Journalism scholars present industry research and solutions at the 25th ISOJ amidst ongoing engagement and financial challenges

  • By Logan Dubel
  • April 14, 2024

Journalism scholars discussed building a sustainable future for news and re-imagining connections with audiences during a research breakfast at the 25th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) on April 13.

Sign outside of workshop room

The 25th ISOJ featured a number workshops over two days, including one on “Trends in online journalism research”. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

Summarizing their research to an early Saturday morning crowd, presenters included Amy Ross Arguedas and Richard Fletcher of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, Sue Robinson of UW-Madison, Anya Schiffrin of Columbia University, Vanessa D Higgins Joyce of Texas State University and Gina Masullofrom UT Austin’s Center for Media Engagement.

From re-establishing connections between newsrooms and the communities they serve, to combating misinformation and meeting people where they are, the scholars demonstrated that they won’t give up on journalism, or the larger mission it serves.

“We’re [interested in] solving problems particularly for news organizations, but also for other institutions, so that it’s in the service of democracy,” said Masullo, an associate professor at UT Austin’s School of Journalism and Media.

Masullo’s research centers around including citizens in the storytelling process. The scholar emphasized the importance of deconstructing the “us vs. them” narrative around the relationship between citizens and journalists. While bringing audiences into conversations about what stories their newsrooms cover has yet to yield a rise in subscription renewals, as a former journalist, Masullo said building relationships with readers is a feat others should not overlook.

Additionally, Masullo said newsrooms should consider a less harsh and more empathetic approach to fact-checking.

“How often do we make people who believe something untrue feel stupid for believing it,” Masullo asked. “The way some fact checks are written, it feels that way.”

For Robinson, a professor at UW-Madison and the author of “How Journalists Engage,” the question of whether the news engagement movement will succeed looms.

“It’s the first major paradigm shift we’ve seen in mainstream Western countries for press in more than a century,” Robinson said. “We have a critical mass of people who’ve decided that engagement journalism is going to increase trust and solve all of our problems.”

Eager to hear from the public themselves, Robinson chronicled a heated focus group between nine journalists and 77 disengaged citizens. Although the sessions turned vitriolic and included yelling and even homophobia, participants actually reported that the conversations built trust, and some said they would consider subscribing to a news brand.

“It was really difficult — we had to take breaks” going through the transcripts, Robinson said. “When we saw these post-surveys, it was a small in, but it does show that there’s something in the power of listening.”

But with more newsrooms gung-ho about entrenching themselves deeper in their communities, the challenge of whether audiences will pay attention remains an uphill battle.

It’s no secret that the rise of social media platforms for news consumption has frayed audiences in legacy media spaces such as television and newspapers. However, research by Oxford’s Arguedas and Fletcher shows that social media use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter/X, traditionally dominated by legacy media outlets, remains stagnant or is declining.

Instead, audiences, particularly those ages 18-24, are turning to TikTok and YouTube, where they find videos from influencers, rather than journalists. Arguedas said people are often going straight to social media for news and using it as a gateway, rather than turning to news outlets first.

“Not only is social media becoming more important, but platforms where the news media has typically been stronger are the ones that are stagnant or declining,” Arguedas said.

As the debate over how to best reach news consumers continues, some researchers like Fletcher look one step further: What happens when people avoid news entirely? Fletcher discussed a growth in global selective news avoidance, from 29% in 2016 to 36% in 2023. In addition to a lower interest in news and politics, Fletcher said some demonstrate strategic behaviors to check for news less often, such as muting notifications and avoiding topics which could bring down their mood.

Fletcher referenced one response from a German citizen, who expressed interest in a kinder media sphere.

“Generally, I want a lighter tone. It’s good for my soul and makes me less anxious,” the respondent said.

As news avoidance grows even in countries like Germany and Austria, where engagement previously remained strong, researchers such as Joyce are seeking to understand why. Joyce explained that in Latin America, which the team at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas studies and covers, homophily and political polarization are to blame for hostility toward journalists.

Joyce noted that people often aim to read and write news for people who look like them and act like them, versus covering entire communities. Joyce said increasing partnerships between journalists online and on the ground will help combat what remains a hostile environment for Latin American reporters.

“Collaborations between different perspectives might be useful and fruitful for the benefit of decreasing polarization that is hurting society and journalism in Latin America,” Joyce said.

Still, the economics of news remains a challenge. Schiffrin, director of technology and media communications at Columbia University, said if newsrooms show investors they can get a return in exchange for supporting collaborative investigative journalism, communities and journalists themselves will benefit. To Schiffrin’s surprise, investments thus far have led to innovation.

“In the interviews we’ve been doing, reporters in places like Brazil or Ukraine would say, ‘We cater to a low-income community, we’re in a big city and we have no parks.’ When they got an environmental reporter, everyone said, ‘Who cares,’” Schiffrin said. “But then, they started to realize why it was important … Having training transforms the whole way the newsroom works.”

As for all these possible solutions, while newsrooms battle to make their bottom line, Masullo urged that journalists must be patient when it comes to moving the needle amongst their audiences.

“One of the things that this session has inspired me about, is that I think they [the public] need the bad news told in a way that’s less traumatizing. We can’t only write about good things … we wouldn’t be doing our job,” Masullo said. “We have to have a caveat when we think about positive news. We need stories that actually educate our readers, but in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize them.”

ISOJ is a global online journalism conference organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2024, it is celebrating 25 years of bringing together journalists, media executives and scholars to discuss the impact of the digital revolution on journalism.

Logan Dubel is a second-year journalism student at UT Austin, passionate about all kinds of storytelling, from Congress to country music. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of Moody Magazine, associate producer of TSTV’s Good Morning Longhorns and a newsletter writer at KMFA 89.5. 

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