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The Audience in the Mind’s Eye: How Journalists Imagine Their Readers

By James G. Robinson, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review:

A central irony of the newsroom is that while many journalists’ decisions are made with readers in mind, the audiences for their work often remain unfocused, imagined abstractions, built on long-held assumptions, newsroom folklore, and imperfect inference.

This is not particular to journalism. Writing, like reading, is a solitary activity; unlike orators, writers are necessarily separated from their audiences. As a writer works, the decisions they make are based on many factors: their long-term memory, the conventions of their genre, and (conscious or not) an imagined perception of readers’ reactions. Success rests on how accurately they can anticipate how their work will resonate with these imagined audiences; the paradox being that at the time of writing those audiences do not yet exist.

The conventional wisdom of the digital era is that journalists can now know their audiences in far more intimate detail than at any other time in the history of the profession. Previously, journalists based their audience knowledge primarily on their closest social circles. Now, new tools can help them solicit readers’ feedback, analyze and understand readers’ behavior, and open new channels for conversation. These new capabilities promise to shine a light on the abstract audience — making one’s readers present, quantified and real.

Drawing on the existing literature and an original case study, this paper asks whether the new tools of the digital age have indeed influenced the “audience in the mind’s eye.” Our evidence indicates that for the most part, they have not. In reviewing findings from the case study, we were struck by how little seems to have changed since the print era. Although they seemed more open to audience knowledge, the ways in which these reporters thought about their audiences was remarkably similar to those reported in classic ethnographies of the 1970s.

The paper concludes with some hypotheses about why this may be so, and offers some possible approaches to improve audience awareness in the newsroom — in particular, a new perspective on the necessity (and difficulty) of diversity. It is our hope that this paper will inspire future research and experimentation—to narrow the gap between the audiences journalists have in mind and the audiences they serve.


While most newsroom decisions are made with a reader in mind, consciously soliciting and incorporating audience preferences is usually resisted. Journalists recognize their obligations to reach an audience, but they are wary of allowing readers to dictate what is newsworthy. Still, an awareness of one’s potential readership is critical to effective writing. Although this audience thinking is often subconscious, expressing itself as “gut instinct”, the images journalists use to describe their perceived audiences can be quite vivid. These imagined audiences are a critical element of journalistic decision-making.

Studies from the print era indicate that journalists’ audience perceptions were based on four major groups:

  • Archetypes they knew well, such as the institutional audience of the publication they worked for
  • Their professional peers
  • Their sources
  • Close acquaintances, including family members.

Input from strangers was often disregarded or dismissed. This instinctive bias toward “known” readers threatened to exclude other, less familiar reader segments, affecting the choices journalists made while selecting, reporting and crafting stories.

A case study of local education reporters in New York City suggests that while journalists are open to engaging with readers, the ways in which they form audience perceptions remain largely unchanged despite the rise of audience metrics and analytics. These journalists still find it difficult to determine whether their work is actually resonating with the readers they seek.

We conclude that those hoping to bring journalists and audiences closer together must consider the “last-mile” problem of audience perception in the writer’s mind. It is not enough to simply convince journalists that engaging with their readers is important, or provide basic metrics to measure articles’ success. Instead, attention should be paid to how well a journalist’s imagined readership aligns with reality. At the very least, they should know how many of those readers there are, and whether they are actually being reached.

Despite the increasing availability of digital audience tools, this research suggests that personal proximity is a critical factor in influencing one’s audience perceptions. Analytical tools describe numbers, not people; and artificial constructs such as personas are often ignored. Given how deeply one’s peers and sources inform one’s perceived readership, increased newsroom diversity might be the most effective way to ensure that the readers in one’s mind’s eye accurately reflect the audiences for their work.

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