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Have News Audiences Become More Audible?

Graduate student Jacob Nelson has spent five years studying the evolving relationships between journalists and the public

Jacob Nelson

Among his numerous writing fellowships and research grants, Jacob Nelson received a 2018 Graduate Student Conference Travel Award from the Buffett Institute for Global Studies. He will use the award to present his research on fake news audiences in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election at May’s International Communication Association conference in Prague.

More than ever before, technology is allowing the public to shape the news it consumes. But is that a good thing?

“Twenty years ago news media outlets weren’t asking consumers what journalists should cover or how they should cover it, but today, some enterprises are advocating for that to change,” says Jacob Nelson, a fifth-year graduate student in Northwestern’s Media, Technology, and Society (MTS) doctoral program.

Community and audience engagement has fast become a feature rather than an afterthought, and Nelson, who graduated from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in 2010 before working for the online local news platform Patch in Highland Park, is researching what that shift means for journalism and the public.

His ongoing work exploring the changing relationship between the media and their audiences has produced eight peer-reviewed journal publications on topics from digital platforms to the complexity of engagement metrics. Nelson collaborated with MTS alumnus Harsh Taneja ’13, now an assistant professor of media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, on a paper recently published in New Media & Society. Their study showed that the fake news audience consists of a small, disloyal group of heavy Internet users and that social network sites play an outsized role in generating traffic to fake news.

Nelson’s dissertation — which he will defend in April — stems from his ethnographic case studies of the Chicago Tribune; Hearken, developers of a unique model for public-powered journalism; and City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab based on Chicago’s South Side.

“It was fascinating to see the way that each of these news organizations conceptualize and practice audience engagement,” says Nelson, who spent months observing and interviewing staff members at each outlet.

The “old school” way of practicing journalism, Nelson says, involved editors and reporters relying on their own instincts to decide what stories to cover. They assumed that what interested them would interest their audiences as well. However, with the news industry facing economic uncertainty due to huge drops in print subscriptions and advertising revenue, many believe this approach is no longer sustainable.

Hearken and City Bureau, both relatively new players in the media landscape, represent a trend that posits that when news organizations bring audiences into the fold of everyday decision making, those audiences are far more likely to support journalistic efforts. City Bureau, for example, uses a variety of tactics to deliberately bring journalists and communities on Chicago’s South and West sides together in a manner meant to produce equitable media coverage while also encouraging civic participation.

“Even though the advent of digital technology has brought about so many tools and metrics for examining audience behavior, there’s still a great deal of intuition involved in figuring out what to make of it,” says Nelson, who will become a faculty member at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in August. “As a result, there are now different journalism stakeholders, each advocating for their own distinct way of approaching the news audience and their own reporting.”

Nelson’s dissertation explores what these distinct approaches look like so that people can better understand how these practices may shape the future of news media.

“Journalism as we knew it has changed, making this research extremely timely,” says James Webster, communication studies, Nelson’s academic advisor, and an expert on media use and audiences. “By publishing articles in outlets like the Columbia Journalism Review, Jake has likely already affected the way some journalists think of their audiences.”

Journalism studies as a field — rather than a subset of sociology or communications — is fairly new, says Nelson. As journalism continues to evolve in the digital age, there is a newfound recognition that researchers need to explore the many aspects surrounding technology and its affect on news media.

“Jake is the perfect example of a doctoral student who is engaged civically,” says Dan Lewis, human development and social policy and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. Lewis and Nelson worked on a pair of published studies on civic engagement in the Internet age and social justice journalism.

“The work we did together is both scholarly and cast light on key issues of citizenship and democracy,” says Lewis. “The fact that Jake will become a tenure-track faculty member at a great university demonstrates that concerns about our democracy and first-rate scholarship go hand in hand.”

By Roger Anderson