We are delighted to publish a new research article by Alyssa Zeisler. “The Great Audience Experiment” provides an historical perspective on the collection and use of audience data across American news organisations, highlighting the intersections of audience data and journalism practices. The author contends that a better understanding of the effects of the use of audience data has implications for both the business of news and the mission of journalism that are of critical importance as our news organisations strive to shape their future in a period of dramatic reconfiguration.
Since the beginning of mass media journalism, news professionals have endeavoured to develop new tools, systems, and processes to better understand and reach audiences. In the past, audience engagement was generally seen as the responsibility of non-editorial departments such as marketing. Today building audience engagement is more likely to be driven by editorial teams and seen as increasingly central to the work of reporters and editors.
Audience data and analytics are often regarded as symptoms of commercialisation, associated with news distribution and consumer demands, and lauded as tools to reach new audiences and grow revenues. The use of audience data also contains opportunities and risks for journalism as an institution, a profession, and for audiences themselves. With new technologies that allow unprecedented attention on the news audience, it is sometimes unclear who is leading who. Are practitioners using the right metrics to truly understand audience needs? Do current methodologies help or hinder meaningful journalism? When the business of journalism undergoes revolutionary changes – for example, in the shift from advertising to subscription monetisation — how does or should the mission of journalism respond?
Tensions between the mission of journalism and the business of journalism are longstanding. How do recent developments in data analytics challenge the understanding, and indeed the very definition of journalistic value? While the use of analytics has been intellectually interrogated since the early 20th century, we are still without a clear understanding of their impact. Much research is too narrowly focused, taking the perspective of the newsroom without understanding how the audience, business, and newsroom are intimately linked.
As the use of data becomes embedded in newsroom functions, the path forward for news institutions is ambiguous. What is clear however, is that the audience, the news business, and the newsroom are interconnected. Audience data and the way audience data is used has significant implications for business management, organisational structure, editorial strategy, ethics, institutional trust, and business sustainability.
Click here to access the pdf of The Great Audience Experiment
About the author: Alyssa Zeisler is VP of Product Management at Dow Jones where she leads a team dedicated to subscription growth and strategic initiatives. She previously directed The Wall Street Journal’s R&D team, which applied emerging technology to ambitious journalism projects and investigations. A long time believer in user-centric decision making, she has helped build teams that accelerate digital transformation at both Barron’s and the Financial Times. This report was written in a personal capacity and represents the views of the author not LSE or Dow Jones.