The seeds of audience fragmentation: specialization in the use of online news sites.

Author:Tewksbury, David

A number of recent appraisals of developing media technologies have emphasized the potential for the new media to fragment audiences (e.g., Chaffee & Metzger, 2001; Havick, 2000). This fragmentation is presumed to result from technologies that allow and even encourage people to narrow the focus of their media consumption to pursue their individualized interests and needs (Sunstein, 2001; Webster & Phalen, 1997; cf. Webster & Lin, 2002). As a result of a narrowed focus on specific content, people appear likely to ignore other messages. Katz (1996) has argued that such a process is problematic for the functioning of modern democracies. Fragmented audiences are unlikely to consume a common diet of news, potentially leaving them underinformed about central issues facing a nation. Individually tailored media use "seems to be fast displacing national comings-together, and pleasure seems to be pushing public affairs ever more out of sight" (Katz, 1996, p. 25). Such an environment threatens the very foundation of political systems based on assumptions of citizen awareness and involvement (Berelson, 1952; cf. Schudson, 1998).

The key element of worries about fragmentation in the news domain is the premise that people will specialize their news consumption when given highly focused Internet-based outlets (Chaffee & Metzger, 2001). Perhaps as a result of that assumption, there has been relatively little focus on the extent to which online news outlets themselves are specialized. Surely, audience fragmentation is most likely to occur when there are discrete media outlets that offer differentiable products. However, few studies have looked at any one specific domain of the Internet to determine how much specialization exists at that area. As a result, specialization in media outlets is often assumed without being explicitly evaluated. The present study attempts to fill that gap in the literature. If it finds site specialization to be a common phenomenon, this study may provide supporting evidence to those predicting American audience fragmentation.

Fragmentation, Specialization, and Diversity

Fragmentation describes a potential relationship between audiences and information. As a general function, news media provide information about the world outside an audience member's experience. As Lippmann (1922/1965) observed, the media operate as a spotlight, shining on only a portion of the social world at a time. Given that audiences are selective in their exposure to information (Katz, Gurevitch, & Hass, 1973; Zillman & Bryant, 1985), they are actively choosing what portion of the illuminated world they wish to see. The more people develop specific habits of news selection (i.e., the more they specialize), the more likely they are to be exposed to specific clusters of information. This pattern is facilitated, naturally, by the extent to which news outlets provide products that can be differentiated from one another. Given that there is a finite set of news topics from which to choose, long-term patterns of topical focus could result in fragmentation, the creation of porously bordered groups of people who know something about specific parts of the social world but perhaps little else.

In many ways, the fragmentation argument is linked with Converse's (1964) idea of the issue public. Converse discussed the possibility that political issues attract specific sets of interested citizens who come to acquire information about that issue. In the process of following one issue, however, people may end up knowing little about others (Converse, 1964; Krosnick, 1990). Taking this concept to a broader context, one could argue that people may acquire information about one or two news topics (e.g., international affairs, professional football)--those that interest them--and acquire less about others. If this were the case with news exposure, the American population may be characterized at some future date as a collection of pockets of knowledge about specific things.

Audience fragmentation is most likely to occur in the joint presence of audience and outlet specialization. The first variety is the extent to which individuals limit their news reading to specific topics. On a very general level, studies of Internet user motivations have found that people frequently report using the medium to find specific information (e.g., Ferguson & Perse, 2000; Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). More important, recent research has shown that the Internet may be particularly conducive to news audience specialization (e.g., Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000; cf. Dutta-Bergman, 2004). When given the chance to limit their reading, news audiences seem perfectly willing to confine their attention to focused topics. This selectivity influences what audiences learn about current events (Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000) and how they assess the relative importance of issues facing the nation (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002).

Less is known about the operation of outlet specialization online, the specific focus of this study. Outlet specialization is the extent to which Web sites attract distinct audiences who visit them for specific content. Thus, specialization can be an attribute of individual sites. One available framework for discussing how outlet specialization may operate is the media evolution process (Maisel, 1973; Merrill & Lowenstein, 1979). Merrill and Lowenstein identified economic and social forces that can influence the development of media systems. They observed that media have tended to begin with a rather limited range of content and with a very narrow audience base--most often a society's socioeconomic elites. As economic and social conditions allow, systems move into a mass audience phase in which more general interest content draws large audiences to a limited number of central outlets. The final state in this evolution features a proliferation of media and channels and a concomitant tightened focus in the content of particular outlets and audiences. In this sort of specialization, therefore, there is a strong relationship between the presentation of content at any particular outlet and the attributes of its sought-after segment of the consumer population. A media system's movement toward specialization has an important impact, Merrill and Lowenstein suggested: "Specialized tastes and abundant channels in every medium must result in an end to the age of the mass audience. Taking its place will be highly fragmented, 'specialized' audiences" (p. 35).

McQuail (1997) framed the difference between mass audience media and specialized media as concerning the difference between heterogeneous and homogenous audiences. In the former, a general interest medium "attracts a socially heterogeneous [and often quite large] audience and offers a broad range of content to suit the different tastes, interests, and opinions of the available public" (p. 56). He termed this state internal audience diversity. A homogenous audience for a medium or specific outlet, on the other hand, is likely when it offers a relatively narrow range of content that appeals to a distinct audience. This represents a form of external audience diversity. (1) McQuail saw the potential for the media system within a country to house both models simultaneously. In American society, this coexistence was best exemplified by the different functions of radio and television in the period following World War II. Television helped drive radio to the local level and to an external/homogenous audience model in the 1950s and 1960s. Network television assumed radio's place as the primary internal/heterogeneous audience medium until the growth of cable television in the 1980s. For almost 30 years, then, internal and external audience models coexisted in the form of these two media.

Specialization in the New Media

In the context of cable television, Heeter and Greenberg (1985) suggested that growth in the number of content options is accompanied by the tendency for audiences to use the medium in the pursuit of focused interests and needs: "Because of the greater variety and fixed structure of available content with cable, program choice should better reflect viewers' content preferences" than should use of broadcast television (p. 206). Obviously, the range of choices available on the Internet represents a quantum leap over contemporary cable options. In particular, alternatives for news content on the Internet greatly outnumber those readily available in print or on television. With Internet access, the daily news choices for the typical consumer expand from one or perhaps two print newspaper options, a few local radio and television news stations, and national broadcast and cable television programs (perhaps a dozen or so alternatives, total) to literally thousands of news sites online. (2) In addition, as observers have noted for some time, updated online news is available continuously day and night, a feature typical of only radio and cable television among the traditional media (and even they impose some constraints on what is available at any one moment).

Relative to other media, then, news organizations on the World Wide Web operate in an environment particularly conducive to outlet specialization. Even news sites that serve as online versions of traditional media organizations should feel this force. Because there are no geographic boundaries to the reach of the Web, news sites can be accessed by a much larger potential audience than is the case with their offline outlets. That should not imply a mass-market orientation to most sites, however. Online news sites can develop unique identities that have less to do with geography than with content expertise. For example, online news readers looking for information about the Indianapolis 500 automobile race can read a national news site, but they may be better served by the online version of an Indianapolis television broadcaster. As Web audiences mature, they may...

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