Deliberative, Agonistic, and Algorithmic Audiences: Journalism's Vision of its Public in an Age of Audience Transparency

C. W. Anderson


Building on earlier empirical work in newsrooms, this paper contends that a fundamental transformation has occurred in journalists’ understanding of their audiences. A new level of responsiveness to the agenda of the audience is becoming built into the DNA of contemporary news work. This article argues, however, that this journalistic responsiveness to the “agenda of the audience” has multiple, often contradictory meanings. It traces these out through a critical-historical sketch of key moments in the journalism-audience relationship, including the public journalism movement, Independent Media Center (Indymedia), and Demand Media. These different visions of the audience are correlated to different images of democracy, and they have different sociological implications. The public journalism movement believed in a form of democracy that was conversational and deliberative; in contrast, traditional journalism embraced an aggregative understanding of democracy, while Indymedia's democratic vision could best be seen as agonistic in nature. Demand Media and similar ventures, this article concludes, may be presaging an image of public that can best be described as algorithmic. Understanding this algorithmic conception of the audience may be the first step into launching a broader inquiry into the sociology and politics of algorithms.

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