Quantified Audiences in News Production

A synthesis and research agendaRodrigo Zamith
Digital Journalism

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tag-as Digital Analytics & Online Gatekeeping on 6/5/2019, 6:15:47 PM

abstract A number of social, technological, and economic shifts over the past two decades have led to the proliferation of audience analytics and metrics in journalism. This article contends that we are witnessing a third wave toward the rationalization of audience understanding and distinguishes between audience analytics (systems that capture information) and audience metrics (quantified measures output by those systems). The body of literature on analytics and metrics in the context of news production is then synthesized across the ABCDE of news production: attitudes, behaviors, content, discourse, and ethics. That synthesis leads to an overarching conclusion that while contemporary journalism is not being driven by quantified audiences, both audiences and quantification are playing far more prominent roles in news production than in the past. Scholars and practitioners have also become less pessimistic about analytics and metrics over time, recognizing more nuanced effects and prosocial possibilities. Finally, important gaps in the literature are identified and new research directions proposed to help address them. on 6/5/2019, 8:26:20 PM

quote According to Napoli (2011), there are two interrelated processes that drive changes to the rationalization of audience understanding, or the use and refinement of empirical, typically quantitative techniques to aid the understanding of multiple dimensions of audience behavior in order to better predict and respond to those behaviors. The first involves technological changes that alter the dynamics of media consumption. The second involves technological changes that facilitate the gathering of new forms of information about the media audience. 420 on 6/5/2019, 8:29:04 PM

cites Audience Evolution on 6/5/2019, 8:29:40 PM

tag-as important on 6/5/2019, 8:30:09 PM

excerpt Napoli (2011) observes that media industries’ perceptions of their audience became increasingly scientific and data-driven over the course of the twentieth century. Two waves of audience measurement developed during that time. The first began in the 1930s when media organizations started moving away from a then-dominant “intuitive model” whereby decisions were made based on “subjective, often instinctive, judgments … regarding audience tastes, preferences, and reactions” (p. 32). Economic hardships drove advertisers to demand “tangible” evidence of effectiveness and news organizations began collecting data on their readers’ demographic and behavioral characteristics using scientific methods like systematic reader surveys. A second wave emerged in the 1970s as computers facilitated the collection and analysis of larger quantities of statistical data, news consultants were brought in to help attract larger audiences, and managers sought additional quantitative data to help them make more “scientific” managerial decisions (Napoli 2011). 420 on 6/5/2019, 8:31:09 PM

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excerpt With regard to the first of Napoli’s (2011) two interrelated processes, it is important to note that the contemporary media environment is distinguished by fragmentation and audience autonomy. There is presently a large and growing array of content delivery platforms, resulting in the disaggregation of content and the diffusion of audience attention (Napoli 2011). Audiences now have considerably more control over how they consume media and can produce their own content at marginal costs, giving them greater autonomy and more choices (Bruns 2008). These shifts have created significant challenges for traditional audience information systems—the “data gathering and feedback mechanisms used … to measure audience exposure to media content … predict content preferences … target content … and gather information on audiences’ reactions” (Napoli 2011, 10)—since they struggle to capture such dispersed and empowered audiences. 421 on 6/5/2019, 8:52:01 PM

excerpt Unlike previous audience information systems, audience analytics do away with the need to sample and capture information that may be omitted from self-reports, making it “possible to record data about individual consumers at an unprecedented level of detail” (Mullarkey 2004, 42). 422 on 6/5/2019, 8:53:22 PM

excerpt Chartbeat, Google Analytics, and Parse. ly are among the most common today 421 on 6/5/2019, 8:53:58 PM

excerpt The distinction between systems (analytics) and output (metrics) helps separate the artifactual nature of a technology and the textual nature of its content (see Siles and Boczkowski 2012). A single analytics system may output multiple metrics. The same metric may be captured and analyzed by multiple systems (sometimes under different labels). The meanings associated with a metric can change even as the system that produced it remains stable, and vice versa. Furthermore, metrics can come to carry meanings that are very different from what the creators of the analytics that enable them imagined (see Orlikowski 2000; Pinch and Bijker 1984). 422 on 6/5/2019, 8:55:01 PM

excerpt Quantified audiences are therefore still abstractions—ones that emphasize behavioral choices that may be misinterpreted (if not manipulated) when attempting to serve community information needs and the public interest more broadly. 422 on 6/5/2019, 8:56:13 PM

excerpt However, journalism is generally viewed as being more than an economic enterprise. Although journalism began a shift away from its “high modernism” period during the 1970s (Hallin 1992), civic-minded ideals and an adherence to a set of institutions favoring autonomy and control over information remained important to its identity (Lowrey and Gade 2011). 423 on 6/5/2019, 8:57:53 PM

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excerpt For example, MacGregor (2007) found that although some journalists embraced analytics, most viewed it as an inadequate means for informing journalists, a threat to their autonomy, and an affront to their public-service mission. This suggests that some “high modernist” values (see Hallin 1992) continue to be important, even if they are becoming less constraining. 425 on 6/5/2019, 9:02:03 PM

excerpt Scholars have also found important affective responses to the availability of metrics. Ferrer-Conill (2017) observed that journalists at Bleacher Report viewed metrics positively and as a source of motivation, providing them with constant and instant feedback on their performance. Usher (2013) found that journalists at Al Jazeera English wanted greater access to metrics because it was a source of validation and “moral uplift” (p. 346). While Petre (2015) observed that metrics served as a source of reassurance, they were also viewed as a major source of stress due to their unpredictable and relentless nature. 425 on 6/5/2019, 9:03:31 PM

excerpt Put differently, journalists who saw value in audience analytics also saw their job as primarily giving audiences what they want—perhaps in contrast to what journalists think audiences need. 426 on 6/5/2019, 9:04:03 PM

excerpt Organizations that perceive greater competition or view audiences as a source of symbolic capital are also more likely to use analytics (Lowrey and Woo 2010; Tandoc 2015; cf. McKenzie et al. 2011). 426 on 6/5/2019, 9:05:11 PM

excerpt This view of “generative” audiences (Anderson 2011b, 551) marks a significant departure from journalists’ prior distance from and disinterest in those who consumed their work (see Gans 1979). Today, “many journalists also want analytics” (Cherubini and Nielsen 2016, 7) to better serve their audiences. 428 on 6/5/2019, 9:08:46 PM

quote “the danger of viewing the audience as disaggregated segments based on consumer preference—a view that is inconsistent with the communitarian function of helping pursue the common good. 244 on 6/5/2019, 9:09:35 PM

excerpt What impacts are analytics having on journalistic cultures? 430 on 6/5/2019, 9:13:10 PM

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excerpt What do ethical uses of audience analytics and metrics look like? 431 on 6/5/2019, 9:19:48 PM

excerpt By doing so, it becomes evident that the quantification of journalistic audiences is not new, though we are witnessing a new wave toward the rationalization of audience understanding that emphasizes a hereto unprecedented level of quantification in constructing audiences. After an initial period of skepticism, metrics are now factored to some extent into journalistic attitudes, behaviors, content, discourses, and ethics—and increasingly willingly so. 431 on 6/5/2019, 9:22:06 PM

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