Readers: Not Who They Once Were

By Michael Longinow, PhD

Collective intelligence. Think of it as a better way for you and your readers, together, to figure out what the best media approach is to a topic.

It’s convergence. But convergence, with this approach, isn’t just tools or platforms. It’s more about readers, your audience, than maybe you’ve considered.

Take another look at those readers — the younger ones. (The older ones will follow you anywhere.) The readers you need to lure in and win over are different than in years past. Literacy has changed in the last few decades. People you thought were reading are more distracted, more stressed, more impatient than ever. They glance more than read, click faster, flip pages faster and are turned off by meaningless photos or video that won’t load or that lacks technical excellence.

You need to reach them in all their complexity and propensity to walk away. You can’t do it alone. And you should stop trying. They want to help you.

Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide says we have to think about our media the way we think about conversation. It’s two-way. The more we come at a chat with our minds made up or with no regard for the person we’re talking with, the more we shut people up. Then it’s not a conversation anymore.

And people we shut up don’t want to talk to us. They avoid us. If you think people are avoiding your media (they are more than you realize), it’s time to re-think the approach.

First, understand that your audience is not what it was. Christians in the U.S. are increasingly people with questions about their faith. A research study last year showed the number of Americans who claim to be Christian declined from 78% to to 70% in seven years. And the number of Americans who say they affiliate with no faith group is up from 16% to 23%. The study also shows it’s likely that some of your readers are new to evangelical Christianity, having been raised in another faith tradition.

Your audience is probably also less white than it used to be. The overall U.S. population is more Hispanic than ever in our history, and those with the educational background that builds media literacy are a mix of ethnicities and racial mixtures.

The vast majority of Christians live in the global South. Research noted by the Washington Post reminds us that since the 1980s, the reality has been that there are more Christians outside English speaking countries than in the U.S. or Europe. And when believers from these hot spots of Christian experience migrate to the U.S., they bring a refreshing hunger for nurture and encouragement in their faith. But the culture they need is something you might need to stretch a bit to cover well.

So your conversation with your readers, your media audience, must be a diverse encounter. Your changing audience wants to know what you know, understand what you’re showing them (they just don’t know it yet). It’s up to you to find out who they are and what they like, what they want to know. Surveys and focus groups can help, but so can study of demographic trends.

So keep converging. But do it on a two-way street.

Michael A. Longinow, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Journalism & Integrated Media at Biola University.

This article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Liaison.