Less than 50 years ago, most people in the United States had rather limited access to the news media compared to today. Most places had at most two newspapers, but a typical household would only subscribe to one. There might be a half a dozen to a dozen radio stations that could be easily picked up during the day. A well-populated area would have three local television stations, each affiliated with one of the three major networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS). In some areas, all of these stations would have local news operations, but that was not the case everywhere.
The three major networks produced news shows from which most Americans got their daily news. These shows lasted 30 minutes and were broadcast once a day. Local television stations had news shows lasting 30 minutes that were broadcast twice a day. There was no CNN and no 24-hour news (except for a few radio stations in very large cities).
And the audience did not matter very much.
That’s because the news media (journalists) made two assumptions about the audience. One was that the audience was a “mass audience.” That is, the only really important thing about the audience was how large it was. Getting larger audiences (more newspaper subscribers, more television viewers, etc.) was the only thing that really mattered. The second assumption was that the audience for news would be there because they had no choice. The number of news outlets they had access to was very limited.
These assumptions led many journalists to believe that the preferences of individuals within the audience did not matter very much. As long as the news organizations produced news and information about a number of different topics, they could retain this mass audience.
This is the media environment in which your grandparents grew up.
How things have changed.
The changes began in the 1970s when cable television, once mean for the rural areas that could not receive an over-the-air signal, began to spread into the cities. With cable came a growing number of “channels” that were not affiliated with the major television networks. In 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) was launched as the first 24-hour news channel. The number of news channels grew steadily through the 1980s.
This led to the concept of the “segmented audience,” as opposed to the mass audience we mentioned earlier. Many of these new cable channels were not trying to reach everyone. Rather, they wanted people with special interests in sports, business, food, homes, gardening, etc.
The most profound change came in the 1990s with the Internet and the World Wide Web. By the mid-1990s, it was obvious to many people that the web was going to change just about everything about the discipline and process of journalism.
The biggest change would be the relationship that journalists would have with their audiences. No longer could journalists serve up whatever news they wanted to produce and be confident the audience would buy it. The audience had too many choices. Now journalists had to pay much closer attention to what members of the audience wanted and had to respond to the audience in a very different way. They had to let the audience in on the process of journalist – something they had never done before – and the audience became active participants in the process.
Journalism changed from producing “news as product” to producing “news as conversation. That change is still occurring.
How much does the audience pay attention to news?
Here’s one example: the swine flu outbreak in 2009. The Pew Center for People and the Press conducted a survey asking people where they got their information about swine flu. The results of the survey showed that people heard about the swine flu from a variety of sources: local television news (69%), cable news channels (63%), nightly network news (53%), the Internet (49%), and newspapers (48%). The survey went on to ask people what source was the “most useful,” and here is what the survey report said about the results:
But the rankings change when people are asked which source has been most useful in learning about the global outbreak that started in Mexico. One quarter cite the internet, 19% name the cable news networks and 17% their local television news. About one-in-ten cite the nightly network newscasts or newspapers (9% each).
Read the summary of the survey report here:
What does all this say about the audience for news?
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