2020.

At the start of our interview, I asked McMahon how the Tribune had changed throughout the course of his career. The answer came quickly: The money had disappeared.

“By far, the biggest change has been the economics of it,” he said. “The mission has changed a little bit, but the economics have just been brutal.”

He described a conversation about the Tribune’s financial challenges that had taken place a decade earlier between himself and someone who worked in the newspaper’s business side. That person told McMahon that he and his colleagues had come up with a number that represented the lowest annual revenue the newspaper could bring in without needing to shut down. Then he told McMahon, “We blew past that two years ago.”

“So, all the things that we used to be able to do with money, we can’t do anymore,” McMahon said.

The result is a situation where, more than ever, the Tribune’s employees find themselves focusing on understanding what exactly their audiences want from news and how best to fulfill those desires.

“It’s really made us focus on what can we do,” McMahon said. “What do people come to us for? What do they expect from us? What do they want from us? And is what we’re giving them—what we want to give them—what they want?”

McMahon’s observations about how things have changed at the Tribune speak to a larger trend throughout journalism. Since the news industry began its downward economic trajectory, journalists increasingly have reacted to (p.28) these significant and perpetual challenges by focusing on learning about and engaging with people they previously thought little about: their audiences.

Mark Jacob, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for metro, summed up the situation even more succinctly during our conversation: “It’s a survival business now. We’re trying to survive. And in order to survive, you’ve got to please the customer.”

An industry in crisis

The Tribune is far from the only news outlet that currently finds itself in the “survival business.” On the contrary, the news industry as a whole is in dismal shape. Anyone who has read anything written about the state of journalism in the past 20 years knows the story. Throughout most of the past century, the news industry enjoyed a level of comfort that can only be found alongside large and consistent profit margins. Many cities boasted at least one local newspaper, which prospered due to large subscription and circulation numbers. Journalists had the resources to report on what mattered most to their readers and felt confident that they knew just what those stories were.

Then came cable news, followed by the internet. As the number of media options exploded, newspaper circulations plummeted, and with them print advertising. News publishers desperate to recapture both their lost subscription and advertising revenue started giving their content away for free online, but the money generated via digital ads was not nearly enough to offset the losses in print readership. The economic crash of 2008 compounded the situation. Many newsrooms gutted their staffs, and many more shut down.1 Although some newsrooms recently have seen upticks in digital subscriptions, their long-term sustainability remains unclear.2

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic made journalism’s already dire financial situation even worse. The virus’s accompanying economic decline led to a huge drop in spending on advertising, which resulted in layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts at newsrooms across the country.3 This downsizing has unfolded at news outlets of all shapes and sizes. Large, legacy news brands such as those owned by Tribune Publishing (including the Chicago Tribune) laid off 40 people. BuzzFeed cut employee pay in addition to laying off some and furloughing others. Even NPR cut employee pay and benefits as corporate sponsorships fell through.4 As Columbia Journalism Review’s chief digital writer Mathew Ingram summed it up: “It’s hard to imagine an industry (p.29) more poorly prepared for the arrival of a global pandemic than the media business.”5

As if an economic struggle that is both enduring and intensifying was not enough, journalism also has plunged into a crisis of credibility that began in the second half of the 20th century but crystalized for many in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to Gallup, America’s trust in journalism was at its highest in 1976, in light of the bombshell reporting about the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. However, it has dropped since then, sinking below a majority in 2007. As of 2019, only 41 percent of U.S. citizens said that they had “a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”6

Though it is difficult to pinpoint why trust in journalism has disappeared, it is fairly straightforward to understand who trusts it less. In America, for example, there is a widening gap between liberals and conservatives in regard to journalism’s credibility. The same Gallup survey reported that 69 percent of Democrats said they trusted the media in 2019, while that number was only 15 percent for Republicans. Politicians on the right increasingly seek to exacerbate this divide by referring to critical stories as “fake news” and their publishers as “enemies of the people.”7 For example, after CNN offered verifiable observations about President Trump’s inauguration crowd size, his administration’s spokespeople were quick to provide their own “alternative facts.”8 Within this more partisan environment, news brands that historically were perceived as generalist and noncontroversial have become another point of contention between those on the left and those on the right. The fragmentation of the media environment generally, and the rise of partisan media specifically, has been accompanied by declines in audience trust in mainstream news.

Consensus about the problem but not the solution

Since this downslide began, news industry stakeholders have labored over the best way forward for the profession. Though there is widespread agreement surrounding the problems journalism faces, there also is a growing rift among journalism professionals and researchers about how best to solve them. The solutions run the gamut: Some suggest that the government subsidize the news, others that journalism transition to an entirely nonprofit model. Some encourage journalists to improve the quality of their work, (p.30) others to improve the quality of their sites. A growing number of journalism stakeholders argue that the news should incorporate more audience input to more accurately reflect their lived experiences. This group, which includes the people behind City Bureau and Hearken, among many others, believes this more collaborative form of news production will increase the audience’s trust in news as well as the amount of value they derive from it.

Yet another group, which comprises journalists more firmly planted in a traditional approach to news production, disagrees. This group includes many of the journalists who work at the Chicago Tribune. To be sure, the newspaper’s digital editors believe journalists can build audience interest in political news via more careful consideration of how that news gets presented to those audiences. However, other reporters and editors think their energies are better spent attracting large audiences through proven winners, such as sports and celebrity gossip, to subsidize the watchdog journalism that is unlikely ever to be profitable on its own. The chapters that follow explore this disagreement in more depth.

One thing is certain: There is no going back. Few believe that the defining characteristics of 20th-century journalism—White, male journalists with a detached tone and a reliance on elite sources—will play such a dominant role in the future. However, what comes next remains a mystery. As the social media critic Clay Shirky wrote: “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might.”9 While those at the Tribune are unsure what should be done to help improve journalism’s instability, those at City Bureau and Hearken are convinced that journalism must become more inclusive, diverse, and willing to cooperate with the audience. To accomplish this, they argue, journalism must shift its perception of the audience from that of a passive receiver of news to that of an active participant in its production.

They are not alone. A growing subset of journalism practitioners, researchers, and funders has embraced the notion that journalism must become more collaborative. The most frequent term used to describe this more collaborative approach to journalism is “audience engagement.”10 Though inconsistently defined, the term stems from the notion that journalists better serve their audiences when they treat them as active participants—rather than passive recipients—in the news production process.11 Audience engagement advocates assume that there is a direct relationship between how much the public trusts the news and how much they consume it. Additionally, they assume that both will increase if journalists more explicitly reach out to, and (p.31) collaborate with, the audience—not just after a story has been published but before that story’s topic is even determined.

The promise of audience engagement has made it remarkably popular throughout the news industry. There has been a rise of both engagement-focused jobs within newsrooms and an industry that offers audience engagement tools and services to newsrooms.12 “Audience engagement” also has become an inescapable term at journalism practice and research conferences. In recent years, foundations have poured millions of dollars into journalism ventures experimenting with ways to enact audience engagement while analytic firms have devoted their own resources to finding ways to measure it. In fact, a report published in 2018 by Columbia Journalism Review concluded: “The cornerstone of next-generation, sustainable business models for news . . . will be direct audience revenue supported by high levels of reader engagement.”13

This consensus is especially obvious in academia, where scholars frequently make normative claims about the benefits of journalists more actively engaging with their audiences. According to recent scholarship, journalists who explicitly attempt to partner with the public will be more likely to be better informed,14 turn their audiences into paid subscribers,15 do greater good for the communities they cover,16 and rebuild audience trust,17 to name just a few. Even journalism scholar Michael Schudson—who often defends the institution of journalism and particularly the expertise of journalists—has written in support of journalists working with their audiences throughout the news production process. Rather than refer to this as “audience engagement,” however, he calls it “adjunct journalism,” and concludes that it “should be fully integrated into what journalists, scholars, and the public recognize as reporting in the public interest.”18 The question surrounding engaged journalism has quickly shifted from “Should it be pursued?” to “What should that pursuit entail?”

Defining “engagement”

But what is audience engagement? It depends whom you ask. The term is increasingly popular within journalism, as well as all organizations that attempt to interact with audiences, constituents, fans, or customers. However, its definition varies from one person to the next. When it comes to the news, audience engagement can entail online activities, such as journalists (p.32) responding to readers’ comments or emails. Engagement also can refer to a journalist’s offline audience interactions, such as bringing a reader along for the reporting of a story or playing host to an in-person discussion with community members to ask for story suggestions. Then there are those who use “audience engagement” to refer to measures of how much time a person has spent with a news story, or how many times he or she shared the story on Facebook or Twitter.

I define audience engagement as the means by which journalists attend to the audience, as well as the means by which audiences attend to the news.19 This definition builds off the conceptualization of news engagement advanced by news media scholar Jacob Ørmen: “How people attend to information about issues of public concern, become aware of the intricacies of these issues, and address each other about such issues.”20 This book’s characterization of audience engagement—like its conceptualization of “audience”—is intentionally general so that it can comprise all the forms of contact between those who create news media and those who consume it. However, to find meaning in the different ways that journalists practice audience engagement, it is important that a definition of engagement provide a mechanism for doing so. This book groups journalism’s different forms of audience engagement into two categories: reception-oriented and production-oriented (as depicted in Figure 2.1).21

Reception-oriented types of engagement focus primarily on the audience’s reception of news: How much time did they spend with a story? How many times did they tweet about it or comment on it? These approaches are especially useful for for-profit news publishers who take a “market-driven” approach to journalism, meaning that they view the news as a commodity and (p.33) the audience as customers.22 Reception-oriented audience engagement appeals to for-profit publishers because it allows them to translate into quantifiable measures that which could be useful for determining how likely audiences are to subscribe. These measures also could eventually be deemed worthwhile by advertisers.

Production-oriented audience engagement focuses on the efforts by journalists to bring the audience into the news production process: How many citizens participated in the creation of this story? How many diverse voices were included as sources? How much of the audience requested this story in the first place? For the most part, audience engagement advocates who are the focus of this book have exclusively embraced production-oriented approaches, which they see as the most genuinely collaborative—and thus the best way forward to restore public trust in the news. In general, production-oriented approaches to audience engagement are also privileged more by nonprofit news outlets, as those publishers are less concerned with ad revenue and instead measure success by how much their audience feels included and empowered by their reporting.

The distinction between production-oriented and reception-oriented audience engagement is not absolute. Most news publishers, including for-profits and nonprofits, want to produce journalism that creates an “impact,” an idealistic goal with an elusive meaning. Because impact is so difficult to define—let alone measure—publishers increasingly draw on both production- and reception-oriented audience engagement to better understand the reception of their output. As for-profit newsrooms increasingly look to move away from advertising to audience-supported revenue models, they are likely to incorporate production-oriented engagement tactics to build audience loyalty. Nonprofits may focus more intently on production-oriented approaches than on reception-oriented (and vice versa for market-driven publishers); however, the ease with which huge amounts of online audience data can now be collected and the uncertain state of the news media environment mean that, for the time being, publishers likely will take whatever they can get in hopes that it will help them better understand and connect with their readers.

The Promise of Audience Engagement

Figure 2.1 Reception- and production-oriented approaches to audience engagement

This definition of engagement was designed with journalism in mind, but its utility extends beyond the news media environment. Indeed, the growing fascination with engagement within and outside of journalism is one of the reasons a more careful examination of engagement is so important. “Engagement” has become a buzzword in education, politics, retail, (p.34) and art—in all fields where the primary stakeholders depend on the public to survive. A politician running for office practices production-oriented engagement by soliciting feedback from constituents, while a fast-food company practices reception-oriented engagement by counting the times a tweet about one of their sandwiches gets passed around.

Though this book’s definition of “audience engagement” intentionally captures the range of methods by which engagement is currently being pursued, these methods could well change with time, or from one institution to another. For now, as the chapters that follow demonstrate, the pursuit of audience engagement is onerous, its value uncertain, and its outcome unknown.

The return of public journalism

This is not the first time that journalism practitioners and researchers have challenged the news industry to change the way it conceptualizes and pursues news audiences. In the 1990s, a group led by media critic Jay Rosen and media scholar James Carey began advocating for what they called “public journalism.”23 As is the case with today’s audience engagement movement, public journalism was predicated on the notion that ordinary citizens wanted—and deserved—more agency in the news production process. In one of the earliest texts outlining the goals of public journalism, communication scholar Theodore Glasser argued that journalism “must heed what ordinary citizens are saying, invite them back into the political dialogue we cover and reflect that in our newspapers and broadcasts.”24 The public journalism approach to news production thus included listening to the stories and ideas of citizens, reporting on public problems in ways that most likely would help citizens solve them, and then systematically communicating with the public throughout all stages of the reporting and publishing process.25

Public journalism’s advocates began arguing for its adoption at a moment that looks much like the one that news industry stakeholders find themselves in today. News publishers worried about falling levels of revenue and trust, while political scientists worried about falling levels of civic engagement. Public journalists frequently drew on sociologist Robert Putnam’s work, in which he argued that Americans had lost a sense of connectedness with one another as well as a sense of agency in political decisions that affected their lives.26 Citizens felt helpless, public journalists argued, and journalism’s detached approach to reporting made things worse.

(p.35) There are other notable similarities between public journalism and today’s audience engagement advocates. Many of the organizations that stepped in to bolster the efforts of public journalists—including the Knight Foundation and the Kettering Foundation—are now doing the same for audience engagement advocates. And some of the chief proponents of public journalism, such as media critics Rosen and Dan Gillmor, have similarly embraced the audience engagement experiments unfolding today. Perhaps most important, the public journalists of the 1990s and the audience engagement advocates of today share the same fundamental assumption about the public: that it comprises people who perceive the press as elitist and out of touch with their actual lives.

The basis of journalism’s attempted objectivity was the notion that detached expertise would demonstrate professional credibility and earn audience trust. Yet both the public journalists of the 1990s and the audience engagement advocates of today believe this feigned neutrality has done little to win the trust of citizens who feel their own experiences are often overlooked when it comes to traditional news routines. As the next two chapters reveal, implicit in these audience perceptions is the notion that journalistic expertise, a point of pride for reporters and editors with a traditional sense of their imagined audiences, is instead a trait to be acknowledged defensively or perhaps abandoned altogether. “Public journalism finds expertise very embarrassing,” Schudson wrote. “It vests all authority for the news in journalists and then turns around to deny that journalists can or should have any special access to understanding the needs of democracy.”27 As we shall see, advocates of engaged journalism feel similarly.

Because the rationales behind public journalism and audience engagement are so similar, their implementations are remarkably—though unsurprisingly—alike as well. Public journalism advocates played host to town hall meetings and other participatory events to help turn news production from a one-way lecture into a two-way dialogue. As journalism scholars Seth Lewis, Avery Holton, and Mark Coddington noted: “Professionalized journalism lost touch with its community—a problem that the public journalism movement sought to resolve.”28 The production-oriented audience engagement approach, with its embrace of citizen involvement in journalism and journalism’s involvement in public life, is ostensibly the same.

Many of the newsrooms that have embraced audience engagement via public journalism values have begun using a combination of more inclusive reporting and more sophisticated audience awareness to tailor their content. (p.36) For example, many local news nonprofits hold “open houses” in communities where they welcome residents to pitch or discuss stories. These efforts embrace journalism scholar Rodney Benson’s call for journalists to “self-consciously recruit journalists” who come from diverse backgrounds and give them “greater freedom to express their class-based perspectives.”29 They also illustrate what media scholars have referred to as the convergence of market-driven desire to generate higher circulation with public journalism’s desire to meet the needs of the audience.30 In other words, as we shall see in the analyses that follow, many of the people advocating for more audience engagement believe that the result of more direct communication between journalists and audiences is not only better journalism but also more profitable journalism.

There are a number of important differences between public journalism and engaged journalism. The most notable distinction is the social and political environments in which they came about. Public journalists did not have to contend with the profoundly potent spread of political polarization and misinformation that recently have engulfed the global media environment. During public journalism’s pursuit, there was little discussion about the notion that Republicans and Democrats disagreed about not only public policy but also factual claims. As a result, when public journalists spoke about advocating for communities, there was little concern about how such advocacy could adversely impact journalistic credibility. However, at a moment when many conservatives in the United States believe that the “mainstream media” comprise biased liberals who pretend to be balanced but are in fact the “enemy of the people,” there is reason to fear further distrust should journalists begin actively attempting to advocate on behalf of certain groups of citizens.

Another key difference between the public journalism and engaged journalism movements is the economic circumstances surrounding them. News publishers recently have realized that digital advertising revenue is unlikely to ever lead to financial stability31 and have grown heartened by signs that people are, in fact, willing to pay for online news.32 Consequently, many newsrooms have begun experimenting with audience-supported and foundation-funded revenue models that depend on memberships, subscriptions, or donations.33 This development is important as revenue models built on audience support likely will lead news publishers to focus more on audience engagement than models built on superficial measures such as audience reach, for no other reason than they will suddenly have an (p.37) obvious incentive to better understand what does—and does not—encourage audience loyalty. Such a shift is also likely to lead news organizations to focus on smaller, niche audiences in hopes of gaining their direct financial support as opposed to attempting to capture the attention of as many people as possible.

Should such a transition occur, journalism researchers would be faced with an entirely different set of questions about the news media and its relationship with the public. For instance, amid claims that society has grown politically polarized to a troubling degree, would a media environment that actively embraces audience segmentation lead to more ideological segmentation as well?34 While it is too soon to say how viable the push for audience-supported revenue models within journalism will be, the fact that they are being pursued at all suggests a growing reluctance within the profession to stick to traditional notions of how news audiences should be conceptualized, monetized, and consequently pursued.

Hearken, City Bureau, and the Chicago Tribune

The next four chapters draw primarily on ethnographic data collected from three journalism organizations: the audience engagement company Hearken, the local news nonprofit City Bureau, and the daily newspaper the Chicago Tribune. This approach uses a combination of observation and interviews with the editors, reporters, and managers at news organizations to draw conclusions about newsroom culture and journalistic norms. As both classic and contemporary newsroom ethnographies have demonstrated, ethnographic methods are ideal for uncovering cultural aspects that are difficult to identify using quantitative methods.35 The interviews were an especially integral piece of data collection because they offered the opportunity to learn from participants that which could not be inferred simply by observing them.36 While some of the reporters and editors mentioned in this book have changed job titles or moved to other organizations since 2016–2017 (the period of time that data collection took place), references remain within the context of their positions at the time they were interviewed.

I chose to study Hearken and City Bureau because they are among two of the best-known organizations attempting to persuade the news industry to adopt production-oriented modes of audience engagement. Hearken, which was founded in 2015, sells newsrooms the means by which they can (p.38) solicit questions from their audiences and generally increase opportunities for journalist–audience collaborations. It currently works with more than a hundred newsrooms worldwide. Hearken’s revenue model is based on providing its services to newsrooms for an annual subscription fee, which averages about $8,500. Therefore, for Hearken to survive financially, it needs to accomplish two things: First, it needs to persuade the news industry to embrace its approach to audiences; then, it must convince newsrooms that Hearken’s offerings are a necessary ongoing expense.

City Bureau is an unconventional news publisher focused on Chicago’s South and West Side communities. The company pursues a variety of means to improve the relationship between journalists and the communities they cover by making news production more collaborative and more representative of the people it attempts to reach. Though only a few years old, City Bureau already has won a variety of prestigious journalism awards, and, like Hearken, has been profiled in journalism trade presses such as NiemanLab, Columbia Journalism Review, and MediaShift. In 2018, it was awarded a $1 million MacArthur grant.

The Chicago Tribune is the 11th-largest daily newspaper in the United States. As the oldest news outlet in this book’s data sample, the Tribune also has the kind of tumultuous past that is typical of a print newspaper. It filed for bankruptcy in 2008, implemented a paywall in 2012, moved out of its historic Michigan Avenue building in 2018, and has undergone multiple rounds of layoffs, buyouts, and ownership changes. Some of its experiments with attracting online audiences have very publicly backfired, as was the case in 2012 when it partnered with a Chicago-based content provider to bolster its online suburban coverage, only to soon back out in the wake of a fake-byline scandal. The Tribune’s overall approach to its audience aligns with that of a traditional newsroom, meaning it is reception-oriented. Including these data thus allows this book to compare how different perceptions of audiences among journalists inevitably lead to different ways of pursuing them.

Chapter 7 shifts the focus from how journalists conceptualize their audiences to how audiences actually perceive and interact with the news. To accomplish this, it bridges the gulf between journalism studies, which typically comprises research focused on news production, and audience studies, which offers explanations for audience behavior. Until now, the conversation about news audiences within the former discipline has failed to meaningfully engage with the latter. In making this connection explicit, this chapter (p.39) suggests that journalists may have much less control over the reception of their work than they would like to believe.

This book examines journalism through an admittedly narrow lens. By focusing on news produced via digital and print outlets, it leaves out news publishers working in other journalistic platforms, such as television, radio, and podcasts. This limitation is important to note at the outset, because while many people refer to journalism as “the media,” the institution is far from monolithic. National newspapers approach the news differently from local news sites, for example, while television news can sometimes seem to operate under another set of rules entirely. Despite these differences, each of the genres increasingly sees it as important to let the audience peek behind the curtain of journalistic practice. While this book’s focus is on journalism’s relationship with the public via a select form of news production, the importance of this relationship—and the mechanism by which it functions—extends to the industry more generally.

The case for Chicago

Any book that focuses on one specific location—be it a city, a country, or a region of the world—faces the same question from rightfully skeptical readers: “Why should there be any expectation that these findings would apply anywhere else?” It’s a fair question, one for which wholly satisfying answers are often elusive. No city can ever be expected to serve as a generalizable sample for the rest of the world. The political and socioeconomic circumstances within one American city are unlikely to mirror another, let alone some other city across the globe.

Still, Chicago has much to offer as the setting for the qualitative analysis in the following four chapters. First, it is a large city—the third largest in the United States. It also is the 13th most segregated.37 Though the city’s overall population is fairly evenly split (32 percent White, 30 percent Black, and 29 percent Latino residents), many neighborhoods overwhelmingly comprise one group exclusively. Englewood, for instance, a neighborhood on the city’s South Side, is 97 percent Black.38 These statistics mirror those shared in cities in the rest of the country.39 So while Chicago’s demographics are distinct, its divisions are, unfortunately, quite common.

Indeed, Chicago’s segregation is so obvious that it is difficult for the city’s journalists to ignore. As Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson pointed out (p.40) in his book about Chicago’s communities, the city’s racial divisions and the Tribune’s historically conservative slant have led many of the city’s residents to conclude that the paper “only caters to one side of the divide.”40 As discussed earlier in this chapter, journalists traditionally have taken a “mass audience” approach to news production. In Chicago, such an approach can be perceived as willfully oblivious to the actual circumstances surrounding the very people that they hope to reach. Setting this project within Chicago, therefore, provides an opportunity to examine how journalists approach news audiences in a setting where subgroups are obviously separated from one another, thus raising the question of how those audiences are subsequently separated by journalists.

I also chose Chicago because of the state of its local journalism. The city’s news media environment has suffered a fate comparable to that of many others across the country: Its two local newspapers, once seen as stalwart institutions, are severely diminished. Many of its smaller, neighborhood-focused publications have folded. The Chicago Defender was one of the leading Black presses in the country: It instigated the Great Migration, prompted the integration of the Armed Forces, and shifted Black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.41 Now its influence, like its editorial staff, is much smaller. In fact, in mid-2019, after years of staff cutbacks and subscription losses, the paper ceased its print operations, a sign of just how far it had fallen.42

Yet in the face of these setbacks, Chicago has become the setting for profound journalistic innovation. Hearken and City Bureau, two of the three organizations that provide this book’s qualitative data, have helped usher in a growing movement to improve the quality and quantity of local journalism. These new additions have joined a growing list of journalistic initiatives that have been organized or supported by Chicago-based nonprofits, universities, and foundations. Their efforts to revitalize journalism in Chicago are all predicated on the same premise that underlies every pursuit of any audience: that the people behind them know what their audiences want.

Furthermore, while these efforts tend to be Chicago specific, their approaches to and assumptions about news audiences have piqued the interest of journalists worldwide. The people behind Hearken and City Bureau routinely fly to journalism industry and academic conferences around the globe to discuss their collaborative approach to news production. In a nutshell: Although these organizations are based in Chicago, their approaches to and assumptions about the public face no such geographic constraints. The proliferation of these Chicago-based efforts not only to fix the news but also (p.41) to persuade the news industry as a whole to follow suit makes the city a fitting setting for this study. After all, the relationship this book focuses on—that between journalists and their audiences—is the very relationship the journalism stakeholders within this book hope to mend.

Of course, the skepticism that some feel when they read about location-based, qualitative studies also stems from the fact that the reasons scholars give for where they focused their studies, while honest, are often incomplete. There are project-based reasons for picking specific places, and then there is real life. I gathered the data for this project while pursuing my doctorate at Northwestern University, located just outside of Chicago. Consequently, I already knew people working within Chicago journalism, which helped me to secure access to their organizations. Additionally, the fact that their efforts were unfolding in my backyard meant that I could gather data on a graduate student stipend with limited research funding available. In short, I chose Chicago for this project because I believed (and still believe) that it is a city with a lot to offer those interested in understanding journalism’s relationship with the public and the implications of that relationship for both news production and consumption. But I also chose Chicago because that was my home when this project began.

The difference between experimenting and surviving

One final note about the sites included in my comparisons of audience perceptions and pursuits: When discussing differences between traditional news outlets such as the Tribune and nonprofit or experimental news organizations such as City Bureau and Hearken, it is impossible to avoid the visible differences in atmosphere that separate one from the other. My Chicago Tribune interviews took place in or near the paper’s desolate newsroom, littered with empty cubicles. A reporter I spoke with kept a canister of Raid on her desk because she had noticed roaches. Such circumstances bled into the demeanor of the newspaper’s staff. Some described the rounds of layoffs they had witnessed and the troubling sight of coworkers packing their belongings and walking out the door for good. Others pointed to the many empty cubicles and warmly described the people who once worked in them. The employees I spoke with told me these things with an “I’ve seen it all” chuckle, which often gave way to looks of genuine concern. Schudson captured the effect of these sorts of prolonged and severe financial challenges when he wrote:


If you have ever been on a losing team—not just for a few games, but for a long and irretrievable slump of one defeat after another, you know how it colors everything for you, on and off the playing field . . . Picture yourself, then, in a contemporary American newspaper newsroom where about a third of your colleagues from ten years ago are no longer there. Nor are they being replaced. There are a lot of empty desks.43

It is reasonable to assume that these ongoing reminders of just how bad things are for news organizations—and for local, print news publishers specifically—leave an impression on the journalists working within them.

Conversely, City Bureau’s founders have experienced countless reasons for optimism. Not long after its inception, the organization quickly raised more than $10,000 to open a newsroom. Its fundraising successes—and profile—have grown in the years since. City Bureau’s founders went into the nonprofit news business at a time when many viewed this form of news production as the future of the news industry.44 Since City Bureau started, it has received more than $1 million in grants from established foundations, thousands in donations from community members, and glowing writeups in industry blogs. Its articles have been published in a variety of high-profile outlets and have garnered several journalism accolades. Its founders have even been invited to discuss their model at conferences and foundations across the country. While the Tribune was laying people off, City Bureau has expanded.

Hearken has experienced similar success during its brief history. The company has generated a substantial amount of buzz since its founding in 2015. It has been profiled by the Washington Post and Politico as well as trade outlets such as NiemanLab and Columbia Journalism Review. Like the founders of City Bureau, Hearken cofounder and chief executive officer Jennifer Brandel is a mainstay at journalism research and industry conferences. The company’s success shows. At the time of data collection, Hearken was based in a skyscraper across the street from the scenic Millennium Park, overlooking Lake Michigan. It was housed on the 26th floor of the Aeon Center, which is home to Microsoft and other corporate giants. Hearken’s employees took up a small amount of the sprawling space available to them. However, they also were hiring and have continued to expand. In May 2019, the company announced that it would be opening an office in Denmark to service its growing roster of European clients.45

This distinction should not be overlooked when considering the differences in how Hearken, the Tribune, and City Bureau approach their (p.43) work and their audiences. The core staff of both Hearken and City Bureau exhibited an excitement about the reporting they were publishing and an enthusiasm to experiment with traditional journalistic practices. The Tribune’s staff appeared in a perpetual state of uncertainty about the future of their trade, their newspaper, and their very jobs. To City Bureau and Hearken, the unknown has meant opportunity; to the Tribune, it has meant distress, if not outright dread.

Absent this context, readers might walk away from the chapters that follow with the false impression that the Tribune’s journalists have chosen not to pursue the sort of audience engagement that City Bureau privileges solely because they have a less charitable view of the people they hope to reach. Things are not that straightforward. The Tribune editors approach their readers differently from those working at Hearken and City Bureau not only because they have different assumptions about the people they hope to reach but also because they think the approach they have embraced is the likeliest to generate the revenue the paper so desperately needs to survive. In other words, the Tribune’s reluctance to embrace the sort of production-oriented audience engagement pursued by companies such as City Bureau and Hearken stems not only from its traditional perception of the news audience but also from its knowledge that the stakes are high and the margin for error is small. By and large, its employees aren’t sure that City Bureau and Hearken are wrong for wholeheartedly embracing production-oriented audience engagement. However, they are not convinced that they’re right with enough confidence to risk losing what little they have by joining them.

Because City Bureau is a much leaner operation, because it is a nonprofit, and because its funding depends more on grants from foundations than it does from advertising revenue or audience support, its editors are able to sidestep such concerns. Consequently, City Bureau does not need to choose between pursuing more collaborative relationships between journalists and community members and finding a sustainable revenue model for traditional newsrooms. As a result, its staff can focus almost exclusively on the former without much regard for the latter. Harry Backlund, a City Bureau cofounder and its director of operations and business strategy, made this distinction explicit during one of our conversations when he described the differences between his organization’s approach to both the public and revenue and that of more traditional organizations such as the Tribune. “They are responding to the same economic crisis, but from their perspective it’s a question of revenue. It’s like, ‘How can we stop losing this thing that we’ve always had?’ ”

(p.44) The answer, according to Backlund, is the same as the answer to the question, “How do you catch a falling knife?”

“Fucking don’t,” he said. “It’s a bad idea. Just let it keep falling.”

City Bureau appears to have escaped the economic constraints facing traditional newsrooms, while the Tribune appears to be truly weighed down by them. Then there is Hearken, which finds itself somewhere in the middle. Like City Bureau, Hearken is a small, recently founded organization that is not tied down to traditional modes of news publisher revenue such as audience support and advertising dollars. However, unlike City Bureau, which raises funds primarily by impressing journalism funders with its innovative efforts, Hearken’s continued success depends in large part on selling its interpretation of audience engagement to traditional newsrooms. Consequently, for Hearken to succeed, its employees must persuade traditional newsrooms to embrace the argument that increasing audience engagement will positively impact their bottom line. As later chapters reveal, this distinction between Hearken and City Bureau leads each organization to chart different paths when it comes to the business of news despite the fact that the two organizations are similar when it comes to their perceptions of the news audiences.

This contrast reveals how, in addition to differences in imagined audiences, varying missions and revenue models lead to different calculations when it comes to news production. Yet they also reveal how intertwined these calculations are with one another. The Tribune needs to make a profit to keep the lights on, and that profit comes from maintaining a large audience rather than an exceptionally loyal one. However, the newspaper’s impression that its audience is less than likely to support investigative journalism has led it to pursue a model of journalism where soft news operates as a subsidy for hard news. City Bureau and Hearken believe that the assumption underlying this approach to the audience is misguided.

As City Bureau and Hearken’s production-focused interpretation of audience engagement continues to spread throughout the news media environment, and commercial news outlets continue to attempt to find solutions based on their own notions of whom their audiences comprise and what they want from news, understanding the implications of these differences—and their connection to journalism’s imagined audiences—will only grow more important.


(1.) Ignacio Siles and Pablo J. Boczkowski, “Making Sense of the Newspaper Crisis: A Critical Assessment of Existing Research and an Agenda for Future Work,” New Media & Society 14, no. 8 (2012), https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444812455148.

(3.) Margaret Sullivan, “Local Journalism Needs a Coronavirus Stimulus Plan, Too,” Washington Post, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/local-journalism-needs-a-coronavirus-stimulus-plan-too/2020/03/25/08358062-6ec6-11ea-b148-e4ce3fbd85b5_story.html.

(4.) Kristen Hare, “Here Are the Newsroom Layoffs, Furloughs and Closures Caused by the Coronavirus,” Poynter, April 6, 2020, https://www.poynter.org/business-work/2020/here-are-the-newsroom-layoffs-furloughs-and-closures-caused-by-the-coronavirus/.

(5.) Mathew Ingram, “Coronavirus Continues to Take Its Toll on the Media Industry,” Columbia Journalism Review, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/coronavirus-toll-media.php.

(6.) Megan Brenan, “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Edges Down to 41%,” Gallup, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/267047/americans-trust-mass-media-edges-down.aspx.

(7.) John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez, “About 80 Percent of the Media Are ‘the Enemy of the People,’ Trump Says,” Washington Post, August 22, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/about-80-percent-of-the-media-are-the-enemy-of-the-people-trump-says/2018/08/22/d7d5710c-a635-11e8-a656-943eefab5daf_story.html.

(8.) Erin Bradner, “Conway: Trump White House Offered ‘Alternative Facts’ on Crowd Size,” CNN, January 23, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/22/politics/kellyanne-conway-alternative-facts/index.html.

(9.) Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” in Julian Dibbell (Ed.), The Best Technology Writing (Yale University Press, 2010), 95–104.

(10.) Jake Batsell, Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Regina G. Lawrence, Damian Radcliffe, and Thomas R. Schmidt, “Practicing Engagement,” Journalism Practice 12, no. 10 (November 3, 2017): 1220–40, https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2017.1391712; Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Jacob L. Nelson, and Seth C. Lewis, “Audience Engagement, Reciprocity, and the Pursuit of Community Connectedness in Public Media Journalism,” Journalism Practice 13, no. 5 (May 28, 2019): 558–75, https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2018.1542975.

(12.) Jacob L. Nelson, “The Elusive Engagement Metric,” Digital Journalism 6, no. 4 (2018): 528–44, https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2018.1445000; Lawrence et al., “Practicing Engagement.”

(13.) Elizabeth Hansen and Emily Goligoski, “Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement,” Tow Center for Digital Journalism, February 8, 2018, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/guide-to-audience-revenue-and-engagement.php/.

(14.) John Wihbey, The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).

(15.) Thomas B. Ksiazek, Limor Peer, and Kevin Lessard, “User Engagement with Online News: Conceptualizing Interactivity and Exploring the Relationship Between Online News Videos and User Comments,” New Media & Society 18, no. 3 (August 11, 2014): 502–20, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814545073.

(16.) Sue Robinson and Yidong Wang, “Networked News Participation: Future Pathways,” Media and Communication 6, no. 4 (2018), https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v6i4.1674.

(17.) Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi, Trump and the Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

(18.) Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Columbia Journalism Review (November/December 2009), https://archives.cjr.org/reconstruction/the_reconstruction_of_american.php.

(19.) A version of this definition, along with some of this exploration of the promise of audience engagement, was previously published in Jacob L. Nelson, “The Next Media (p.181) Regime: The Pursuit of ‘Audience Engagement’ in Journalism,” Journalism (July 9, 2019), doi:10.1177/1464884919862375.

(20.) Jacob Ørmen, A Public Conversation in Private Settings: Engaging with News across Media (Københavns Universitet, Det Humanistiske Fakultet, 2016).

(21.) Originally published in Nelson, “Next Media Regime.”

(22.) John H. McManus, Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware? (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing, 1994); Patrick Ferrucci, “Exploring Public Service Journalism: Digitally Native News Nonprofits and Engagement,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 94, no. 1 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699016681968.

(23.) I’ve previously written about the connection between “engaged” and “public” journalism in “Patrick Ferrucci, Jacob L. Nelson, and Miles Davis, “From ‘Public Journalism’ to ‘Engaged Journalism’: Imagined Audiences and Denigrating Discourse,” International Journal of Communication 14, no. 9 (2020): 1564–604; Nelson, “Next Media Regime”; Thomas R. Schmidt, Jacob L. Nelson, and Regina G. Lawrence, “Conceptualizing the Active Audience: Rhetoric and Practice in ‘Engaged Journalism,’ ” Journalism (June 15, 2020), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464884920934246?journalCode=joua.

(24.) Theodore Lewis Glasser, The Idea of Public Journalism (New York: Guilford Press, 1999), xiv.

(25.) Paul S. Voakes, “A Brief History of Public Journalism,” National Civic Review 93, no. 3 (2004): 25–35, https://doi.org/10.1002/ncr.58.

(26.) Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” in Proceedings of the 2000 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work—CSCW ’00, 2000, https://doi.org/10.1145/358916.361990.

(28.) Lewis et al., “Reciprocal Journalism,” 230.

(29.) Rodney Benson, Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 212, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139034326.

(30.) Kathleen McCollough, Jessica K. Crowell, and Philip M. Napoli, “Portrait of the Online Local News Audience,” Digital Journalism, 5, no. 1 (2017): 100–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2016.1152160.

(31.) Sara Jerde, “It Was a Very Bad Media Week,” Adweek 60, no. 3 January 28, 2019.

(32.) Molla, “ ‘Trump Bump.’ ”

(33.) Rodney Benson, “Can Foundations Solve the Journalism Crisis?,” Journalism 19, no. 8 (August 31, 2017): 1059–77, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884917724612.

(34.) Jacob L. Nelson, “And Deliver Us to Segmentation: The Growing Appeal of the Niche News Audience,” Journalism Practice 12, no. 2 (2018): 204–19, https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2017.1378588.

(35.) Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004); Nikki Usher, Making News at The New York Times (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014); Magda Konieczna, Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Phyllis C. Kaniss, Making Local News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

(36.) See the Methods section for more information about the data collection.

(37.) Bob Goldsborough, “Chicago Is the 13th Most Segregated Metro Area in U.S., Study Finds,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/real-estate/ct-re-0603-housing-segregation-20180525-story.html.

(38.) Vince Gerasole, “Race and Segregation in Chicago; ‘We Have Created It. We Engineered Segregation,’” CBS Chicago, February 11, 2019, https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2019/02/11/race-segregation-chicago-neighborhoods/.

(39.) Joseph P. Williams, “Segregation’s Legacy,” U.S. News & World Report, April 20, 2018,  https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-04-20/us-is-still-segregated-even-after-fair-housing-act.

(40.) Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

(41.) Ethan Michaeli, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America: From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

(42.) Mitchell Armentrout, “‘An Essential Force in American History,’ Chicago Defender to Stop Print Publication,” Chicago Sun-Times, July 5, 2019, https://chicago.suntimes.com/business/2019/7/5/20683442/chicago-defender-ends-print-edition-digital-only-platform.

(43.) Michael Schudson, Why Journalism Still Matters (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 124.

(44.) Patrick Ferrucci, “Public Journalism No More: The Digitally Native News Nonprofit and Public Service Journalism,” Journalism 16, no. 7 (2015): 904–19, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884914549123; Konieczna, Journalism Without Profit; Amy Mitchell, Mark Jurkowitz, Jesse Holcomb, and Monica Anderson, “Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing But Fragile Part of the U.S. News System,” Pew Research Center, June 10, 2013, http://www.journalism.org/2013/06/10/nonprofit-journalism/.

(45.) Jennifer Brandel, “Hearken Expands to Europe. Here’s the Backstory + an Interview with Our ‘Zebra’ Investor,” Medium, 2019, https://medium.com/we-are-hearken/denmark-76affe8656b6.