Perceptions of the Audience by the Alternative Press Producers: A Case
Study of The Texas Observer
Author: InCheol Min (Min got a Ph.D. in Journalism at the University of
Texas at Austin in 2002. He is now a lecturer at Chosun University of South
Submitted to Newspaper Division of AEJMC
Mailing Address: 578-1, Punghyang 1 Dong, Book-ku
Kwangju, South Korea 500-090
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The study tests ideas about how the alternative press relates to its
audience, comparing this with previously published literature about how
mainstream media relate to their audiences. This study interviewed nine
former and current producers in the Texas Observer to ask about their
perceptions of the audience. Through interviews with staff members, the
study concludes that the staff's connection with its readers is closer than
is usual for mainstream media and that the readership is politically active.
Mass communication researchers have pointed out that mainstream media
producers do not know their audiences: Although media producers have a
vague image of the audience, they pay little attention to it; instead, they
write for their superiors and for themselves, assuming that what interests
them will interest the audience (Gans 1979: 230). Media producers think
that they know best how to combine the available factors of production
without actually consulting the audience (McQuail 1994, 232). In this
sense, media producers are 'suggesting the equivalence of professional and
lay reactions' (Gans 1979: 237). Why are media producers' perceptions of
the audience important in the communication process? As McQuail (1969: 75)
states, media producers' perceptions of their audiences play an important
role in 'shaping the content of what is communicated, and the consequent
need which the communicator experiences to know his audience if he is to
Studies of alternative media have focused on aesthetics (layout, language,
'non-political' themes), internal organization (self-managed structures1,
finance) (Downing 1988; Atton 2002). By alternative media, I mean the
media that cover news events that are not ordinarily reported in the
mainstream media. In this sense, such alternative media may help to
legitimate the lives of ordinary people as news. The alternative media,
generally small-scale and in many different forms, 'express an alternative
vision to hegemonic policies, priorities, and perspectives' (Downing, 2001:
v). In addition, alternative media serve a specialized readership,
listeners or viewers.
How has the audience been imagined by alternative media producers? Few
studies have examined the ways in which alternative media producers
conceived of their audiences. Are alternative media producers' perceptions
of the audience different from what the literature on mainstream media
producers' knowledge of their audience shows? (Gans 1979; Atkin, Burgoon &
Burgoon 1983; Dewerth-Pallmeyer 1997). These researchers argued that
communicators do not know their audiences. In my research, I came across
just one such study – that of Nina Eliasoph who examined the production of
oppositional news at KPFA-FM radio station in Berkeley. Her study shows
that this alternative radio station views their audiences as a constituency
needing information in order to act.
To find out how alternative press producers view their audiences, I
interviewed 9 former and current staff members of the alternative press,
the Texas Observer, to examine the producers' perceptions of their readers
and its news production process. The study tests ideas about how the
alternative press relates to its audience, comparing this with previously
published literature about how mainstream media relate to their audiences.
Through in-depth interviews with producers at the Observer, I investigate
how producers at the alternative press view their audiences and examine
whether the audience of the alternative press is seen, as Eliasoph (1997)
suggests, as a constituency – mobilized, active, and needing information to
act on an issue that concerns the audience. Her study shows that the
producers at the alternative radio station view their audiences as active
in community issues and political process.
My research question comes from the Texas Observer's mission statement,
which reports that it writes about issues ignored or underreported in the
mainstream press. The goal of the Observer is to cover stories crucial to
the public interest and to provoke dialogue that promotes democratic
participation and open government. I investigated the following research
questions: 1) How do producers in the alternative press perceive the
audience? 2) Do other alternative media have the same perception of the
audience as shown in Eliasoph's study of the alternative radio station? 3)
Are alternative media producers' notions of the audience different from
what the literature about mainstream media producers' knowledge of the
audience shows? In the next sections, I will examine how the news
production process of the mainstream media is different from the news
production process at the alternative media
The Organizational Structure of Mainstream Media
We can describe the process of media production as individual level, media
routines level, organizational level, and the level of external
constraints. News gatekeeping, at the individual level of media
production, explains how the communicator controls the flow of news content
according to his/her subjective individual judgment.
However, communicators are subject to the occupational setting, which
limits the subjectivity of news judgment. This organizational production
setting includes the media production routines, the journalists'
relationships with other reporters, and sources, as well as occupational
Media routines are patterned, repeated practices. The organizational
routines facilitate the news production, as well as help journalists get
established news categories. Usually media routines correspond to media
workers' socialization in the organization, and are derived from
constraints which shape the news production.
The production of mainstream media should also be considered in relation to
its news sources because sources influence media content in several
ways. The media tend to rely on official institutions and press releases
as sources to get a convenient and regular flow of information. Since many
sources compete for a limited space, the news involves a selection bias,
which will lead to the dissemination of official, prominent voices to the
audience. Media reinforce prevailing definitions of situations while
rendering viewpoints outside the mainstream irrational and illegitimate
(Reese 1997: 426). Consequently, mainstream media are acted upon by the
power structure rather than acting on, or initiating a change in a biased
system. As a result, the mainstream media serve to secure the interests of
the socially influential class by excluding the voices of socially
marginalized groups. In the next section I will explain about the news
production process at the alternative press.
The Organizational Structure of Alternative Media
What is the organizational structure of the alternative media? How are the
alternative media financed? What is the news production process in
alternative media? First of all, alternative media are open to lateral
communication between media producers. 'For if we are thinking of
organizing democratic media, we cannot imagine them as liberating forces
unless they are open to lateral communication between social beings, with
their multiple experiences and concerns' (Downing 1984: 19). The
alternative media challenge mainstream media by providing their audiences
with alternative interpretations of reality. Additionally, the alternative
media are independent of both business interests and the State and have
links with popular, political and union movements without being organically
tied to them (Raboy 1984: 127). The alternative media are much more likely
to put the emphasis on ordinary people rather than newsmakers. It is
explanatory rather then event-oriented, works to a different time-scale for
writing stories. The alternative media also try to include as many voices
in the media and provide a place for new writers to have their ideas
In addition, the alternative media are free of any control by commercial
interests since it is supported by individual donations, subscriptions, and
grants. The alternative media, non-institutional, committed media favor
horizontal patterns of interaction between senders and receivers (McQuail
1994). The alternative media, not a part of the administrative and
commercial system, can have a political impact by allowing the people to
participate directly in public communication or, 'as in the case of
projects advocating alternatives to conventional wisdom, because the
programmatic character of their activities sets examples through which they
implicitly contribute to public discussion' (Habermas 1997: 454).
It is important to know that the practical possibilities of alternative
media programming are for a group of audience members not simply to
broadcast, but to broadcast what they want to communicate, both within
their own ranks and to a wider audience (Downing 2001: 327-328). The
alternative media attempt to break into the established mediascape,
'elbowing their way into a fissure where their own voices can have a
presence in the public realm' (Rodriguez 2001: 165). In this sense,
'alternative media spins transformative processes that alter people's
senses of self, their subjective positionings, and therefore their access
to power' (Rodriguez 2001: 18).
As Downing (2001: 16) states, alternative media 'have a mission not only
to provide facts to a public denied them, but to explore fresh ways of
developing a questioning perspective on the hegemonic process and
increasing the public's sense of confidence in its power to engineer
constructive change.' Alternative media can play a significant role in
leading to a constructivist change in a society. As Scott (1985: 285)
states, 'resistance is a carefully balanced affair that avoids
all-or-nothing confrontations.' As Downing expresses:
Resistance, in other words, is resistance to multiple sources of
oppression, but in turn, it requires dialogue across the varying sectors –
by gender; by race, ethnicity, and nationality; by age; by occupational
grouping – to take the effective shape (2001: 19).
Alternative media should serve as a catalyst in this process by serving
overriding purposes: 'to express opposition vertically from subordinate
quarters directly at the power structure and against its behavior; to build
support, solidarity, and networking laterally against policies or even
against the very survival of the power structure' (Downing 2001: xi).
As I indicated, there is a significant difference in the organizational
structure and role of the mainstream media and alternative media in terms
of finances, writing styles, and news sources. Because of these
differences, it is important to ask that producers in mainstream media and
alternative media have different perceptions of the audience. In the next
section I will investigate how producers in the mainstream media and the
alternative radio station constructed their audience.
Media Producers' Perceptions of their Audiences
The impact that communicators' perceptions of their audience have on
producing the news has been examined over the past several decades. Mass
communication researchers (Darnton 1990 & Gaunt 1990) argued that
communicators do not know their actual audiences. Schlesinger stated that
'total audience remains an abstraction, made real on occasion by letters or
telephone calls, encounter of a random kind in public places, or perhaps
more structured ones such as conversations with liftmen, barmen and
taxi-drivers' (1978, 107). Journalists 'prefer their own informal ways of
coping with uncertainty, especially by way of self-constructed audience
images and personal contacts' (McQuail 1994: 210). Pool and Schulman argue
that 'audience has a clear impact on the journalistic product. The
audience or at least those audiences about whom the communicator thinks
play more than a passive role in communication' (1959: 145). On the other
hand, Gans (1979: 237) argues that communicators see their audience as
being like themselves and therefore consider themselves as audience
representatives. This is derived from the point that 'most journalists
take the congruence of their own and the audience's feelings for granted.'
There is also an institutional perspective on the audience. According to
Ettema and Whitney, 'in an institutional conception, actual receivers are
constituted--or perhaps, reconstituted--as institutionally effective
audiences that have social meaning and/or economic value within the system'
(1994: 5). Ryan and Peterson (1982) define media producers' primary task
as creating media product since journalists are mainly concerned with news
gathering and crafting stories. On a daily basis, journalists typically
have little time to ponder how well they are communicating with an
audience. Therefore, communicators' knowledge of their audience is gained
while they are performing their task without conscious deliberation
(Dewerth-Pallmeyer 1997: 15). However, the image of the audience
constructed by the producers is not uniform. According to
Dewerth-Pallmeyer (1997: 84), 'audience imagery is real among journalists
and is a powerful input constructing the news, but it is not uniform. Much
is tacit and embedded within the routines and values of news gathering.'
The above comments are on
mainstream media, against which I am going to compare the findings
of the current study on alternative press.
How do producers in the alternative media perceive their audiences? I
found just one study by Nina Eliasoph who examined the production of
oppositional news at KPFA-FM, the Pacifica radio station in
Berkeley. Eliasoph (1997: 247-248) says that where mainstream media
producers see the audience as consumers, at KPFA the audience is viewed as
a constituency needing information in order to act.
She used participant observation in the KPFA radio station to find whether
oppositional news reporters use the same journalistic conventions
mainstream reporters use and whether such conventions may not be a source
of media complacency but an oppositional news reporting tool. She found
that news reporters at KPFA did use the same literary conventions
mainstream news reporters use but that the conventions are a source of an
oppositional tool. According to her, KPFA depended on officials, but
KPFA's officials often came from the oppositional organizations such as the
Sierra Club and unions (Eliasoph 1997: 237). Especially she found a
different relationship between radio listeners and producers. At KPFA, the
audience is seen as a 'constituency, mobilized, active needing information
in order to act' (Eliasoph 1997: 248). KPFA's audience includes people
working on AIDS, South Africa, Central America, gay and lesbian issues,
labor, environment. Radio news headlines address public issues on which
social activists are working.
Warren Bareiss (1998) analyzed audience construction at a noncommercial
radio station. The article is a reconstruction by him of the 'conceived
audience' from 71 letters written to the station, supplemented by
interviews with 25 staff members, in which the author categorizes the
audience, but that he touches little on the staff members' notions of the
But I have not found any studies which analyze different perceptions of
the audience by alternative press producers. It would be far better to
couch the importance of "knowing the audience" in normative terms—that
socially responsible journalism presumes that journalism is obliged to
serve the needs, interests and democratic aspiration of its audiences
I chose the bi-weekly Texas Observer because it fits into the definition of
the alternative press, covering news events not reported in the mainstream
media. In this sense, the Observer functions as a space where the lives of
ordinary people become legitimated as news. In addition, the Observer
serves a specialized readership, mostly white and middle-aged people. The
magazine is small with a readership of about 7,000, but scholars should
beware of 'gigantism in the analysis of alternative media, of dismissing
the local as weightless' (Downing 2001).
The Texas Observer is a nonprofit, biweekly journal of Texas news,
politics, and culture. The Observer was founded in 1954 by Ronnie Dugger,
the first editor and publisher of the Observer, and a group of Texas
Democrats. Dugger, who was intensely interested in politics and
government, 'wanted the weekly newspaper to wake up the people of the
state' (Cole 1966: 2). This group of liberals took over a publication
called East Texas Democrat and made it into the Texas Observer.
The Observer did investigative reporting about political corruption at the
capitol, a topic that had received little media attention up to that
point. The Texas newspapers of the time did not provide particularly
in-depth or wide-ranging coverage. So, the Observer wanted to try to write
about politics, integration, and civil rights in the state. Over the
years, it has continued to track those issues. The Observer has evolved as
those issues and the nature of Texas politics evolved.
I used the in-depth interview with media producers at the Observer to ask
them about their views of their audiences, as well as their experiences in
working at the press. The in-depth interview provides natural contexts of
meaning production between the interviewer and respondent. In-depth
interviews allow the interviewer to explore 'the expressive richness of
respondents' own language' (Lindlof 1995: 164). By asking the same set of
questions of all interview respondents in the same order, the in-depth
interview minimizes the interviewer effects on interviewees and produces
greater efficiency in gathering information (Lindlof 1995: 172). Before
the interview, I explained participants 'clear, succinct, and honest
reasons why they have been contacted, the aims and values of the project,
and how the interview will be conducted' (Lindlof 1995: 181).
The Texas Observer is a bi-weekly magazine. The magazine's section
includes feature articles, editorial, and books and the culture. The
magazine's circulation is around 7,000. Staff members include the three
editors, the managing publisher, the circulation manager, the development
director, and the graphics designer. This study interviewed nine former
and current producers in the Texas Observer to ask about their perceptions
of the audience. Personal interviews with producers were conducted over a
five-month period, from September 2001 to January 2002. I tape-recorded
the interview with media producers, with their permission. I followed
pre-formulated interview questions.
The following are the questions I asked in the interview. How would you
characterize the readers of the Observer? How large was the readership of
the Observer? How would you characterize the significance of the Observer
for the community? What role did the Observer perform in encouraging
reader involvement in public issues? How was the Observer funded? How much
contact did you have with your readers? What kinds of contact did you
have? How much impact do you think your readers had on the stories that
you produced? Do readers have more, less, or about the same impact as do
your superiors, your owner, your competitors and/or your fellow
workers? How would you describe the readers of the Observer politically in
comparison with other Texans? Are they pretty much like other Texans or
different? Are the public and your readers the same or not? How did the
Observer operate? Please describe the process by which the Observer
produced its articles? What do you know the history of the Observer? What
type of work have you done with the Observer? How did you get into this
sort of work—What attracted you to it?
When I sought interviews, I mentioned that a) all the information is
confidential; b) what I am interested in is the jobs communicators do and
how they do them. I reassured them that interview results will be used
only with their permission. I began by seeking the background information
I want for each producer. If the respondent mentioned the audience, I
quickly posed the questions about the audience. The interviews took about
45 minutes. Two research questions guide the interviews: 1) How do
producers in the alternative press perceive their audiences? 2) What is
the news production process in the alternative press?;
Interviews with Media Producers at Texas Observer
Detailed interview were with the whole staffers including the former two
editors, three current editors, the managing publisher, the circulation
manager, the development director, and the graphics
designer. Additionally, interviews with two former editors helped me gain
a comparative understanding of the current staff's perceptions and the
former editors' construction of the audience. This in-depth interview
examined producers' perceptions of their readers, and the operation of the
Media Producers' Characterization of their Readers: Media Producers'
Perceptions of their Impact on their Readers
Among their replies; Observer readers tend to be liberal, college educated,
and urban. As one current editor states, 'They are pretty well-educated.
They are intelligent and interested in public issues in Texas.' Most are
older white professionals, the editors believe. There are few minority
readers or young readers. Readers are interested in public issues in
Texas. Some readers live in other states who want to keep track of
important political and public issues in their home state. The readership
ranges from 6,000 to 7,000. Some producers think that the readers are all
involved politically in their communities in some form. They participate
in neighborhood groups, and associations. They regularly attend political
meetings and functions and they almost always vote in the
elections. Observer producers told that they do have some ideas about
their audiences by meeting them in public meetings, fund-raising parties,
or other functions.
Mostly, contacts with readers were through letters to the editor and
telephone calls. Observer readers send emails too. However, compared with
large mainstream media, the dividing line between audience and producer is
not absolute. As one previous editor said, 'Even our freelancers come out
of our readership a lot of times. But we also tried in various ways to
reach out to living, breathing readers. We had meetings here or public
events.' There were a few key readers who were also readers and
writers. Sometimes the Observer holds public events to reach out to other
readers living in different cities of Texas. As one current editor stated,
'Sometimes we'll have fund-raising parties and then we will see our
readers, that sort of thing. But we don't have that much contact.' But for
the most, correspondence was the primary contact with readers. Letters of
the readers are run in the dialogue section of the magazine. But the
contacts with readers vary from one staff to another staff, as circulation
They call me when they have problems with their subscription for
sure. Sometimes we chat on the phone when they call about their
subscription. I may talk to people with subscribing to the Observer.
Sometimes they call just to ask questions about things, ask how Molly
Ivins' health is. So, I guess I probably have quite a bit of contact with
One editor had a direct contact with the readers because she opens up
letters from the readers. According to her, 'I am the one who gets letters
and comments. I go through all that. And some of the stuff are just
responses that necessarily go into dialogue.'
The development director said, Observer readers 'are probably better
educated, read, care more about current events, politically active,
appreciate good writing.' The Observer readers are also sort of the
political left and they are more liberal than other Texans and possibly
more politically active, more likely to participate in democratic party
politics, to vote in the primary, for example, and to take an interest in
municipal and national politics. As one of the editors said, 'Our readers
are generally people who are really concerned about issues, government,
tobacco corporations, care about folks.' The readers are active in the
communities, kind of more aware of political things that are happening
around them, because it is a political magazine.
The Observer is an editor-driven magazine, and editors and writers write
about what they think is important. In contrast to other mainstream
publications, as one editor suggests, 'the Observer is more of a focus,
directed niche magazine that appeals to a very small segment of the
population. So, we don't worry so much about pleasing everybody all the
time.' The owner has no impact on the Observer. According to the current
editor, 'We are owned by nonprofit board. The owner, there is no impact.
There is a feedback between the staff and the readers.'
The editors expect their readers to agree with the editors' point of
view. They hoped that their readers thought it was important, too. As one
of the current editors expressed, 'the Observer tends to change slightly
with different editors that come through. I think that matters more than
what the readers are after.'
Media Producers' Perceptions of the Public and Audience: the
Relationship between their Job and the Public
Not all staffers believe the public and the audience are the same. As one
of the current editors expressed, 'the public includes a more conservative
type of people, people who aren't interested in reading, people who aren't
interested in politics.' Another producer noted, 'But I know that people
read the Observer just to keep abreast of what we are thinking and what the
people in the magazine are writing.' This staffer makes a distinction
between 'our readers' and others who may read the magazine but not share
its values. In contrast, our readers are more interested in political and
cultural issues and they are politically more liberal. As one former
editor indicated, the Chronicle, the Observer, and the Statesmen in Austin,
Texas all have different audiences. The Observer readers are a small sort
of left liberal progressive group who are interested in left activist
politics, environmental action, and anti-war action. So readers are a
small but noisy group because they tend to be activist, in contrast with
the general public, who are not interested in politics and do not vote in
the elections. The Observer readers are distinguished from the public by
their political activism in the public issues.
Concerning the relationship between their job and the public, as one of
producers stated, 'we are a freer voice and alternative voice or just
another voice for readers.' The Observer is an independent voice or
alternative voice for readers since it covers issues ignored by the
mainstream media. As one previous editor said, 'it contributes
significantly to the public, in being sort of at the bottom of the
journalistic food chain,' and reporting news stories that other papers
might consider insignificant but have really considerable significance. So
the relationship with the public is to report those stories. So in that
way, it contributes significantly to the public.
The Observer also tries to move the state in a progressive direction. As
one producer says,
I think that all the people that work here are committed to social change.
And that is a big part of the history of the Observer, is trying to move
the state in a more progressive direction and that is how we choose our
As indicated in the interview, the role of editors is very important in
deciding the relationship between the public and media producers in the
Observer since the nature of Observer tends to change by different
editors. Some editors put more emphasis on culture rather than political
articles, whereas other editors stress the importance of the political
theme in the magazine.
The Significance of the Observer for the Community
Many Observer readers are politically involved already, and some are
activists. As one former editor said, 'We know we had an active readership
which had to be read by people who are already active in politics, whether
electoral politics on one hand, activist politics, local environmental
politics.' The Observer sees itself as helping to keep that community
informed about what the important issues are in the state today, and what's
going on in different social movements around the state and the nation. As
the graphic designer says, the Observer is 'keeping people updated on
things, issues that are coming up but they may not be aware of, and also
influencing people's opinions.'
The Texas Observer also encourages people to be involved in public issues
by informing them of facts and trends that the readers would otherwise not
find, and alternative viewpoints that are not covered by the mainstream
media. As one previous editor said, 'so our role is to be a very small
gadfly.' In this sense, the Observer provides the readers with insight
into matters which mainstream media glosses over. The magazine offers
counterbalance views to conservative, corporate-dominated politics. It
also offers progressive news on politics in the state.
The Observer sometimes activates the audience to take action on the public
issue. As the development director says,
Well I guess, it educates people to make them want to take action on an
issue, like for instance the drug bust in Tulia.2 There is a lot of
activism that came about because of that story.
It seems that editors at the Observer play the role of
intellectuals/activist communicators organically integrated with the
ordinary people to develop a just social order, in contrast to those
intellectuals integrated with the ruling classes in a society, whose
communicative labors maintain the hegemonic process of capital (Downing
The Observer is also a seed publication which leads the mainstream media in
covering certain issues. The national media, including the New York Times
picked up the Tulia drug bust story later. According to Atton (2002: 12),
it is in the nature of such alternative media to report these emerging
issues at their start, 'since it is in the nature of activism to respond to
social issues as they emerge.'
As a publication that addresses issues that concern progressives in Texas,
the staffers believe the Observer fills a void in Texas. But many
producers hope that the magazine will interest people who wouldn't
characterize themselves as progressives. One previous editor feels that
the Observer chose isolation and a small-time publication instead of trying
to reach out to a wider audience. He feels like that they tend to speak
too much to the same people who already agree with everything they say. In
this sense, he thinks the Observer needs to widen its readership.
Another important role of the Observer is in writing whether political
candidates are good or bad. As one former editor says, 'You can endorse a
candidate without officially endorsing a candidate by just writing articles
about each person. So I think in that sense its function is
important.' The Observer is funded principally through subscriptions. The
Observer has a very limited newsstand sales and very limited advertising
revenue. The other main source is fund-raising, and contributions from
What Attracted the Staffers to the Observer and What do they Do?
Most of the staffers at the Observer got into their work because they liked
the political independence and especially the progressive nature of the
magazine and they shared the magazine's leftist politics. Some became
interested in working there because they liked the nonprofit character of
Some current editors said that the Observer appealed to them because they
could write about issues that they cared about. One editor said that the
Observer is a training ground for him since 'this is a good place to start
writing because they will take inexperienced writers and work with you to
make you a better journalist.' The two former editors have cultivated an
intimate relationship with the Observer for a long time before joining the
Observer staff. One of the staff came to work at the Observer in marketing.
About the production process of the magazine, they noted; the editors play
an important role in the production of the magazine. The editors at the
Observer are responsible for writing, editing and contact with
freelancers. As one former editor said, editors do various kinds of work
such as assigning pieces, editing, writing, paying freelancers, selecting
art, commissioning art. Editors plan stories, and assign articles to
freelancers and other producers respect the editors' decision.
Three editors decide how they are going to get the magazine produced, and
they distribute articles and features among themselves and they also have a
stable of freelance writers to whom they assign articles. The Texas
Observer also invites other liberal independent voices to diversify
opinions of the magazine. The Observer runs the articles of liberals whose
view can further the liberal views of the Observer.
As one current editor says, 'They are just prominent, well-known liberal
Texans who write well about current affairs.' The Texas Observer wants to
be a forum for a progressive voices in Texas. The Observer has a broad
spectrum of writers. The Observer tries to provide in-depth coverage on
topics not covered in other publications. As one editor said, 'we are
asking different questions of the same sources and we are pursuing a story
a bit further than the mainstream media does.'
The Observer's articles sometimes have effected change in the law by the
Legislature. One editor expresses, 'We are not afraid to hide our stories,
my stories about the drug war are always critical and I am not ashamed of
that.' A bill aimed at preventing the drug war was passed by the
Legislature and made law in 2001. This bill requires more than just the
testimony of an undercover agent officer against a defendant in a drug case
(Smith, 2001, b3).
These interviews show how the Observer operates, how it is funded, and how
the producers perceive the relationship between themselves and the
readers. This alternative press tries to include as many voices in the
press such as minorities, legal issues, politics, and cultural themes and
provide a place for new writers who have ideas but don't get their ideas
published. In addition, this alternative press is free of any control by
commercial interests since it is supported by individual donations,
subscriptions, and grants.
In my view, the Observer plays the role of the alternative media since it
provides the readers with alternative viewpoints about the social and
political issues in Texas. Additionally, as an independent liberal press,
the Observer provides the progressive political news in Austin so that the
readers can understand what is happening in the state politics. These
interviews showed that the Observer relies upon subscriptions for
funding. The Observer's source of funding is a small segment of the
readers which is distinguished by its "political orientation." This
interview shows that the producers at the Observer consider their readers
as mostly liberals in the state. The producers also view their readers as
active in their communities by participating in political meetings, and
interested in public issues. Consequently, the Observer tries to include
different voices of the society such as labor issues, social movements in
other states, and national politics.
Another interesting result is that the producers have a different
conception of the public and the audience. Most of the producers
distinguish the general public from their readers who are seen as more
active in political or social issues in Texas. Even though the readers of
the Observer are seen as a subset of the general public, the readers of the
Observer are seen as more active in regional, national politics, and
community issues. This finding is consistent with Eliasoph's study of the
alternative radio station. According to her, the producers at the
alternative radio station view their audiences as active in community
issues and political process.
As Jay Blumler (1996) says, the audience is an institutional construction
and commercial media (most media in the US) treat their audiences as
markets, but that alternative media are able to treat them as 'publics,' as
'social groups' and as 'involved audiences' in his terminology. According
to Blumler's (1996: 100-101) notion of the audience, the audience is
"as a commodity, with viewing as an essentially commercial transaction, in
which all that matters is a "sale" and program content matters only to the
extent that it encourages a sale
as individuals, rather than as members of socially, culturally, or
demographically formed collectivities
as spectators, whose attention-giving or withholding is the key feature of
their relationship to content (in contrast to any other forms of
involvement of meanings they may derive from it)
Alternative media, however, treat their audience as publics who want to
Satisfy shared interests and need an enriched communication experience. As
shown in my research, this alternative press treats their audiences as
social groups and as involved audiences who have similar interests that
communication can serve because of their shared 'characteristics of place,
social class, politics, culture, etc' (McQuail 1987: 222).
These interviews show that the producers at the Observer are all committed
to social change. The interview also shows that the Observer has led the
state's major dailies and national media in covering many stories first
ignored by mainstream outlets. The producers had contacts with the readers
by way of letters, emails, by phones or fundraising parties. Readers'
comments on articles are run in the dialogue section of the magazine. The
graphic designer changed the design of the Observer because of the readers'
comments on the poor appearance of the Observer. The Observer is very
aware of the readers' opinions. The Observer seems to incorporate the
readers' feedback into the production of the magazine.
It is important to note that Observer staff members characterize their
audience accurately in terms of demographics, tastes and ideology, and that
this is different – importantly so – from what the literature on newspaper
and magazine journalists' knowledge of their audience shows (Gans 1979;
Atkin, Burgoon & Burgoon 1983; Dwerth-Pallmeyer 1997). These researchers
argued that communicators do not know their audiences. I think that this
is the important contribution that this study makes to the media studies
Additionally, these interviews show how Observer staffers' knowledge of the
audience might affect how Observer staffers actually do their work. The
Observer primarily puts forth a perspective that is more liberal than
mainstream publications. The Observer's articles are not usually covered
by mainstream media and staffers research their topics a lot. The articles
are informative and of the kind which one does not come across in other
mainstream publications. Additionally, the Observer covers Texas politics
much more in-depth and with a different slant than major news publications
in Texas. The Observer is the best source of information about politics
and the state not readily available in local media and it provides the
readership with political detail information that is usually omitted or not
covered by the mainstream press.
Why do the Observer staffers write the progressive, in-depth, and critical
issues in the state or the nation? The Observer gives its readers a
different perspective on political issues affecting Texas and offers the
more progressive perspective because, in staffers' views, the readership is
thought to enjoy reading the Observer's accurate, in-depth coverage of
political and social issues in Texas, as well as to enjoy reading about
things in Texas not covered in other media outlets. Observer staffers'
accurate knowledge of such audience characteristics as readers'
self-identified ideology, demographics, and readers' political activism
might have led to a liberal perspective in the contents of the Observer.
I speculate on why Observer staffers accurately know their audiences. As
shown in my interviews with Observer staff members, Observer staffers have
direct interactions with their audiences through fundraising parties, other
social functions, and correspondences. Such Observer staffers'
interactions with their audiences might have provided Observer producers
with knowledge of their audiences. As shown in my interviews with Observer
staffers, producers think that the readership considers the Observer as a
great source of alternative news and of political stories not covered by
other media organizations in Texas. Observer staffers expressed that the
readership is mostly liberal, middle-aged, highly educated, and politically
active. Observer staffers' such knowledge of the audience might have
affected how staffers actually perform their work.
Since this is a case study of a small alternative magazine, the study
results cannot be applied to other different kinds of alternative
publications. Therefore, future studies should conduct a multiple-case
study to get a more generalized research results. Although many studies
about alternative media emphasize the relationship between the alternative
media and social movements, few studies investigate how the alternative
media and social movements interact at the beginning of social
movements. Future studies should investigate how this magazine interacts
with social movements. Such studies can show that the alternative media
and community activities are linked in stimulating local community
movements. In other words, future studies should examine how the special
audience media aimed at "focal publics" can activate local social
movements. Such studies can elucidate how social movements at the
beginning stage interact with the alternative media. Future studies should
also examine the local influence of the magazine on social movements, as
well as its relations with other alternative media in engaging the audience
in important social and political issues in the state even in the nation.
The author wishes to thank the Texas Observer for allowing me to interview
the whole staff members, including the former editors.
1. The self-management structure is one where neither political party, nor
union, nor church, nor state, nor publisher is in charge, but where the
press or radio station runs itself (Downing 2001, 9).
2. Observer editor, Nate Blakeslee's article covered a drug raid in the
tiny town of Tulia in the Texas Panhandle, in which nearly 12 percent of
the African-American population was arrested on mere the word of an
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