The People Formerly Known as the Audience Need a New Name

    by Ryan Sholin
    July 21, 2009

    I’m not one for semantic arguments. There’s little-to-no practical value in deciding the names of things. (“User-generated content,” anyone?)

    But if you spend your days and side projects talking to journalists about interacting with their readers, you tend to look for the right words to get your message across. Or at least I do. Because they’re not really “readers” anymore, are they? The people formerly known as the audience? Accurate, but wordy — and maybe a little too professorial for my usual purposes.

    So what do we call the human beings who both consume the journalism we produce and participate in its creation? Are they members in a geographical or topical community of interest? Does that qualify them as a community?


    I asked a similar question on Twitter and in a blog post a few weeks ago, and most of the answers were negative: No, our readers aren’t necessarily a community. No, you can’t slap the label of “community” on a group of people; they have to do that for themselves, or otherwise prove that they’re a communal gathering. No, most of our readers are still a static audience, one-way receivers of information.

    Geekdad Examples

    And then I spotted something in one of the not-about-journalism blogs that I read. Specifically, Wired.com’s Geekdad. Here’s what Geekdad blogger Jonathan Liu wrote, trying to explain to a friend why he and his colleagues referred to themselves as “geeks” so often in their blog posts. Are they like Diggers or BoingBoingers or Treehuggers? Maybe…

    But the other answer I came up with is this: We are a blog in which the writers, the readers, and the subject matter are all the same: it’s about the intersection of parenting and geekiness. Our readers are geekdads and moms, and our writers are geekdads and moms. And, in fact, all the new writers (myself included) were readers first who wanted to geek out about their own obsessions. We write about our passions, for people who share something in common with us.

    Because I’m a geek/dad, if not necessarily a full-blown Geekdad yet, it makes perfect sense. These are people like me writing about experiences that are either familiar to me, or talking about ideas that I’m profoundly interested in as a member of the community of people who self-identify as geekdads.


    So maybe readers have a common topic of interest (baseball, city government, gardening), but a community is the topic of interest itself (baseball players, city council members and local activists, serious gardeners).

    Defining Community

    I’ll take that a little further into the realm of definitions: A community is not defined by its participation in your media product, but by their own experiences which you happen to also be describing, or engaged in yourself.

    For a local news organization of any sort, I expect the next question to be whether a geographic location alone is enough to define a community. I don’t think so. I do think there’s a subset of residents of a place that can form a community, but it might be time to get used to the idea that the people interested in highly detailed process stories coming out of city council meetings are a niche community, and not the broader population.

    What do you think? How do you define a community, and is that what you’d call the people participating in acts of storytelling, activism, and/or journalism in your town or topic of interest?

    Tagged: audience community local newspapers readership

    17 responses to “The People Formerly Known as the Audience Need a New Name”

    1. Aram ZS says:

      I think the answer is pretty obvious. Newspaper (or even news site) readers are not necessarily interacting or hanging out with each other, which means they are not really a community on most sites.

      Most of them are still just reading, but even the people who are only reading the content are still interacting with it, they might be sharing it, interpreting it to others through social media, writing about it on their own blogs or simply clicking through links. Even the people who don’t touch anything but the Page Down button while consuming content still have to navigate their way to the content, find it, and decide to read it.

      If you have all your content delivered to you via RSS, you still had to select that content to begin with and even just reading that content still generates metrics and statistics on that content.

      Modern technology means that disseminating what we read, even on paper, and using it for our own means has become so easy, it’s practicably second nature.

      I’d argue that calling any of “the people formerly known as the audience” readers would be inaccurate. If you are looking for a label, I’d say it would be more appropriate to call them users.

    2. If the people formerly known as the audience are not part of a community, then the people formerly known as the authors / journalists have some serious self-searching thinking to do.

      :) nmw

    3. @Aram — Call them “users” in most newsrooms and I think a lot of people stop listening to you right there — we’re talking about human beings consuming and sharing information, not people who downloaded a piece of software.

      That said, I’ve called them “users” in plenty of meetings related to Web development and design, and I think it’s important to build the pieces of a news site to recognize that they’re users of the Web.

      @Norbert — Hence, here we are doing the serious self-searching thinking (out loud).

    4. thedullfig says:

      This is an interesting conversation. Axel Bruns has been writing about produsage and produsers for several years. There are many interesting publications on this topic on his website here: http://snurb.info/publications

    5. This is a great post and addresses a very serious question. In the wake of social media that makes it simpler to get share information and find information, a lot of the news sites seem to be losing a little bit of their edge. A question I have been hearing more and more lately is: why follow or even trust what a news source is saying about some global event when you can follow and get updates/streams of videos and photos from someone who is actually there? That said, while Twitter makes it much faster for people to hear about “news” (true rumors ;), it also makes it faster to hear gossip and rumors (hence the number of people killed via Twitter right after MJ died). Additionally, as everyday people and citizens are able to share information they personally acquire more easily, it is becoming increasingly likely/easy for information to be shared without necessarily having responsibility (via some identity or affiliation) attached.

      When the Techcrunch/Twitter thing happened, I remember one of the arguments that I found myself exposed to a number of times was whether or not this publishing of information (even if that information was obtained unethically from its original acquirer) was not in fact what news is – in the past, people didn’t stop to write about and pass around celebrity sex tapes, embarrassing photos, notes from an undercover journalist, etc… (whether it is right or wrong is another issue…)

      The point is, the news is changing very very fast and moving towards what seems to be a citizen driven path. The question, then, is how/if the above issues should be addressed?

      I think in light of all of this, there is still a very real need for journalists, since as citizen news continues to make its debut, noise and gossip levels will rise, and filters will be needed. Additionally, I think those who can piece together the scraps of available information existing in social media and across the web into coherent interpretations of an issue, will also have a lot to value.

      lol, so that was long. But to address the original question- absolutely, I think “readers” are going to become the community/ already are :P.

    6. rtwagaman says:

      The Economist magazine appears to be the best and most trusted at interacting with the people.

    7. MWOllinger says:

      A new name for the participatory audience in media?

      The Peanut Gallery?

    8. Erik Gable says:

      One option would be to continue calling them the audience (or readers, for many organizations). I don’t think people perceive the word “reader” as being mutually exclusive with participating in the process — we’ve had “Readers Write” columns and captions saying “Reader John Doe sent us this photo” for many years. So I don’t think “reader” or “audience” is wrong, per se.

      On the other hand, coming up with a new phrase probably makes a lot of sense if you’re looking to create an attitude shift — whether it’s among the people formerly known as the audience themselves, or among your own staff.

      I’m trying to think of what I’ve seen on Web forums. “Users,” as you noted, sounds too cold and technical (although possibly helpful for the sake of getting people to think in “user-friendly” terms). I’ve seen “posters,” but that really only makes sense for discussion boards (and besides, it sounds like something you put on the wall). I’ve seen “members,” but that implies going through a “joining” process of some kind, which might not always be the case, and also implies a level of exclusivity that might not project the friendliest image.

      I’d suggest “participants,” except for this: Even in a model where people are both consuming and helping to create the product, there WILL be people who still want to be passive consumers. They might even be in the majority. Calling people “participants,” therefore, might scare off a large segment of people who have neither the time nor the inclination to participate, and actually want to be more of an audience.

      Whatever name we come up with needs to work both ways — it needs to convey that participation is welcome and a key part of the product, but it also needs to work for people who don’t particularly want to be active participants.

    9. Seanna says:

      hmm, interesting. Reviewers? almost except that we aren’t assuming they are critics. Procurer .. mouthful.

    10. This doesn’t always work for every site, but if your site / brand has a name that can be turned into a proper noun that describes the users/members/whatever, that works best.

      For example: people who use Bakotopia.com are referred to as “Bakotopians.” And they like that term.

      If you can do this, it bypasses all of the awkwardness, as people can read into that what they want. If they’re a (site)otopian they’ll know it. If they’re not, they’ll ignore it.

      I find that this makes more sense for small, niche communities with new brand names than for large sites (and especially news sites) that have a legacy. I think that’s because large legacy news brands are by definition about a select group of professionals who are covering your community. It feels inherently less like a community because of the history of the brand. If you comment on stories or blogs, it feels like you interacting with someone else’s brand versus hanging out in a place where you feel a sense of ownership or belonging.

      This seems to stick even if such a legacy site has an active community area. Just as one theoretical example, does it make any sense to call community participants on the Los Angeles Times site Losangelestimesians? It just doesn’t work. Maybe this is an argument for making a separate brand name for community areas on existing news sites. For example, on Bakersfield.com, anyone who writes a story that is printed is called a YouReporter: http://people.bakersfield.com/home/YouReport

    11. Erik Gable says:

      Oddly, if that person does the exact same thing for CNN, he or she turns from a YouReporter into an iReporter.

    12. @Dan — Exactly. If you can get your (ahem) users to call themselves “Bakotopians,” you’ve made this a moot point. You’ve got an online community that identifies with your brand, your product, and the network you’ve created for them.

      You didn’t create the sense of community, but, to put it in real estate terms, you built the planned neighborhood and tried to plant the right trees, use the right sort of fill at the playground, and make sure that there was some shopping nearby.

    13. Well, I think one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is : is there only of type of online community ?

      This first question is of primary importance because if there exists different types of communities, then by defining only one type, we might be creating analytical tools that will blind us from the richness of online interactions occuring between producers and « the people formerly known as the audience ».

      For instance, one could argue that a community exists only if people exchange, write comments, etc. If so, what should we call the crowdsourcing experiments undertaken and sucessfully completed by the Guardian ? In some cases, it can be argued that a lot of the people interacting did not know each other and did not continue interacting after the work was done. They were not, by definition, a community. But the combined efforts were of tremendous force.

      I am thinking specifically of the Sun Microsystems acquisition by Oracle where the gaurdian asked readers to make a list of all the companies acquired by the two giants over the years. It took hours for the paper to have that list, whereas the Wall Street Journal took one or two days by assigning a journalist to do so. The Gaurdians list was as good or better than the Journals list.

      So, in essence, the first question is : what types of online communities should we try to define ? Which types of interactions are relevant to newspaper sites ? Etc.

      These are my two cents. I have a little bit of thinking to do before I post an awnser to these questions,but I wanted to lay them out to see what other thought about it.

      See you next time !

      (I am French-speaking, by the way, so please indulge my mistakes)

    14. JasonG01 says:

      We can call them… the audience.

      Back in the days when the people formerly known as the audience were in fact known as the audience, they would sit around kitchen tables, coffee shops, bars, what have you, and talk about what they read or saw. They’d make their observations and comments about it public, even if the writers never heard what their readers had to say.

      The kitchen tables, coffee shops, and bars of the world have gotten bigger. The audience has gotten louder. But they’re more or less doing everything they always have. The only difference is now, the audience can and does have an audience.

    15. Great post, Ryan. Here’s a suggestion: How about calling the audience “collaborators”?

      To me, collaborators are people who contribute to a project and can add or subtract to the finish product. They’re part of the work, but they’re also quality control, thus they’re also a critic.

      I think this would make a better impression if used directly with audience members, but advertisers would have a tough time understanding the term. Sad to say, I believe “audience” is still the coin of that realm. With sufficient training, maybe they could embrace it.

    16. Evelyn says:

      The audience member is becoming the Participant.

      They may not be citizens of a given country and so they are Digital Citizens.

      If some are Citizen Journalists then others are Citizen Pundits.

    17. Adam: I like that term “Collaborators”! It works well from a purely linguistic sense. The only problem: the term is also used to describe people who perform some nefarious act in collusion with each other.

      Of course, “social media” sounds like “socialist” to people who lived through the McCarthy era, so perhaps that’s a moot point.

      Reminds me of the time an older colleage was complaining about how “Myface” couldn’t replace traditional journalism. It took me a while to realize he’d combined Myspace and Facebook into one proper noun. That’s the problem with terminology.

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