New Media Audiences and Technologies

Table of contents

Introduction and Aims

New technologies are a poisoned chalice for newspaper journalists and their audiences: at once equipping journalists with the resources they need to compete in the 21st century but at the same time threatening their very survival and forcing newspaper insiders to contemplate what Robert Rosenthal, the former Managing Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, called: “the greatest upheaval our industry and the institution of journalism has ever faced” (Beckett 2008, p.9). I have chosen newspapers as the basis of my inquiry into new technologies because it is a medium which some have observed to be in terminal decline due to flat-lining circulations (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2010), merciless redundancies (Beckett 2008, p.27), and of course the rise of online journalism and new technologies (Bardoel 1999, p.379), one aspect of which is User Generated Content such as Youtube or Twitter where the audience is both a user and a producer of content (Birdsall 2007, p.1284). Web 2.0 technology has forced many commentators to reassess the ways in which both audience and audiences are understood (Nightingale 2011, p.7).

We currently live in a time when both print and online newspapers exist side-by-side and in some respects, we have our feet in both the last remnants of the industrial wave of technology and what has been identified by some commentators as the “information society” (Toffler 1980). Two related aspects of the decline of newspapers is the rise of online journalism and the advent of citizen journalism enabled by new technologies and symbolized by the Korean online newspaper OhmyNews. The specific focus of the secondary research and this report is citizen-journalism and User Generated Content (UGC) and their effect on media audience theories with comparison to newspapers and the traditional models of audience research which describe common features: “vertical, top-down, passive, one-way flow of information” (Birdsall 2007, p.1284). UGC comes in many different forms of course and, although as pointed out above Web 2.0 has forced many commentators to reassess media audience theory (Nightingale, 2010 p.7), there is a lack of scrutiny of citizen journalism in media audience theories. This report hopes principally to correct some of this imbalance.

The aim of this report is consequently to understand whether the traditional understanding of the media audience applies to UGC and online journalism and if not, which theory can best be applied to them without falling foul of “technological determinism” (Bardoel 1999, p.386). The core structural components of audience theory, adopting the words of Nightingale (2011), can be distilled to firstly the active-passive dimension and the micro-macro dimension. Both of these dialectics can explain UGC to a large extent and the work of both Nightingale (2011) and Jenkins (1999) will both be examined to see if new media and UGC can be located within present theories of audiences and indeed whether the term “audience” is still a useful term: will the death of newspapers also bring about the death of the traditional passive audience (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006, p.27 Valdivia, 2005, p.353)?


(a) Traditional audience theory and definitions

It is Nightingale’s (2011) analysis of the two dimensions of audience theory which is adopted for the purpose of this report and has been described usefully by Littlejohn as firstly a tension between “the idea that the audience is a mass public versus the idea that it is a small community,” and the tension between “the idea that the audience is passive versus the belief that it is active” (1996, p.310). This dual framework is a useful starting point for understanding what is now commonly perceived to be the old model and the new interactive world of UGC (Nightingale 2011, p.191). The traditional model is recognized as being one-directional and it is McQuail who produces a classic definition: “the audience concept implies an attentive, receptive but relatively passive set of listeners or spectators assembled in a more or less public setting” (McQuail, 2010 p.391). When offering a definition for audience theories McQuail puts forward three criteria: people, medium or channel, the content of the message(s), and time (Ibid). McQuail himself concedes, however, that Nightingale’s definition is best suited to the new media environment and implicitly acknowledges that his own definition is becoming redundant in the face of diversity. Nightingale’s definition runs as follows and embraces audience interactions:

“Audience as ‘the people assembled’…audience as the ‘people addressed’…audience as ‘happening’…audience as ‘hearing or audition’”. (Quoted from MacQuail 2011, p.399)

(b) UGC and the decline of newspapers:

According to Allan (2006), it was a speech made by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2005 which heralded the death of the newspaper, at least in its paper and ink format, in the irresistible current of new technology. As noted above there are many explanations for the demise of the print newspaper but chief among them are flat-lining circulations (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2010), merciless redundancies (Beckett 2008, p.27), and of course the rise of online journalism and new technologies (Bardoel 1999, p.379). User-Generated Content (UGC) has, in the opinion of some, shifted the balance of power between consumers and the media by enabling the public to become more intimately involved with the process of deciding the content of news (Kucuka & Krishnamurthy 2007). According to Redden & Witschge (2011) however, there has been no such fundamental rebalancing to the consumer or even to the audience as ultimately it is the editor and the journalist who retains control. This approach is echoed by the experience of OhmyNews in citizen journalism where editorial control is retained (Kim and Hamilton 2006 p. 542).

According to Bevans (2008), UGC is any news related material produced by the public via the internet. UGC has enabled a very radical form of reporting to flourish: citizen journalism. This is a very new concept and as such, there is a lack of analysis but the term first surfaced during the Indonesian tsunami and has grown rapidly ever since. Guardian blogger Neil Mcintosh saw this as a pivotal moment:

“… for those watching this small, comparatively insignificant world of media, this may also be remembered as a time when citizen reporting, through the force of its huge army of volunteers and their simple type and publish weblog mechanisms, finally found its voice, and delivered in a way the established media simply could not.” (Guardian Unlimited News Blog, 4 January 2005).


I have focused on existing research and scholarship for this report and have drawn sources from the leading theorists in media audiences as well as those commentators who described the death of print newspapers and the advent of UGC and citizen journalism. I have drawn the sources widely from books, journals, and websites. I chose this methodology because I felt that small-scale empirical research would be unsatisfactory in firstly giving any kind of indication of whether or not present theories of audiences can be applied to UGC which is absolutely crucial to the focus of this work. The conceptual difficulties behind adopting any kind of surveys or any kind of qualitative research would be manifest and would have to be conducted on a much larger scale than a report of 2,000 words can allow. Furthermore, this particular issue is one that can only be understood with a comprehensive look at past scholarship on media audiences. As pointed out above many commentators shy away from technological determinism in hailing a new epoch and so try to explain UGC in terms of existing audience theory.

Findings and Analysis

I will present the findings and analyze UGC and citizen journalism from the two dimensions elicited above from Nightingale’s (2011) framework:

(a) Active passive dimension

The most obvious manifestation of this dialectic where the audience is deemed to be passive is media effects research which is concerned with the negative effects of media upon the consumer. Jones & Jones (1999) use the example of War of the Worlds when a radio broadcast induced panic in a huge number of radio listeners who passively bore the message without, for example, questioning its meaning. On the flip side of the coin, active audiences have been well documented with Robert Fisk arguing as early as 1987 that meaning is fluid and not fixed (1987, p.14). The uses and gratification theory, which focuses on what the audience does with the message itself, was articulated by Katz, Gumler, and Gurevitch (1974) and also falls under the umbrella of an active audience as classically understood. Nightingale notes that the significance of this research is not just the emphasis but the reversal of the sender-message-receiver model (1996, p.8).

But what place do interaction and participation haveNightingale argues that both of these signifiers of UGC are underneath the active audience aspect with the latter encompassing participation both “in” and “through” the media. Mass media are traditionally seen, by contrast to new media, as being good for representation but terrible for participation (Peters 1993, p.566). The participation of non-professionals in the production of media output and decision making comes under the “in” of Nightingale’s model while broader issues such as self-representation in public spheres come under the “through” aspect. This latter aspect is very much a part of the Habermasian public sphere: “a network for communicating information and points of view” (Habermas 1996, p.360). The “public sphere” is where the mutual clash of arguments lends validity to democracy and importantly the web 2.0 and UGC have created an army of producers who both use and create and are, in the words of Friedman, “empowered” (2005, p.9). The implication of this empowerment in a virtual space which is governed by no one nation or company is profound for audience research:

“The result is that participatory media technology that allows for the creation and distribution of user-generated content overturn traditional notions of all-powerful news media that define and restrict a largely passive audience. In other words, traditional power dynamics that separate sender and receiver are shifting and blurring.” (Anthony & Thomas 2010, p.1283).

(b) Micro-macro dimension

This dimension, described by the tension between a mass public and a small community (Littlejohn 1996), a micro dimension and a macro dimension, has many constituent parts to it but what is consistent is that the old mass media thinking which has the audience as an unreconstructed mass is redundant when considering new media and its highly interrelated small communities, each with their own “values, ideas and interests” (1996, p.311). The model, represented by a triangle and first created by Bardoel (1995), has a so-called “meso-level” in the middle which, according to Nightingale (2011, p.197) is very rare and leads to “a definition of the audience as an organized audience”. Labour Unions, cultural groups, and political parties are all within this “meso-level” of the organization while at the top there reside the traditional mass media and at the bottom the new forms of interactive communication technology (Bardoel 1999, p.386).

(c) Analysis

It is clear that UGC and citizen journalism can be located within these traditional theories and it is not necessary to fall, in the words of Bardoel (1999, 385), into the trap of technological determinism. This is backed up by Redden & Witschge (2011) who assert that the balance of power has not shifted fundamentally towards the consumer or the audience and finds resonance with Nightingale who also argues that UGC can be located without a problem within existing audience theory: “If we look at the passive-active dimension of audience theory, it is hardly a surprising conclusion that UGC remains very well embedded within this debate” (2011, p.204). As we have seen the active strand hides the participation and interaction which is the hallmark of UGC and it is possible even to see those passive elements hidden in UGC such as those who simply spectate (ibid p.205). Regarding the second dimension, it is also no surprise that UGC can fall within its boundaries. Nightingale (2011) uses the concept of blogging to highlight the fact that the blogosphere is considered to be a community. Further analogies can be drawn with, for example, the “Facebook community” (Guardian website, 2011). Can the same be said of citizen journalism there is certainly a community of citizen journalists but going too far and saying that such “journalists” are completely active in formulating the stories is illusory as journalists, even at OhmyNews, still retain ultimate control over the process as gatekeepers (Kim and Hamilton 2006 p. 542).


(a) Main Conclusions

In conclusion, it is premature to say that UGC has ignited a new communication revolution: traditional theories of audience research are able to fit new media under their wing and this suggests that the new relationships will not replace older communications relationships but add to them albeit resulting in a more crowded spectrum.
Citizen journalism is a rational extension of UGC but to say it truly empowers citizens is illusory as journalists retain ultimate control.
Although traditional print media is in decline it is by no means certain that citizen journalism will replace it but rather complement it: the death of newspapers has been exaggerated.

(b) Gaps in the research

There is currently a significant lack of research concerning UGC and a lack of understanding of citizen journalism. Ideally, future research would interview members of these communities to establish how truly independent and participative they are to establish where they are on Bardoel’s pyramid (1995).
The term “audience” is redundant. A more convincing etymology needs to be divined in order to move forward. As Lieuvrow notes the term is too broad, too individualistic, and too material (p.8).
UGC and citizen journalism are still in their infancy and so future research should wait until they are both established in society.



  1. Allan, Stuart (2006) Online News Berkshire Open University Press
  2. Atton and Hamilton (2008) Alternative Journalism London SAGE
  3.  Bardoel (1999) ‘Beyond Journalism’ in Tumber, Howard (ed) News: A Reader Oxford uni press: worldwide
  4.  Beckett, Charlie (2008) SuperMedia: saving journalism so it can save the world Blackwell
  5.  Fiske, John (1987) ‘British Cultural Studies and Television’ in Allen, Robert (ed) Channels of Discourse chapel hill: University of Carolina press
  6. Friedman (2005) The World is Flat Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: worldwide
  7.  Habermas, Jurgen (1996) Between Facts and Norms Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  8.  Jenkins, H. (1999) ‘The Work of Theory in the Age of Digital Transformation’ In T. Miller and R. Stam (eds.), A Companion to Film Theory. London: Blackwell, 234-261.
  9.  Jones & Jones (1999) Mass Media Macmillan
  10. Katz, E., Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1974). Utilization of mass communication by the individual. In J. G. Blumler, & E. Katz (Eds.), The uses of mass communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp. 19–32). Beverly Hills: Sage
  11.  Kucuka & Krishnamurthy (2007) ‘An analysis of consumer power on the. Internet’ Technovation issue 27 pp47- 56.
  12. Lievrouw & Livingstone (2006) Handbook of New Media Sage: London, California & New Delhi
  13. Littlejohn, S. W. (1996). Theories of human communication, New York: Wadsworth.
  14. McQuail (2010) 6th ed Mass Communication Theory Sage
  15. Redden & Witschge (2010) ‘A New News Order?’ in Fenton, Natalie (ed) New Media, Old News Sage: London, California, New Delhi
  16.  Toffler, Alvin (1980) The Third Wave Bantam Books USA
  17.  Valdivia (2005) A Companion to Media Studies Blackwell: USA, UK Australia
  18.  Antony and Thomas (2010) ‘This is Citizen Journalism at its finest’ in New Media & Society issue 12 p.1280
  19.  Birdsall, William F. (2007) ‘Web 2.0 as a Social Movement’ in Webology, Volume 4, Number 2, June 2007
  20.  Hamilton, James W and Kim, Eun-Gyoo, (2006) ‘Capitulation to capitalOhmyNews as alternative media’ in Media Culture & Society Volume 28, Number 4, July 2006 pp 551-560
  21.  Peters, J.D (1993) ‘Distrust of Representation: Habermas on the Public Sphere’ in Media, Culture and Society issue 15(4) pp 541-71
  22.  OECD report on “the future of news and the internet” viewed on 13 December 2010 and available at:
  24.  Mcintosh, Neil Guardian Unlimited News Blog, 4 January 2005 retrieved on 1st February 2011 and available from:

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