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Audience engagement has become a key concept in contemporary discussions on how news companies relate to the public and create sustainable business models. These discussions are irrevocably tied to practices of monitoring, harvesting and analyzing audience behaviours with metrics, which is increasingly becoming the new currency of the media economy. This article argues this growing tendency to equate engagement to behavioural analytics, and study it primarily through quantifiable data, is limiting. In response, we develop a heuristic theory of audience engagement with news comprising four dimensions—the technical-behavioural, emotional, normative and spatiotemporal—and explicate these in terms of different relations of engagement between human-to-self, human-to-human, human-to-content, human-to-machine, and machine-to-machine. Paradoxically, this model comprises a specific theory of audience engagement while simultaneously making visible that constructing a theory of audience engagement is an impossible task. The article concludes by articulating methodological premises, which future empirical research on audience engagement should consider.
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(Against a) Theory of Audience Engagement with
Steen Steensen , Raul Ferrer-Conill & Chris Peters
To cite this article: Steen Steensen , Raul Ferrer-Conill & Chris Peters (2020): (Against a) Theory
of Audience Engagement with News, Journalism Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2020.1788414
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(Against a) Theory of Audience Engagement with News
Steen Steensen
, Raul Ferrer-Conill
and Chris Peters
Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway;
Department of
Geography, Media and Communication, Karlstad University, Sweden;
Department of Media and Social
Sciences, University of Stavanger, Norway;
Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University,
Audience engagement has become a key concept in contemporary
discussions on how news companies relate to the public and create
sustainable business models. These discussions are irrevocably tied
to practices of monitoring, harvesting and analyzing audience
behaviours with metrics, which is increasingly becoming the new
currency of the media economy. This article argues this growing
tendency to equate engagement to behavioural analytics, and
study it primarily through quantiable data, is limiting. In
response, we develop a heuristic theory of audience engagement
with news comprising four dimensionsthe technical-
behavioural, emotional, normative and spatiotemporaland
explicate these in terms of dierent relations of engagement
between human-to-self, human-to-human, human-to-content,
human-to-machine, and machine-to-machine. Paradoxically, this
model comprises a specic theory of audience engagement while
simultaneously making visible that constructing a theory of
audience engagement is an impossible task. The article concludes
by articulating methodological premises, which future empirical
research on audience engagement should consider.
Audience engagement;
behavioural; emotional;
metrics; normative;
Audiences have been ascribed a diverse set of roles with varying degrees of signicance
throughout the history of media and communication research in general and journalism
studies in particular. They have been portrayed as masses that are manipulated, citizens
that are informed, consumers that select, products that are sold, individuals that seek or
avoid, networks that form, participants that co-produce, users that interact, groups that
meet, and phantom constructs that are imagined, among many otheroften incommen-
surableconceptualizations (Napoli 2003; Lewis, Inthorn, and Wahl-Jorgensen 2005). Even
though such varying notions of audiences have dierent discursive baggage, most of
them imply a common interest in audiences as behaviouristic beings. It is the behaviour
of audiences that primarily drives media companies and researchersinterest in them:
what they do when they engage with news and other forms of media content; how,
where, and when they do it; and what motivates their behaviour.
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
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CONTACT Steen Steensen
In recent years, as we have entered the media analytics stageof technological media
(Manovich 2018), audience metrics have come to the fore in these discussions, especially
within the news industry, which relies on metrics not only to monitor audience behaviour
but also, increasingly, as the preferred way to analyze the inner and perhaps unconscious
motivations driving audience engagement (e.g American Press Institute 2019). Academics
focusing on the institutional state-of-the-art understandably follow in tandem, researching
the uses, feelings, and social integration of analytic systems (e.g., Tandoc 2019; Zamith,
Belair-Gagnon, and Lewis 2019). However, marshalling data in this way conates what
metrics actually do (a system logic that aggregates measurable digital signals, and corre-
lates this with pre-existent data through models, algorithms, and machine learning) with
what they seem to imply (a market logic that hopes to predict peoples preferences and
predispositions). Within journalism studies, researchers have been preoccupied with the
connections between audience metrics, engagement and news, arguing that engagement
is a signicant factor for the business models of digital-born and legacy news media (e.g.,
Batsell 2015; Nelson and Webster 2016), and that newsroom practices are increasingly
shaped by the analysis of audience metrics in order to create news suited to engage
the audience (e. g. Cherubini and Nielsen 2016; Ferrer-Conill and Tandoc 2018; Zamith,
Belair-Gagnon, and Lewis 2019) even though the adoption of audience metrics in news-
rooms might have been slower and less universal than rst assumed (Nelson and
Tandoc 2019). In recent years, new roles such as engagement editor,engagement
reporter,head of audience engagementand similar titles have emerged in newsrooms,
predominantly in the US, the UK and Australia. Their work is to distill the information gath-
ered about the audience, conveying audience behaviour to the editorial team and propos-
ing a course of action that considers and aligns with audience insight, according to Ferrer-
Conill and Tandoc (2018, 444).
There are, however, at least two interwoven conceptual and empirical challenges with
the ways in which industry representatives and some researchers often deal with issues of
engagement in the current stage of media analytics. First, engagementwhich is closely
linked to personal wants and needs, emotions and other qualitative aspects of social life
is typically treated as a quantiable and measurable phenomenon. It is therefore dicult
to assess to what degree audience metrics can actually capture the essence of engage-
ment. Second, engagement metrics are not, in reality, metrics of engagementthey are
actually measures of interaction and participation, or simple popularity cues (Haim,
Kümpel, and Brosius 2018). In other words, the metrics used to analyze engagement are
aggregated snapshots of digital traces that signal behavioural actions which do not
necessarily translate to key considerations of how engagement occurs. In other elds of
research, such as social psychology, public engagement is often linked to concepts with
more ethereal qualities like trust and respect. Similarly, in political communication and
social movements literature, engagement is frequently equated with ideals of citizenship.
Boeckmann and Tyler (2002), for example, found that civic engagement increases when
people feel they are respected members of a community, something which is dicult
to capture and measure with behavioural metrics. The broader problem, to put it
simply, is that while engagement can take many forms, the metrics media companies
are able to generate and rely upon only provide insights into a small portion of what
engagement is and entails. Moreover, researchers tend to adopt this industry discourse,
which further conates audience metrics with audience engagement.
This article addresses these issues to argue against the continuation of a tendency to
truncate our knowledge of what audience engagement is in relation to news, lest we
lose sight of its more profound conceptual implications. Specically, we illustrate how
the dominant technical and metrics-oriented understanding and operationalization of
audience engagement leads to a confusion between engagement as an emotional state
that spans across time and space on the one hand, and technical behaviours like digital
interaction and participation that carry normative implications on the other. Based on
this argument, we unpack four dimensions we believe should be invoked to theoretically
assess audience engagement with news: (1) the technical-behavioural dimension, which
accounts for the actions that come out of audience engagement and the digital traces
those actions leave behind; (2) the emotional dimension, which covers how audience
engagement is the result of social-psychological and aective connections between
media and audiences; (3) the normative dimension, in which distinctions between
wanted and unwanted, good and bad forms of audience engagement are made; and
(4) the spatiotemporal dimension, which makes visible that audience engagement is
shaped by social context across time and space, as opposed to something that spon-
taneously occurs in the here and now, only to then abruptly vanish again. Following
from this, we explicate these dimensions in terms of dierent relations of audience
engagement, specically between human-to-self, human-to-human, human-to-content,
human-to-machine, and machine-to-machine.
It is crucial to note that this four-dimensional heuristic approach to conceptualize audi-
ence engagement is not intended to be an all-encompassing, grand theory. Rather, we
argue that audience engagement is so complex that, at best, one can modestly aim to pro-
blematize, systematize and clarify key dimensions that shape engagement. In order to
oer pragmatic ways to attend to such challenges, in the nal sections of this article,
we highlight some of the implications of our audience-centric theorizing of engagement,
deconstruct our own argument to expose some of its limitations, before nally oering
some methodological premises to help inform research designs.
What is Audience Engagement?
Several scholars have raised explicit concerns about the lack of concrete denitions of
engagement (Ferrer-Conill and Tandoc 2018; Meier, Kraus, and Michaeler 2018; Nelson
2018). However, scholarship on audience engagement often agrees that it refers to the
cognitive, emotional, or aective experiences that users have with media content or
brands(Broersma 2019, 1). Such an open approach positions engagement as a slippery
concept because it is experiential, which implies concrete forms of action and interaction,
while at the same time emotional, which connotes a highly subjective relation with media.
In that sense, Hill (2019:, 6) oers a pragmatic conception of engagement, which posits it
as an all-encompassing term to represent how audiences experience media content, arte-
facts and events, from (their) experience of live performances, to social media engage-
ment, or participation in media itself. We align with such an audience-centric
understanding of engagement, but recognize that this only accounts for one possible per-
spective of engagement related to journalism. Nelson (2019), for instance, distinguishes
between reception-oriented and production-oriented engagement, the latter pointing to
how news organizations encourage audiences to contribute content and story ideas to
news. However, such a distinction is not as clear-cut as it may seem, as the ways in which
news publishers utilize reception-oriented engagement through audience metrics clearly
impact the production of news (Tandoc 2015), and vice versa. For example, if reception-
oriented metrics indicate that certain types of news create more engagement, news
organizations will probably choose to produce more such news. Similarly, the algorithmic
prioritization of most read, liked, or shared stories makes audiences more likely to encoun-
ter and potentially engagewith them. This means that such automated parsing of behav-
ioural engagement can shape news consumption by recommending readers what others
have consumed.
In this respect, distinguishing between reception and production-oriented engagement
can be important in understanding how, for example, for-prot and nonprot news pro-
viders relate dierently to audience engagement (Belair-Gagnon, Nelson, and Lewis 2019).
However, such a distinction does little to address the underlying epistemological problem,
namely that engagement is predominantly conceptualized as behavioural. A rst step
towards a clearer understanding of audience engagement is therefore to distinguish
between felt and behavioural engagement. Felt engagement relates to aective outcomes
and intentions, while behavioural engagement relates to performance (Stumpf, Tymon,
and van Dam 2013) and what Lawrence, Radclie, and Schmidt (2018) call practiced
engagement. In practice, the issue is that identifying and quantifying engagement
favours behaviour over emotion. This is likely attributable to the fact that behaviour is,
undoubtedly, easier to pinpoint. As humansand relatedly, as researcherswhile we
are not always adept at identifying emotions, we have learned to observe behaviour, as
well as building systems to record and interpret it. The result is increasingly sophisticated
technical systems that operationalize a desire to quantify behaviour in all walks of social
life (Espeland and Stevens 2008). Measuring felt engagement is much more dicult,
despite continued eorts in disciplines such as psychology, computer science, neuro-
science, and linguistics to model quantiable behavioural cuessuch as facial expression
or word choice (Zeng et al. 2009), and even mouse cursor movements (Hibbeln et al.
2017)said to capture particular aective states.
In Figure 1, which oers a heuristic overview of some common practices of engage-
ment with the news, we can clearly see this challenge. The gure illustrates various
kinds of audience engagement with news along two axes, technicality and emotionality,
which also vary in terms of intensity. The types of engagement on the upper half of the
gure, the ones that news organizations tend to spend time and money capturing, are
the only ones that can be reliably captured and measured by audience metrics. Paradoxi-
cally, the types of engagement in the lower half of the gure, the ones that are dicult to
capture with audience metrics, are the ones that might be the most profound. This is the
kind of engagement that aects people, that perhaps changes views and behaviours and
therefore has democratic impact. This kind of engagement can manifest itself as technical
engagement, butas audience research has clearly shown (e.g., Swart, Peters, and
Broersma 2018; Ytre-Arne and Moe 2018)quite often it does not. The perhaps somewhat
banal but nonetheless crucial point is that people can be emotionally engaged with news
even if they do not participate in it by creating content, commenting, sharing or liking
news stories online. And most often, they do not.
The second step towards a clearer understanding of audience engagement with news
is untangling its spatiotemporal and normative aspects. Engagement builds, uctuates,
and diminishes over time, and relates to time in both linear (i.e., cumulative awareness,
developing knowledge) and non-linear (i.e., monitorial interest, aective sentiment)
ways. And yet, it is almost impossible to properly demarcate when engagement starts
and ends, or for that matter, how it spreads. Moreover, engagement is linked to socio-cul-
tural and geographical contexts. The same news event or experience might cause dierent
degrees of engagement in dierent spaces. Also, assessing the quality of engagement
declares an obvious normative dimension that is often forgotten or implicit in both indus-
try and scholarship (Nelson 2018). The emotional responses people may have to news and
the consequent actions they might performwhat Couldry, Livingstone, and Markham
(2010) refer to as the public connectionthat bridges peoples private worlds to the
world beyondcan range from constructive to destructive, in relation to civic ideals.
Engagement can be normatively positive or negative, however, news companiesdrive
to increase user engagement as a key performance indicator (KPI) positions engagement
as an inherently positive aspect. Yet, as instances of harassed journalists (Chen, Pain, and
Chen 2018), disinformation campaigns (Quandt 2018), or the increase of incivility in com-
ments sections (Su et al. 2018) evidently indicate, high engagement is often demonstrably
Engagement carries dialectical tensions of objective actions and subjective experiences,
of material and symbolic practices, of behaviour and emotion that, when attened
through metrics-based at, quickly become reductionist because they fail to capture the
social, spatial, temporal, and normative. In the following sections, we unpack this complex-
ity by looking more closely at four central dimensions of audience engagement that are, to
varying degrees, explicit and implicit in public discourse surrounding it: the technical-
behavioural, emotional, normative and spatiotemporal.
Figure 1. The challenge of metrics. Examples of audience engagement with varying degrees of
emotional and technical intensity
The Technical-Behavioural Dimension of Audience Engagement
Media companies and researchers have long monitored audience behaviour, although
recent years have seen this done in increasingly sophisticated ways. Indeed, audience
metrics have become so complex, rich and powerful in the digital era that they are tar-
geted as a business model in themselves (Belair-Gagnon and Holton 2018). The real
value of global mega-companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook lies in their sophisti-
cated methods for harvesting, analyzing and capitalizing from tremendous amounts of big
data on user behaviour, which empowers them not only with knowledge and insights that
advertizers are willing to pay for, but also with a wider control over cultural and social net-
works (Taplin 2017). The rapid expansion of computational power, ubiquity of digital track-
ing, and relative aordability of many straightforward analytics measures and packages
has made the datacationof citizens, publics, consumers, audiences, or users increas-
ingly foundational for institutions across society, often not only as a tool, but as an entirely
new epistemological paradigm for making sense of the world (cf. Kitchin 2014; Bolin and
Velkova 2020).
In newsrooms, these trends have gained increasing prominence over the past decade.
As news media increasingly rely on quantication (Coddington 2015; Ferrer-Conill 2017),
user metrics become the embodiment of the audience in the newsroom. The current
dominant position of metrics and analytics to make senseof digital news audiences,
makes the technical-behavioural dimension of audience engagement quite powerful. It
is not our claim that audience behaviour and the digital traces they leave behind are irre-
levant to engagement. However, there is conceptual and empirical value in specifying and
distinguishing between dierent types of behaviours and interactions to elicit a more
comprehensive account of how they relate to engagement. Ksiazek, Peer, and Lessard
(2014) place engagement on a continuum from exposure to interactivity, while McMillans
(2005) overview of dierent kinds of interactivity and thereby behaviours of engagement
oers a productive way to start unpacking the various aspects of the technical-behavioural
dimension of audience engagement. McMillan distinguishes between human-to-human,
human-to-computer and human-to-content interactivity, and argues that these three
kinds of interactivity can be divided in features, processes and perceptions. Features are
the characteristics of the communication environment that make it interactive (the tech-
nologies, platforms, etcetera that facilitate interactions), while processes are the actual
activity of interacting. Perceptions, on the other hand, are the beliefs in, and assessments
of, the degrees to which the features have aordances that enable interaction. These three
categories, or phases, of interactivity are therefore to a certain degree similar to our dis-
tinction between technicality, behaviours, emotions and normativity, as the features are
inherently technical, the processes are behavioural and the perceptions are both
emotional and normative. (In a later review of interactivity research, McMillan (2019)
exchanged processeswith actions, thereby underlining to an even greater extent
this categoriesconnection with the behavioural.) The important point arising from this
and elaborated upon further below, see Table 1is that technical-behavioural inter-
actions with news (and other media content), and thereby engagement with such
content, are inherently tied to things that are dicult to measure, like beliefs, value assess-
ments, and emotions. McMillans original model of interactivity therefore establishes a
fruitful point of reference not only when attempting to construct a model of audience
Table 1. Examples of audience engagement dependent on relations and dimensions.
Relations of audience engagement
Human-to-self Human-to-human Human-to-content Human-to-machine Machine-to-machine
Dimensions of
.Sensory interaction with
media and corresponding
bodily responses (e.g. brain
waves, eye movements,
heart rate, sweating, etc.)
.Using instant
messaging, phone,
email, etc. to contact
others (unpassionately)
.Interacting with media
texts (written text,
video, audio, etc)
.Utilizing technical
aordances to interact
with media (Navigation
and search tools,
uploading services, self-
tracking and
measurement, etc.)
.Activating software
that automatically
harvests audience
metrics and/or shares
such data with 3
Emotional .Conducting inner
.Experiencing feelings
.F2F or mediated
interpersonal dialogue
.Emotional condition for
or reaction to media
texts and topics
.Emotional condition for
or reaction to
technological aordances
of media
.Algorithmic processes
to harvest/share/
analyze audience
metrics related to, for
instance, sentiments
Normative .Ascribing meaning and
value to media
.Positive or negative
personal assessment,
possibly based on
.Ascribing meaning and
value to media
through dialogue with
.Positive or negative
collective assessment,
possibly based on
identity or
.Finding media texts or
topics relevant and
.Positive or negative
reaction to media texts
or topics
.Positive or negative
evaluations of the
machinery (hardware
and/or software) used to
consume media
.Positive or negative
automatic evaluation
of audience behaviour
.Economic value (e.g
contributing to
economic gains or
losses for companies
Spatiottemporal .Connection with past and
future feelings and
experiences, as with
personal memory or
.Constituting a sense of
place through media use.
.Cumulative collective
experiences of
previous dialogical
interaction around
media and future
.Physical or visual
places, in which social
interaction around
media occurs.
.Spur of the moment or
engagement with
particular texts and
topics in particular
.Using familiar,
personalized machinery
(hardware and/or
software) to consume
and/or produce content
in changing contexts
.Data collection around
identiers, long-term
pattern recognition
and automated
engagement in which various interactions, or relations, are accounted for, but also for
understanding how the technical-behavioural dimension is related to both the emotional
dimension and the normative dimension.
The Emotional Dimension of Audience Engagement
It seems evident that one of the key assumptions of audience engagement, namely an
aective disposition toward mediated information, is challenging to capture with tra-
ditional metrics. Similarly, from a conceptual point of view, models that neglect to
attend the attitudinal and aective underpinnings of the emotional dimension of engage-
ment are incomplete (Gastil and Xenos 2010). Aect is conventionally understood as the
basic sense of feeling, while emotions are the expression of those feelings. Intimately
imbricated, aect can be thought of as the unconscious potentiality that pregures
engagement, a general way of sense-making,that extends beyond feeling to inform
our sensibility toward the world surrounding us, which is inclusive of potentialities(Papa-
charissi 2015, 15). Emotion is the expression of aect, often individualized andby
denitionrelational, that is to say directed toward something (e.g., a person, issue, tech-
nology, etcetera), in a way that blurs the misguided binary between emotion/reason or
cognition/aect. Whether in a commonsensical, literal, or conceptual sense, the notion
of engagement presupposes some degree of aective potential and emotional interaction
with the activity or orientation under investigation. While it need not presume the
strength, nor the specic character or quality of the disposition, attentiveness to the
emotional aspects of engagement are central given their signicance in the constitution
of social relationships, institutions, and processes(Barbalet 2001, 9).
Journalism, like most institutions in the creative industries, isand always has been
an emotional industry that in programmed ways gives rise to fear and anger, inspires joy
and aection, begets sadness and surprise, and many other emotional dispositions (Peters
2011; Steensen 2017; Wahl-Jorgensen 2019). This occurs across a variety of news-related
practices, experienced with varied intensities by dierent members of the audience.
This subjective potentialthe idea of bridging between the particular and identifying
with something greater(Steensen 2017)is what is frequently meant when we speak
of engagement, with emotion typically thought of as the more intense and visible mani-
festation therein. A person can become acutely-concerned, passionately-discuss, even
actively-campaign around an issue of public aairs through their engagement with jour-
nalism. Engagement can also be emotionally less intense and require limited audience
investment, in line with what Picone et al. (2019) label small acts of engagement, such
as liking, sharing, and commenting.
Accordingly, a theoretical approach to audience engagement with news absent aect
and emotionno matter how helpful in broadening our understanding of the relative
value of dierent digitally-measurable actionsis left wanting. This should be fairly
uncontroversial, given the inuence of the aective turn that swept across the humanities
and social sciences in the 1990s. When thinking about audience engagement with news,
the value and necessity of such a perspective becomes evidentengagement is about the
potential to act. It is about understanding what combination of forces actually cause a
transformative shift to occur, be it action, behaviour, or sentiment. Moreover, it is about
indeterminacy, the never-quite-knowingquality of aect, which points to the fact that
the sociocultural and political implications of engagement will not necessarily be some-
thing positive. Aective engagement and heightened emotional investment in the
news may lead to outpourings of positive sentiment, as when donations soar in response
to a humanitarian disaster, but such moments of promise can also lead to harmful out-
comes, as when migrants are attackedor killedby those fearing the humanitarian
crisis witnessed from afar is becoming a threat at home. This is precisely why engagement
often remains so elusive to news organizations (Nelson 2018), and so dicult to capture
for researchers, who both tend to focus on the here and now of news audiences as
opposed to their processes of becoming over time (Peters and Schrøder 2018). In the
ongoing era of digital fragmentation, journalism increasingly comprises and facilitates
entry into a diverse range of aective spaces, meaning the types of audience engagement
that occur are potentially quite diverse, not only in terms of their technical practices, but
their associated emotional sentiments.
The Normative Dimension of Audience Engagement
Emotions are irrevocably tied to normativity and normative assumptions around engage-
ment establish the structures by which society assesses and accepts or rejects specic
behaviours. Neither emotions nor behaviours are neutral, they have impact and value
with positive or negative outcomes on an individual, group or collective level. As Hall
(1973) noted in his formative work on audience reception, readings of a text cannot be
uniformly assumed but are decodedin a variety of ways by audiences. Complexifying
the point, it is evident that engagement is shaped by a host of personal factors, which
have a signicant possible impact on its normative intensity, direction, and character;
be it gender, ethnicity, race, class, nationality, political outlook, generation, educational
level, regional aliation, or other social factors. While it is important to remark that identity
is not determinative of the form engagement takes, it points to the fact that normative
assessments and values are key to understanding how engagement relates to the
sense-making practices of the audience (Chua and Westlund 2019).
However, the normative dimension is often overlooked or taken for granted in journal-
ism scholarship and industry discourses on audience engagement. The traditional debates
of engagement in journalism studies revolve around political participation and civic
engagement (see Dahlgren 2009; Skoric et al. 2016), in which the normative underpinnings
more often than not are presupposed. An idealist and normative understanding of journal-
ism presupposes that consuming news is crucial for civic engagement, to ignite and main-
tain political knowledge, interest, and participation. Thus, in democratic societies,
normative pressures establish that engagement with news is desirable and that news
organizations should strive to enhance it. However, there is limited empirical support
for this expected positive impact of engagement (see Rowe et al. 2008). In fact, a quick
stroll outside of such normative assumptions would consider authoritarian propaganda
as a call to engagement. In this respect, negative, or dark participation(Quandt 2018)
is an equally valid and oftentimes highly successfulform of engagement, albeit one
that happens to carry negative values and harmful outcomes. Criticism and harassment
online, for example, are clear signs of behavioural and emotional engagement. To
address this normative conundrum, Hill (2019) proposes a spectrum of engagement
where the distinction between positive and negative forms of engagement is uid,
often dicult to demarcate. Similarly, Corner (2017:, 2) argues there are dierent levels of
engagement ranging from intensive commitment through to a cool willingness to be
temporarily distracted right through nally to vigorous dislike. Thus, engagement in
itself should be thought of as the enactment of agency, where audiences are able to ident-
ify behavioural and emotional regularities as norms and to decide, with varying degrees of
awareness, whether or not to act within the contours of the normative standard.
Aligning the behavioural, emotional, and normative dimensions of engagement is often
an elusive proposition. For instance, developments in news production and consumption
that have promoted the emotional dimension of audience engagement have sometimes
had the opposite eect on the normative dimension. More concretely, an increased
emphasis on human interest stories and other softer feature genres boosted emotional
engagement with news and made journalism popular to a broader public (Hughes
1981; Steensen 2018). However, the same genres have also been ridiculed and mocked
for rendering journalism unimportant and irrelevant for the production of civic engage-
ment and interest in public aairs (e.g., Franklin 1997). Such critique presupposes that
properjournalism is supposed to be distanced, objective and fact-oriented in order to
boost the kind of (positive) engagement that serves a democratic ideal (Benson 2008),
and that emotionally engaging news can corrupt this alleged positive engagement. In
deliberative democratic theory, which lacks an account of aectivity(Hoggett and
Thompson 2002, 107), rationality is a virtue and emotional engagement is often neglected
or rendered dubious and might therefore be viewed as something which obscures good
engagement. The behavioural, emotional and normative dimensions of audience engage-
ment are therefore involved in complex relationships, which might be evaluated dier-
ently depending on how one ascribes value to the public sphere and the
spatiotemporal contexts in which they occur.
The Spatiotemporal Dimension of Audience Engagement
While metrics capture acts of engagement that occur at a specic place and time, and
thereby only the processes/actions category of interactivity identied by McMillan
(2005,2019), the spatiotemporal conditions of audience engagement generally transcend
the signicance of the discrete moment being measured. For instance, it has long been
recognized in journalism that the spatiotemporal proximity of a news event tends to
greatly impact public interest in it (Tuchman 1978). Furthermore, moments of engage-
ment, not just for journalism but with most forms of media, tend to be interwoven
within the routines and ows of daily life; one can think of examples from reading news
during the daily commute, to scanning social media during in betweenmoments, to
sitting down in the evening to binge watch a favoured TV serial, and many more. In
other words, while patterns of engagement can surely be detected from capturing and
linking the spatiotemporal characteristics of each particular case, what tends to make
such acts of engagement with media meaningful are how they relate to other structures,
practices, and social interactions in everyday life. The social aspect of engagement is there-
fore closely connected with the spatiotemporal dimension, as this dimension accounts for
the relational aspects of engagement between people across time and space.
Engagement, in this regard, is dicult to capture in terms of its spatiotemporal com-
plexities. Memory, for instance, is a social, emotional form of engagement that occurs at
non-linear space-times (Zelizer and Tenenboim-Weinblatt 2014), while habit is an auton-
omous, individual behavioural form of engagement that tends to follow strict spatiotem-
poral patterns (Peters and Schrøder 2018). Moreover, engagement is not only something
shaped in certain spaces and across certain timesthe inverse is also the case. Engage-
ment conditions how spacetime itself is experienced. To give but a few examples,
engagement with the news has been shown to: help dene generations and elicit their
history (Zelizer and Tenenboim-Weinblatt 2014); engender feelings of societal stasis
(nothing ever changes) or radical change (everything does) (Keightley and Downey
2018); and shape feelings of safety or threat in particular regions or places (Romer, Jamie-
son, and Aday 2003). In other words, the spatiotemporal dimension of engagement is
central to a comprehensive appreciation of how audiences experience this. Acknowled-
ging this spatiotemporal dimension of audience engagement encourages a shift from con-
ceptualizing it as something that comes into being at precisely the moment and place it
can be measured to instead consider more sustained patterns of media use. Such a shift
corresponds with recent trends within audience studies and what Alasuutari (1999) recog-
nized as the third wave of audience research, which moved away from the behavioural
paradigm to study media use against the fabric of everyday life.
Considering the spatiotemporal dimension of engagement thus allows us to draw connec-
tions between audience engagement and longer, historical trends and developments in
modes of news production and consumption. The time spentmetric, which most news
organizations use to assess how readers engage with the news (Groot Kormelink and
Costera Meijer 2020) fails to measure when users start thinking about the news, what feelings
prompted them to seek it out, which identities and social relations shaped their interpretation
of it, the emotions that consumption evoked and, perhaps most importantly, the time that sen-
timents and understanding linger as readers ponder and maybe discuss the news with others.
In sum: such is the problem of engagement. As the spatiotemporal and other three
dimensions we outline above indicate, optimal measurementof engagement is an oxy-
moron, because measuring all four dimensions of engagement is unattainable. And yet,
this is still the objective of news organizations worldwide and much related scholarship
on engagement. We understand why quantication has led to this situation, but it is
this almost wholesale acceptance of industry terminology that simplies and fails to recog-
nize the social complexity of such a concept. A reductionist approach based on measur-
able traces may help to understand individual dimensions of engagement, but further
solidies the notion that engagement is primarily behavioural and quantiable. Instead,
we believe that assembling a model of audience engagement that embraces the immea-
surablebased on the aforementioned four dimensionsconfronts the complexity of the
concept more holistically. Ironically, it also brings to the fore the impossibility of reaching a
complete and general understanding of all aspects of audience engagement.
A Model of Audience Engagement (And How It Falls Apart)
The four dimensions of audience engagement discussed above are by no means mutually
exclusive. Most instances of audience engagement with media will involve some techni-
cal-behavioural aspects, elicit degrees of emotional intensity, embody normative impli-
cations or presuppositions, and connect with spatiotemporal contexts. Bolin and
Velkovas(2020) experimental study of Facebook users who were exposed to the
Demetricator plugin, which removes representational metrics (timestamps, number of
likes, shares, comments and so on) from Facebook posts, demonstrates this connection
between the four dimensions. First, removing timestamps created emotional distress
and confusion among the Facebook users concerning how to engage with pieces of infor-
mation. Second, removing the number of likes, shares, comments and so on made appar-
ent that such metrics are essential for crafting the experience of sociality(9) and for
determining the value of content. In other words; removing technical-behavioural
aspects had an impact on the emotional, spatiotemporal and normative dimensions of
engagement. Hence, each dimension is more aptly conceived of as highlighting pivotal
aspects of audience engagement, which thereby facilitates and claries analysis of relative
magnitude and respective signicance. Taking this a step further, in terms of journalism
scholarship, the next step is then to identify the central (mediated) contexts that shape
key questions of impact for the particular research inquiry, specify the relationships and
practices therein that inuence engagement and, nally, clarify scope to design (multi-
method) research approaches that are able to tackle them.
By way of example, Table 1 below builds upon the four dimensions to develop a con-
ceptual model of audience engagement with news and other media content which ident-
ies and explicates key features across a number of relational contexts central to its
enactment. These relations, inspired by McMillans(2005) previously discussed model of
interactivity, augment her account by adding human-to-selfand machine-to-
machineas relevant relations, and replace computerin McMillans model with
machineto more broadly account for all technologies that might be involved in
media consumption. The human-to-self relation is important, because it makes apparent
that engagement always implies a subjective experience with media, in which past and
present are connected and relate to sensory, subjective neuro-technical processes as
well as wider socio-cultural contexts and emotions. These connections, in turn, allow indi-
viduals to ascribe meaning and value to media. The machine-to-machinerelation is
equally important because it accounts for increasingly ubiquitous automated production
and distribution processes, and exchanges of information facilitated by smartmedia
technologies and algorithms, that happen between audiences, media and tech compa-
nies, and other institutions, without the audience knowing about it (Kammer 2018).
Such processes of datacation are not only technological-behavioural mechanisms, they
also have emotional, spatiotemporal and normative implications (Kitchin 2014), which
are important for understanding both the economic value (Nelson and Webster 2016)
and sociopolitical impacts (Dencik, Hintz, and Cable 2016) of audience engagement.
It is essential to note that the bullet points oered in Table 1 are not intended to be
interpreted as unique and exhaustive typesof engagement but rather as marked
examples of the sorts of diverse, interrelated features, processes and perceptions that
are potentially germane to operationalize in research. While it is impossible to capture
all elements in a single design, Table 1 helps facilitate reection on the conceptual prior-
itizations dierent choices in the research process aord and restrict, which heavily shapes
our empirical understandings of why audiences engage with media, how it happens and,
to some extent, why it matters. The table accordingly explicates what a more holistic
accounting of audience engagement might attend to, when viewed not only from the
behavioural paradigm but also from the individual audience members point of view,
and augments this to also account for machine-to-machine relations.
Table 1 could be expanded with other relations that go beyond the individual audience
member, for instance machine-to-company,machine-to-cloud network,machine-to-
media producerand company-to-society. Furthermore, infusing these relations with a
social component that recognizes the amplication eects that groups have on engage-
ment might be helpful to clarify that engagement is predominantly a communicative
social phenomenon. The table is therefore not a complete overview of all aspects
related to audience engagementit is restricted to the direct relations involving individ-
ual members of an audience. And it is an overview in which engagement is predominantly
understood and theorized from an audience perspective. Alternatively, if we were to take a
media industry perspective on audience engagement, it is obvious that Table 1and our
whole discussion in the previous sections, for that matterwould greatly underestimate
the importance of engagement as a commodity good (Corner 2017).
Moreover, Table 1 does not account for the overlapping dynamics between the four
dimensions. They are related in a myriad of possible ways, which renders impossible any
attempt at creating a totalizingor grandtheory that encompasses them all. Acknowl-
edging this leaves us precisely at the point at which Knapp and Michaels (1982) found
that theorizing is pointless. As argued in their foundational article Against Theory;
theory seems possible or relevant only when theorists fail to recognize the fundamen-
tal inseparability of the elements involved(1982, 724), as we do here. Thereforeand
as the title of this article suggestsour theory of audience engagement with news is as
much an argument against a theory of audience engagement. However, even if we
believe a closed theory of audience engagement might be both impractical and imposs-
ible, we argue that proposing these four building blocks of engagement, and the ways
in which they align with various relations involved in engagement, have real-life impli-
cations for scholars interested in the concept and its attendant complexities and
Implications for Research
An important argument of this article is that the trend toward embracing, or at least
acquiescing to, metrics-oriented discourse on audience engagement, both within industry
and research, is somewhat short-sighted. If it continues unchecked, we risk hollowing the
complexity of the concept out. But how then to change course, to methodologically
address multiple dimensions of audience engagement with news in empirical research?
While full operationalizations are specic to each research goal, and therefore beyond
this articles remit, one can translate our discussion to this point into common premises
for doing media and communication research into audience engagement, namely:
.Premise #1: Researching engagement necessitates operationalizing emotion. In
studies of journalism qualitative approaches could probe how, and to what extent,
news ows encourage people to actualize previous aective sentiments (Wahl-Jorgen-
sen 2019), and nd within such spheres an emotional potentiality to experience some
aspect of society, and potentially even change it. Consequently, researchers aiming at
exploring the emotional dimension of engagement could benet from moving beyond
the behavioural paradigm and tap into the discussions on methodological innovation
within the sociology of emotions (Olson, Godbold, and Patulny 2015) and within
advertising research (Poels and Dewitte 2006). In addition, research within human com-
puter interaction studies has demonstrated important connections between the tech-
nical-behavioural dimension and the other dimensions, for instance in how mouse
cursor movement can signal emotional engagement (Hibbeln et al. 2017).
.Premise #2: Researching engagement means questioning normative assumptions.
The overarching assumption in journalism studies as in many other elds of media and
communication research is that more engagementbe it voting, buying products, or
reading newsis positive. Trolling, harassment, and other forms of dark participation
(Quandt 2018), are forms of negative engagement that demand comparable commu-
nicative recognition. Moreover, questions of identity are often ignored when consider-
ing structural reasons that establish the normative frameworks of engagement. In US
journalism, for instance, a willingness to engage around discussions of race in the
news is strongly inuenced by experiences of privilege (Robinson 2017). Such norma-
tive considerations are crucial when one considers that research has shown that
metrics push news workers to make editorial decisions that maximize KPIs of engage-
ment and extend their use (Ferrer-Conill and Tandoc 2018). As established debates
around reexivity remind us (Mauthner and Doucet 2003), what constitutes positive
engagement and why, is not only a question of methodology but of normative
.Premise #3: Researching engagement demands contextual sensitivity to space
and time. Measuring acts of audience engagement, through metrics, network ana-
lytics and other established approaches, often demands start and end points.
While bracketing the object of analysis, and identifying the appropriate population
and sample are necessary in communication research, it is important to remind our-
selves that the experience of engagement generally escapes these spatiotemporal
limitations of methods. Engagement is not merely a reactive pattern of behaviours
related to distinct events. In journalism, the development of news repertoires rely
on sustained patterns of engagement that incorporate longer, historical trends
over time and place (Peters and Schrøder 2018). Complexifying research instruments
into engagement could be aided by considering designs that incorporate insights
from memory studies, human geography and related elds (Keightley and Downey
These premises, while not exhaustive, oer a useful baseline for research designs, one
which: avoids an uncritical adoption of the industry discourse on audience engagement
with news; acknowledges the complexity of the concept in its varied dimensions; and
operationalizes key features by crafting multi-method, qualitative and quantitative
designs that go beyond viewing engagement principally in terms of acts that leave
digital traces. It is our hope that the model of audience engagement we have presented
in this article (see Table 1) can serve as a methodological guideline concerning which
relations and dimensions of audience engagement one should consider, and conse-
quently which methods to potentially use, when designing a research project on audi-
ence engagement. This, in turn, would hopefully lead to research in audience
engagement which recognizes the limits of what audience metrics and the behavioural
paradigm can tell us, and augments such data with data acquired through complemen-
tary methods.
Our argument towards a broad conceptualization of audience engagement proposes
three major conclusions. First, engagement is a multidimensional phenomenon that
carries dynamics rooted in technical-behavioural, emotional, normative, and spatiotem-
poral dimensions. Thus, attempts to study audience engagement only from the standpoint
of the technical-behavioural dimension fail to capture the full spectrum of audience
engagement. Second, the relations of audience engagement incorporate an intricate
array of interactions between human and non-human actors. This further complicates
the formation, trajectories, and dissipation of specic instances of audience engagement.
Finally, the formulation of a single universal theory of audience engagement, appealing as
it may be, seems to pose insurmountable challenges and complexities. Our approach to
theorizing audience engagement is therefore a social-constructivist one, in which social
and cultural contexts, subjective perspectives and experiences, individual variances and
spatiotemporal elements construct types of engagement beyond what a single theory
can encompass. As such, our approach to theorizing audience engagement aligns with
Livingstones recent reections on audience studies:
[A]udiences are necessarily social, embedded in society and history in many more ways than
through their relation with the media, so the critical analysis of audiences cannot be satised
with sporadic inclusion of disembodied, decontextualized observations of behavior or cherry-
picked survey percentages but must engage with audiences meaningfully in and across the
contexts of their lives. (2019, 179)
Furthermore, our arguments could more precisely be depicted as a representation of a
particular voice. It is a voice that is concerned the contemporary discourse on audience
engagement, in both industry and research, appears increasingly dominated by a quanti-
tative, measurable, metrics-oriented bias, no matter that most people likely recognize the
vast oversimplication this entails. It is a voice which asserts that when key aspects of
engagement, like emotionality, normativity and spatiotemporal contexts are overlooked,
we risk misapprehending signicant socio-political consequences from both darkand
supposedly benecialforms of engagement. And it is a voice that is concerned about
a potential paradigm shift around how engagement is understood in the media analytics
stage of media technologies.
We believe our proposed theory of audience engagement (and the arguments against it)
has merit beyond the sphere of news and journalism. Even though we acknowledge there
are dierent cultures and logics connected with dierent media, platforms and contexts in
which audiences operate, we believe that the four dimensions of audience engagement
developed in this article are relevant for studying anything from communicative engage-
ment with music, lm, literature and reality tv-shows, to social media posts, public aairs
and marketing campaigns, and beyond. We may not be able to propose a grand theory
of audience engagement, but by developing a more comprehensive way of thinking
about the concept, we hope this article encourages further explorations of engagement
in the wild. For that reason, we have also proposed a set of premises to help transcend
from abstract theoretical building blocks into approaches that can guide empirical research.
In this way, it is our hope that by articulating a frameworksimultaneously for and against a
theory of audience engagementfuture research will continue to problematize and clarify
the concept, and thus move beyond analysis decreed by metrics-based at.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented to research groups at OsloMet and Karlstad University,
as well as at the Future of Journalism and ICA 2020 conferences. We thank numerous colleagues for
their helpful feedback at various stages. Special thanks go to Michael Karlsson and Matt Carlson for
detailed feedback.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Raul Ferrer-Conills research is supported by the Ander Foundation: Anne Marie och Gustav Anders
Stiftelse för mediaforskning. Chris Peterswork on this article is part of the research project Beyond
the Here and Now of News, funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark under grant
number 8018-00061B. Details on the project can be found at:
Steen Steensen
Raul Ferrer-Conill
Chris Peters
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Intelligence 31 (1): 3958. doi:10.1109/TPAMI.2008.52.
... While some argue that the use of audience metrics directs editorial decision making based on market logics (Cohen 2015), most at least agree that market logics driven by audience metrics often conflict with editorial goals, professional norms, or democratic values (Carlson 2018;Moyo, Mare, and Matsilele 2019;Nelson and Tandoc 2019), all of which have consequences for equity. Accordingly, the analysis of audience data has been dubbed "the new currency of the media economy" (Steensen, Ferrer-Conill, and Peters 2020). Maldistribution in this context thus occurs through the unequal distribution of the ability to collect, process, analyze and economically benefit from audience data. ...
... Despite this, news professionals voiced a responsibility to use audience data, not only in the service of profit, but to address issues of misrepresentation and to improve access to accurate and independent information for audiences across various socio-political, economic, and technological conditions to mitigate inequity. This suggests, that while audience data can be considered a "currency of the media economy" (Steensen, Ferrer-Conill, and Peters 2020) and that economic interest can stand in conflict with professional norms and values (Carlson 2018;Moyo, Mare, and Matsilele 2019;Nelson and Tandoc 2019), economic logics embedded in data practices not necessarily override news professional's commitment to information equity. Instead, findings indicate that audience data practices have the potential to make the interests of traditionally marginalized audiences visible to mitigate misrepresentation. ...
Datafication is embedded in cultural, economic, and political power structures which reinforce social inequities. Instead of simply providing news professionals with insights on user behavior, datafication may facilitate maldistribution, misrecognition and misrepresentation. Applying justice theory on audience data practices based on n = 31 interviews with news professionals working for global and national news organizations (including BBC World, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera English, and The New York Times), this study examines their experiences and perceptions of how audience data practices mitigate and/or reinforce inequity in journalism. Findings show that maldistribution, misrecognition, and misrepresentation are manifest in journalistic audience data practices, as inequities are reinforced when data is transformed into economic capital. At the same time, news professionals who possess cultural and economic resources can both mitigate inequity and use data for greater recognition and representation. The article thus contributes to the literature by (1) conceptualizing audience data as a cultural, economic and political good, (2) connecting data practices to both the reproduction and mitigation of social inequity, and finally, (3) examining these processes on a global scale.
... However, in the face of these possibilities offered by technology that empower audiences (Piller, Ihl, & Vossen, 2011), media professionals face the dilemma of whether they should follow their own professional criteria or, on the contrary, follow the interests and tastes of users (Andrejevic, 2008). In short, should they take on the challenge of guaranteeing their value proposition based on their original principles (Manovich, 2018;Vaz-Alvarez, 2021) or should they welcome the opinions and criteria of outsiders and unqualified people (Carlsson & Nilsson, 2016;Sixto-García, López-García, & Toural-Bran, 2020;Steensen, Ferrer-Conill, & Peters, 2020;Steemers, 2019;te Walvaart, Dhoest, & van den Bulck, 2019). Taking audiences' opinions and ideas into account beyond consumption has two main risks: the first has to do with the fact that users are not necessarily experts in the topic as they do not follow the narrative structure of media contents; the second is that audience reaction cannot be planned because it is unpredictable (Domingo et al., 2008;Engelke, 2020). ...
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In recent times researchers and industry have paid special attention to the concept of engagement and the academic literature on this topic is abundant. Although audience loyalty and engagement are the cornerstone of the media business, not all companies have developed strategies to further engage the audience. Taking audiences' opinions and ideas into account beyond consumption has two main risks: the first has to do with the fact that users are not necessarily experts in the topic as they do not follow the narrative structure of media contents; and the second is that audience reaction cannot be planned because it is unpredictable. A third dilemma arises, namely should such actions be considered part of a global strategy on the part of the company or simply as a marketing action to reach new audiences and retain existing ones? Therefore, some reflection is needed in order to analyze to what extent strategies aimed at increasing engagement contribute to extending the value of media brands and content properties. With this dilemma in mind and after a review of the most recent literature, we developed a questionnaire to find out how professionals and managers of media companies from different sectors define and measure engagement. At the end of the study, we conclude that for companies whose core business is linked to the digital environment, proximity with the audiences is greater than that of the traditional media or those companies, such as audiovisual producers, whose business is directed at other companies rather than, fundamentally, at the public.
... Because algorithms feed on 'surface' behavioural data (Fisher and Mehozay, 2019), the institutional perspective runs the risk of reducing or misrepresenting the sociocultural practices of users. This gap is intriguing enough to prompt Groot Kormelink and Costera Meijer (2018; see also Steensen et al, 2020) to investigate the misfits between clicking on news (a use) and interest in news (a practice). As they explain: ...
... Despite the lack of a clear definition of reader engagement, authors agree that engagement is a multidimensional phenomenon (Steensen et al., 2020) related to the level of attention and involvement (emotional, cognitive and behavioral) with media (Attfield et al., 2011;Ksiazek et al., 2016;Mersey et al., 2010). Furthermore, to measure reader engagement a range of engagement metrics are available on the literature Ksiazek et al., 2016;Lehmann et al., 2012;Peterson & Carrabis, 2008). ...
... Finally, interviewees described using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to practice audience engagement, which they suggested was an essential step toward making the news they produce more publicly trusted and economically sustainable. Although engagement has many different implementations and definitions (Nelson 2021b;Steensen, Ferrer-Conill, and Peters 2020), the form that journalists described pursuing within social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook typically involved back-and-forth interactions between themselves and other social media users. "It gives us an opportunity for people to easily reach out to me and say what they think of my story or leave a suggestion or a criticism to my story or something I hadn't thought about," said Renata Cl o, a reporter with The Arizona Republic. ...
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Journalists increasingly use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to pursue audience engagement. In doing so, journalists have learned these platforms carry personal and professional risks—namely accusations of political bias that can lead to termination from their jobs, as well as trolling, doxing, and threats of physical violence. This is especially true for women journalists and journalists of color. This study examines the extent to which newsroom managers help—or hinder—their journalists when it comes to navigating the risks and challenges of audience engagement via social media platforms. It draws on interviews with 37 reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers from throughout the U.S. about their experiences with and thoughts about their newsroom’s social media policies. Findings reveal that although journalists are encouraged to be “active,” “personable,” and “authentic” social media users, their newsroom social media policies offer little guidance or support for when journalists subsequently face personal, aggressive attacks. I conclude that these tensions are a consequence of the extent to which social media has upended the ways that journalists approach their work, as well as their relationship with the public.
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Many newsrooms have begun pursuing “solutions journalism,” which is defined as a rigorous journalistic method that reports on evidence-based responses to societal problems. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this approach to news production results in more revenue for news organizations. This study seeks to investigate this issue by examining an effort by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) to help 12 newsrooms across the United States develop revenue streams derived from solutions journalism approaches to news production. We find that journalists face enormous—perhaps insurmountable—challenges when it comes to evaluating the impact of their efforts to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and ultimately grow more revenue via audience support. Yet, journalists remain committed to solutions journalism despite these obstacles, both because they find it compelling and because of its potential for revenue in the form of foundation funding. We conclude that as foundations play an increasingly powerful role in the business of news production, journalism funders’ imagined news audiences have become just as important for journalism scholars to consider as the imagined audiences of journalists themselves.
Since the early 2000s, the field of journalism studies has come of age in an era defined by increasingly complex digital media landscapes. In response, much of journalism studies research remains centered in the newsroom, in spirit if not literally, and is focused on how the industry addresses technological change. This research has advanced journalism scholarship, but has often neglected a broader vision that encompasses and reflects the diversity of audience sensemaking practices as well as the sociocultural and political implications of digital media culture. This essay argues that many scholarly endeavors flying under the banner of journalism studies are more about renovations inside the house of news than how much the neighborhood is changing around it. To address this, we introduce a realist view of journalism that forces journalism studies scholars to confront broader questions surrounding media content and culture, citizens and democracy, and audiences and public affairs. More specifically, in advocating for the value of a realist, emic perspective on audiences’ ways of engaging with public affairs as central to the value proposition for the field, we propose why this view should act as a central pillar for building a new era of journalism studies.
This paper explores the implementation process of digital audience metrics as a key strategy in Swedish legacy news production during the last three decades. The historical adoption of metrics in the newsroom is not new but has grown fast (from analogue audience measurements in the 1950s and monthly statistics of unique visitors in the 1990s to a wide range of real-time data). This trend is important because Swedish news organisations have invested heavily in data analytics, which involves integrating metrics-driven journalism into a particularly strong and homogenous tradition of professional autonomy. Based on interviews with key senior managers and supported by the analysis of trade publications, as well as published interviews, the findings reveal three chronologically overlapping periods: the naïve stage of ‘getting online’, the destructive period of ‘social media prominence’, and the end of the ‘paywall hesitation’. This trend has led to a new equilibrium in which audience metrics are perceived as better aligned with the professional values of news selection. More importantly, the industry-wide embrace of metrics as guidance for more relevant and rational news production revolves around two main factors: First, although metrics are tied to organisational targets, they remain under editorial control. Second, the degree of granularity and diversification of metrics allow for wider support of their use for strategic purposes.
Informed by the theoretical framework of media effects and resonance theory, this study investigates how issue obtrusiveness and information richness as message attributes, and media hierarchy and orientation as source characteristics influence audience engagement with news posts on social media. The data of news posts (N = 943,793) from the top 99 Sina Weibo accounts of Chinese media with likes, comments, and reposts as indicators of audience engagement were retrieved. Through multilevel modeling, the study finds that source characteristics exert stronger effects on audience engagement than message attributes, and the effects on comments differ from those on likes and reposts. The association between issue obtrusiveness and comments is stronger than that between obtrusiveness and likes/reposts. Posts of high information richness draw more audience engagement than posts of low information richness. Through their news posts, central-level media attract more engagement than local media. The implications of the findings are discussed.
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This paper explores what spending time means from a user perspective. Drawing from three qualitative audience studies that center around the notion of experience, it reveals three complexities regarding time spent in relation to news use. Overall, we find that time spent does not necessarily measure interest in, attention to or engagement with news. First, time spent does not reflect the quality of attention being paid. Second, there is no linear relationship between time spent and interest or engagement. More time spent on news use can be the result of little interest or engagement, and vice versa. Experienced users engage in quick news practices because they are practiced and skillful at using news: they know how to handle and navigate their devices, they can efficiently scan digital environments for new and relevant information, and they are aware of news conventions or title-specific tendencies telling them which parts of news they could skip. Third, different news devices, platforms and genres coincide with different temporal experiences of news.
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As news organizations struggle to overcome losses in revenue and relevance, academics and professionals have pinned their hopes for salvation on increasing ‘audience engagement’. Yet few agree on what audience engagement means, why it will make journalism more successful, or what ‘success’ in journalism should even look like. This article uses Williams and Delli Carpini’s ‘media regimes’ as a theoretical framework to argue that studying the current open-arms approach to the news audience – and the ambiguity surrounding it – is vital to understanding journalism’s transition from one rapidly disappearing model to one that is yet to fully emerge. In doing so, it offers a definition of audience engagement that synthesizes prior literature and contributes an important distinction between reception-oriented and production-oriented engagement. It concludes with a call for more research into audience engagement efforts to better understand what journalism is and what it might become.
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In this article, we develop the concept of small acts of engagement (SAOE) in a networked media environment as a conceptual framework to study specific audience practices and as an agenda for research on these practices. We define SAOE, such as liking, sharing, and commenting, as productive audience practices that require little investment and are intentionally more casual than the structural and laborious practices examined as types of produsage and convergence culture. We further elaborate on the interpretive and productive aspects of SAOE, which allow us to reconnect the notions of a participatory culture and a culture of everyday agency. Our central argument is that audience studies’ perspective allows viewing SAOE as practices of everyday audience agency, which, on an aggregate level, have the potential to become powerful acts of resistance.
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Audience engagement (also, user engagement) refers to the cognitive, emotional, or affective experiences that users have with media content or brands. Contrary to passive exposure to news content, engagement denotes an active and intentional orientation toward what users read, view, or hear. The concept thus assumes that users are captivated by a brand, a news application, or media content. These psychological experiences would motivate them to use it longer and more intensively, and stimulate user loyalty, attentiveness, and thought formation. Moreover, engagement is presumed to result in users acting upon their experiences with media. It implies behavior, that is, what people do with news. This could result in them consuming more news, interacting with online content, buying certain products, or building upon the provided information to take political action in their personal life. Engagement therefore is a precondition for processes of meaning‐making, value creation, and connecting to public discourses.
This article argues for an expansion of existing studies on the meaning of metrics in digital environments by evaluating a methodology tested in a pilot study to analyse audience responses to metrics of social media profiles. The pilot study used the software tool Facebook Demetricator by artist Ben Grosser in combination with follow-up interviews. In line with Grosser’s intentions, the software indeed provoked reflection among the users. In this article, we reflect on three kinds of disorientations that users expressed, linked to temporality, sociality and value. Relating these to the history of audience measurement in mass media, we argue that there is merit in using this methodology for further analysis of continuities in audience responses to metrics, in order to better understand the ways in which metrics work to create the ‘audience commodity’.
Audience analytics and metrics are ubiquitous in today’s media environment. However, little is known about how creative media workers come to understand the social norms related to those technologies. Drawing on social influence theory, this study examines formal and informal socialization mechanisms in U.S. newsrooms. It finds that editorial newsworkers express receiving a moderate amount of training on the use of analytics and metrics, which is typically provided by their organization; primarily look to people within the organization, and especially superiors, to understand the social norms; learn about those norms mostly through observation and communication about others’ experiences with the technology rather than their own; and that experiences are influenced by the organizational context and the individual’s position in the editorial hierarchy. This leads to a broader intervention to our understanding of the social structures and individual dispositions that influence how emerging technologies are experienced across organizational and institutional environments.