8
Audiences Redefined, Boundaries
Removed, Relationships Reinvented

The most important relationship any news organization has is with its audience. It is the economic foundation of the commercial press. Because of the advertising and subscription-based business model of most commercial media, audience size determines the profitability of the news. Yet even more importantly it is the public the press serves in a democracy. Through its role in helping build an informed citizenry, the press functions as the so-called fourth estate, or fourth branch of government. It is thereby uniquely provided constitutional protection in the First Amendment.

But despite its importance, the relationship between the audience and the news media has steadily deteriorated for nearly three decades, as studies have repeatedly confirmed. Furthermore, newspaper readership has been declining since the end of World War II, and younger audiences are showing decreasing interest and trust in television news. Recent events from the late 1990s have fueled even further erosion of the news media-audience relationship. Consider the retraction of a sensational story that CNN and Time collaborated to produce that alleged U.S. military use of nerve gas against its own soldiers during the Vietnam War. And what about the much-criticized media coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Boston Globe reporter who was fired for fabricating sources and quotes, and the controversial case of another Globe journalist, star columnist Mike Barnicle, who appropriated without attribution jokes from comedian George Carlin. In response, one guest editorial in the New York Times observed, “Trust is the glue that holds newsrooms together and ultimately binds readers to a specific news-

-125-

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