Reinventing the wheel? How local newsrooms try (or not) to rethink their relationships with their audiences

Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel, Olivier Standaert, Brigitte Sebbah & Laura Amigo

Abstract This communication discusses the results of an international research project investigating how local media outlets develop initiatives to empower their relationships with their audiences. Conducted in the European French-speaking landscape (France, French-speaking Switzerland and Belgium), this research is part of a twofold questioning at the heart of Journalism Studies, that is 1) to what extent new technologies are able to modify these relationships (Barnes 2016) and 2) how journalists can address the problem of news avoidance and the decline of trust in news (Reuters Institute 2019). We focus on local news media, particularly concerned by issues of proximity and links to the audience, since they position themselves as key players in the weaving of social ties in a given geographical space (Hess & Waller 2017; Jenkins & Nielsen 2020).
A crowdsourcing campaign with local media outlets from France, Belgium and Switzerland allowed us to identify around 550 initiatives over the last 2.5 years. The full list can be consulted online at: https://www.unine.ch/ajm/recensement-linc. On this basis, we inductively created a typology of 26 types of initiatives according to their purpose (editorial/commercial) and their format (reader café, editorial conference, crowdfunding campaign, etc.). We then categorized the editorial initiatives in order to highlight the degree of audience integration in the editorial process, ranging from the most “passive” to the most engaging kinds of relationship (observation – dialogue – consultation – contribution- co-creation). Among the 550 initiatives, 110 of them specifically focus on actions undertaken by local news outlets during the Covid-19 pandemic. This very particular context allowed us to highlight specific modalities of engagement with audiences, in particular initiatives that foster solidarity and mutual support between people and those that develop social links within the local community (e.g. during lockdowns). This shows local media capacity to play new or less prominent roles in recent years, that have been revived during this exceptional situation.
We then conducted 45 in-depth interviews (Kaufmann 1996; Demazière and Dubar 1997) with staff members in charge of these initiatives in 10 media outlets from the three markets studied. This allowed us to study how these attempts to reach out to audiences are integrated into pre-existing processes. We sought to determine if they correspond to temporary fashions or deeper organizational transformations.
Our results show that these initiatives are implemented according to strategies and means that vary greatly depending on the type of media. Journalists justify their deployment for equally varied reasons: commercial purposes (strengthen audience loyalty, attract new subscribers) rub shoulders with editorial concerns (to better understand audiences, evolving with the public’s uses). At their most advanced stage, reflections gathered during the interviews echo the moving epistemologies of journalism, especially in times of crisis (Ward 2018). Journalists discuss the very purpose of local journalism through the complex and shifting power relations between the newsrooms and what they try to define as their “audience(s)”: At the heart of this issue, we find the tensions between the willingness to support/represent/act for local communities and the more normative roles of journalism (Hanitzsch & Vos 2018; Standaert et al. 2019), as well as the (in)dependence of the journalists on their audiences.
Keywords Local media, audience, participation, proximity
Citation Pignard-Cheynel, N., Standaert, O., Sebbah, B., & Amigo, L. (2021). Reinventing the wheel? How local newsrooms try (or not) to rethink their relationships with their audiences. Presented at The Future of Journalism Conference, Cardiff. - Fulltext https://libra.unine.ch/Publications/46847 (State: 2022-10-06).
Type Presentation (English)
Date 23-9-2021
Event The Future of Journalism Conference (Cardiff)
URL https://cardiffjournalism.co.uk/foj2021/
Related project L'information locale à l'épreuve du numérique: repenser l...