In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Audience Fragmentation

  • Introduction
  • Background Texts
  • Journals
  • Data Resources
  • Social and Political Stakes
  • Evolution of the Media
  • Content Proliferation and Diversification
  • Audience Activity

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Communication Audience Fragmentation
David Tewksbury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 February 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0009


Fragmentation is a broad term used to describe the transition of a population from one comprised of few large audiences for any one media product to another comprised of more numerous smaller audiences. In general, the number of people in the population attending to products need not change. Rather, fragmentation is assumed to result from a substantial increase in the number of options from which people can choose. It is often assumed that fragmentation involves the creation of audiences that are less internally heterogeneous as they become smaller, but that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, the level of homogeneity of the audience prompts a need for additional terms. Segmentation can be used to describe fragmented audiences that are internally homogenous. Media producers typically find such audiences desirable for the purposes of grouping people for advertisers. As a result, market segmentation is often a term used to describe media outlet strategy. Media outlets are able to segment the audience when (1) they specialize their products to meet the demands of the desired audience and (2) people specialize their outlet and content selection purposefully. Some observers have decided that successful segmentation of a populace results in polarization, the division of people into like-minded groups who share similar knowledge, opinion, or value profiles.

Background Texts

The fragmentation of mass audiences is, by definition, a departure from a more homogenous state of affairs. Specifically, fragmentation is a disruption of a system in which mass media content creates and serves a mass public. Neuman 1986 describes that basic system with a critical eye, setting up the conditions for its weakening and describing some of the stakes for democratic politics. The traditional news system is also nicely described in Bogart 1989, a review of research on the newspaper industry and its audience. Rice, et al. 1984 pivots from the traditional mass media and looks ahead to the coming of interactive video and computer networks. Its predictions and recommendations turned out to very useful for media researchers studying the Internet and multichannel television. These three works set the stage for Negroponte 1995, a description of the technologies possible and probable with the digitization of mediated content. Davis 1999 provides a broad account of the many ways that the Internet may be affecting American politics, audience disruption among them.

  • Bogart, Leo. 1989. Press and public: Who reads what, when, where, and why in American newspapers. 2d ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Most communication researchers suggest that online news resembles the print newspaper most closely among the traditional media. As a result, this comprehensive review of research on the newspaper industry is useful reading for those studying news on the Internet. Of particular use are chapters 3, 4, 5, and 9 describing newspaper audience research.

  • Davis, Richard. 1999. The web of politics: The Internet’s impact on the American political system. New York: Oxford.

    Written just after the dawn of public use of the Web, this book provides a broad review of ways in which the Internet may be used in democratic systems. Useful introduction to ways in which citizens may be audiences and participants online.

  • Negroponte, Nicholas. 1995. Being digital. New York: Knopf.

    Founding director of the notable MIT Media Lab explains the foundations of digital technologies and their potential social effects. The book introduces the term Daily Me in predicting the ubiquity and efficiency of personal filters for news and other information.

  • Neuman, W. Russell. 1986. The paradox of mass politics: Knowledge and opinion in the American electorate. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

    Evaluates the tenability of the mass public concept and considers alternatives to mass politics. For people unfamiliar with the political science approach to citizen competence, there are very useful chapters on popular political sophistication and the role of the media. Some of the considerations suggest a certain inevitability to public fragmentation.

  • Rice, Ronald R., James H. Blair, Milton Chen, John Dimmick, David M. Dozier, Mary Ellen Jacob, Bonnie McDonald Johnson, W. David Penniman, Lynne L. Svenning, Everett M. Rogers, Eric W. Rothenbuhler, John E. Ruchinskas, and Frederick Williams. 1984. The new media: Communication, research, and technology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

    Contains a number of chapters that outline basic contributors to audience fragmentation. Among the most important chapters are those devoted to the evolution of media theory, theories of news reading, and media displacement processes.

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