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The (Digitally Mediated) Sense of the Public

Part of the daily business of political reporters was to talk to readers on the phone. They regarded these interactions as their duty but were mostly annoyed by them. When I asked one reporter how he felt about the additional layer of separation between him and the public by working for a news agency, his response was: “I don’t mind. There is a positive side, for instance I’m not called or bothered by readers. When they complain it always goes to the newspaper” (Interview, LP reporter, November 24, 2011). I have witnessed and overheard several instances when reporters talked to readers on the phone. Sometimes they yelled into the receiver, responding to being yelled at, I assumed. On one such occasion, an LCA bureau chief received a call from a reader who was outraged over a story on same-sex marriage. The reader accused him and his paper of advocating for sodomy. At one point, the reporter said: “I’m very busy right now, I gotta go,” and hung up. He then told his colleague that the caller said “fuck” all the time and wondered jokingly whether this was in accordance with his religious faith (Fieldnotes, LCA, February 11, 2011).

While reporters in both countries saw it as their duty to be responsive, citizens as well as news organizations in the USA have adopted digital means of feedback and interaction more quickly. Comments on news stories or other forms of online feedback and interaction were basically irrelevant for LP reporters. Though consumers of New York State political news still called reporters, they also wrote emails, commented on stories, replied to tweets, and so on. As a consequence, US reporters perceived the relation to this audience a little more dialogical: “If you just roll it on their doorstep and say: ‘take it or leave it’ - that’s the way journalism was in the 1950s. It’s not the way journalism is today. ... it’s like a conversation, in a way” (Interview, LCA reporter, September 8, 2010), said one of them.

Despite this general sense, reporters were careful to deduce from readers who reached out (including callers) to the audience-at-large. One referred to online commentators as the “most strident slice” (Interview, LCA reporter, December 7, 2010) of his readership. Even though reporters considered most online comments as negligible, they pointed out helpful and thoughtful responses as well. One of the most traditionalist reporters, for instance, told me about a recent critical comment he received on one of his stories. The reader presented information he found online, which added important context and perspective to the reporter’s story: “I was like: ‘Wow! [laughs] Shit!’ It’s a whole new world. I mean readers can actually interact and challenge you like that and go get the information we should have gotten” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 17, 2010).

While digital means of receiving feedback from and interacting with audiences had an impact on US reporters’ sense of the public, audience metrics did not (contrary to what Anderson 2011b suggests). First of all, most reporters did not receive audience breakdowns or web analytics on a regular basis. The few of them who did were happy when their stories did well. One day, I witnessed “Chuck” tell “Dash” that their story on Cuomo’s first State of the State address received 55,000 hits, adding that he hoped to beat one other article so that it became the number one story (Fieldnotes, LCA, January 6, 2011). Another bureau chief told me their webpage had a chart with most-read stories of the day: “I feel good when I see one of my stories there” (Interview, LCA reporter, March 20, 2010).

Despite being encouraged by good hit rates, bad ratings were not at all discouraging for LCA reporters, nor did I discern reprimands by editors or any indication that reporters made news decisions with rating considerations in mind. One editor of a newspaper, which did circulate daily access statistics among its news staff, said that ratings did not turn reporters into “click whores,” contrary to his expectations (Interview, LCA editor, May 11,2011).

Much more important than the immediate sense of the public through interaction, comments and metrics is the prevailing “audience image” (Gans 1979: 238)—a socially and discursively constructed perception of the audience as it is passed on within news organizations and news beats. This imagination of the audience was the most influential factor for what stories reporters focused on, how they wrote them and which politicians they talked to. A news outlet’s target audience—defined socioeconomically, regionally or otherwise—is an important part of its identity or “brand.” Even though these distinctions increasingly dissolved in the age of the internet, the Albany Times Union was still considered state employees’ newspaper of choice, the New York Daily News of the working class at the outskirts of New York City, and so on. Partly because of the lower degree of digitization but mostly because of the long-established regional and ideological segmentation of the German newspaper market (Esser and Bruggemann 2010), such distinctions were even more prevalent in Germany.

LCA reporters who blogged and tweeted made additional distinctions between audiences. While blog and Twitter audiences mostly comprised state government insiders and political junkies to them, legacy news audiences represented their main constituencies and normative reference points. Corresponding to the more personalized presence and performance on digital media, these reporters also generally strived for building more individualized relationships with their audiences. As one of them said: “I believe in this day and age, people want a personal brand, they want people they can trust, they want people who are in the weeds of things and who provide them with context” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010).

Connected to “being in the weeds of things,” state house reporters in both countries perceived a particular spatial responsibility of ‘being there for the public,’ which was an essential basis of legitimation for their work. Being on location at the legislative/government building meant having direct access to elected officials, their staff and—in the case of the LCA— lobbyists, interest groups and citizens (who were allowed to make their case and protest in the building, see Chap. 5). The specific “value added” by state house reporters also consisted of immediacy, regional focus and providing exclusive background. They drew meaning from this spatial and social proximity and the knowledge it generated, which was their contribution to the public sphere. Accordingly, as will be discussed further in Chap. 5, they were dismissive of discursive claims about their jurisdiction not made by members of the press corps but rather from remote locations, especially when they contradicted the corps consensus.

 
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