- Joshua A. BraunJoshua A. BraunDepartment of Journalism, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Media distribution plays a key role in defining publics by determining which groups are able to access and share news. Put more broadly, decisions about how content circulates, whether they are made by corporations, platforms, street vendors, or file sharers, are central to the question of who has access to cultural resources and on what terms. This is significant for scholars of journalism insofar as a central concern of journalism studies is the role that news media play in public life. As media distribution has become increasingly dependent on digital intermediaries like search engines and social media, responsibility for media circulation has become an increasingly significant aspect of news work, shifting journalistic routines in the process. Though journalism studies researchers have typically paid less attention to distribution than to news production, news content, and audience reception, the disruptive changes wrought by the widespread adoption of digital media have begun to inspire renewed interest in distribution across media industry studies. And while various industries and regulatory regimes define distribution differently, it is important for scholarship on distribution to forge its own conception of the subject matter, both to avoid industry capture and to grapple with a changing media landscape in which formerly distinct professional boundaries between distribution and other media practices like production and marketing are rapidly blurring and shifting.
A variety of scholars have argued that news distribution plays an important role in creating the imaginaries that sustain public life by enabling the conceit that media are addressed to the same audience over an extended period of time. It is true, too, that distribution networks can sow social divisions by extending the reach of messages and images beyond their intended contexts. The impact of the Internet on these dynamics has drawn a great deal of attention.
Distribution platforms—even digital ones—should also be understood as having material underpinnings that can constrain their form and functionality, and arguably favor particular organizational forms. The resulting dynamics can dramatically impact news providers’ access to distribution networks and, by extension, audiences. This is true for physical distribution networks and also, mutatis mutandis, in online space, where news providers have become highly dependent on a small set of companies—Google, Facebook, and their ilk—for access to audiences. At the same time, many media organizations pay substantial amounts to vendors for access to white-label technologies and infrastructures to maintain their own distribution channels.
The changing distribution landscape has led to changes in production dynamics at news organizations. In particular, the online advertising industry has now built its own distribution systems for ads, fundamentally changing the relationship between advertisers and the commercial news organizations on which they once relied for access to consumers. This, in turn, has led to changes in editorial logics at many news organizations aimed at preserving rapidly diminishing advertising revenues. Simultaneously, news distribution has become an increasing part of the work that goes on in news rooms, as optimizing the news for circulation via search and social media has become an editorial responsibility. These changes across media industries have generated a surge of interest in media distribution within academia.