Nikki Usher’s latest book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, examines the current state of journalism in the U.S. through lenses of place, power, and inequality. It relies on over a decade of Dr. Usher’s own field research to demonstrate how elitism, large tech corporations like Google and Facebook, and digital advertising have had an unprecedented impact on journalism’s current economic model, and how access to quality journalism has declined as a result. It also includes recommendations for keeping journalism relevant to a diverse set of readers.
In addition to News for the Rich, White, and Blue (2021), Dr. Usher is also the author of Making News at the New York Times (2014), Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data and Code (2016). With Valérie Bélair-Gagnon she is also co-editor of the book Journalism Research That Matters (2021). She is an associate professor in the College of Media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with affiliate appointments in political science and communication.
We asked Dr. Usher about her recommendations for reimagining the field, the journalistic meaning of the word “elite”, and efforts to increase newsroom diversity, among other things.
Q) In your earlier work, Making News at The New York Times, you also raised concerns about how journalist practices were increasingly drifting further and further away from engagements with its readers. How does your new book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, expand upon or differ from this earlier observation?
Making News at The New York Times really tried to grapple with a particular moment – the newspaper in the English speaking world’s shift to digital-first journalism. At the time, I actually thought that the big problem might be that journalists cared more about their particular personal brands than they did genuine engagement, and now, because of how toxic the internet has become, it’s clear only some journalists are able to capitalize on social media to build a brand. News for the Rich, White, and Blue takes a different and perhaps even darker turn — because of what’s happening to the news industry’s financial model (particularly newspapers) — only certain, paying audiences matter. This means that news organizations are working extra hard to create special experiences, coverage, and inducements to subscribe for those they deem willing to do so — which generally tracks with income and liberal partisan leans, and because of the enduring whiteness of these newsrooms and the intersectionality of race and class, prioritize white audiences.
Q) For more than a decade, there have been several works published related to ‘reimagining’ or ‘reconstructing’ journalism in the face of digital disruption and delocalization, what recommendations does your book offer?
I hope that News for the Rich, White, and Blue becomes a revolutionary rallying cry of a very different sort. I argue that we need to reform the financial aid model in higher ed if we want to help change who gets to be a journalist and finally break the unpaid internship con. I also argue that partisan journalism – or even a return to a local party press (akin to the 1800s-1820s) could actually reinvigorate and provide a new financial backing for news. The DNCC and democrat donors need to step it up if they want to compete with local right-wing hyperpartisan digital journalism and entrenched local and national GOP talk radio. I also have more of a “let it burn” philosophy – I want people to see that some of these formidable news institutions are embedded in a status quo that reinforces existing power hierarchies (see the “cops” beat for case in point, or murder coverage of Black Americans vs. white ones) – and so “saving the news” and “saving newspapers” is not always about saving some higher-order democratic good. Just because there’s local news doesn’t mean it serves the needs of representative democracy.
Q) While accusations of “elite” and “liberal” media have recently become popular tag lines for conservative media outlets interested in criticizing or challenging reporting from outlets like The New York Times, writings related to “elite” or “elitist” journalism have a long and distinctive history within journalism studies. What do you mean when you write that news outlets, like The New York Times, are growing more elite?
Well, The New York Times has always aimed to be a cut above the rest (although it’s important to note that Adolph Ochs’ 1896 declaration of principles had a partisan platform tacked onto the end in favor of tariffs and low taxes). But here’s the thing: The Times at least owns the fact that it is trying to be a newspaper for the global elite – the class of decision-makers, those who are interested in understanding the complexity of the world, and those who see themselves as connoisseurs of arts and culture. But here’s the flipside: digitization of news and information, the rise of paywalls, and the algorithmic curation of news content — well, that worsens the haves and have nots of those who have access to news and information. Most of us reading this blog cannot imagine a day going by without some accidental brush with quality news and information- our friends post links to articles, podcasts, and video clips from high-quality outlets. We can navigate around paywalls (and want to) or otherwise have the spare cash to pay. But here’s my favorite factoid that also applies here in the US: the Reuters Institute found that the inequality in access to online news and information in the UK was worse than the UK’s overall social inequality. That should make us stop and think.
Q) How do efforts toward increasing newsroom diversity intersect with your findings? And why do you think it’s important for people to also understand how inequities of power also reside within the reporting routines and conventions that underlie journalistic reporting (i.e. how news is selected) at legacy news outlets?
I remain deeply concerned about efforts at increasing newsroom diversity. If the historical record tells us anything, it’s that newsrooms have seen the need to increase diversity for more than 40 years. And yet, in many places around the country, the proportions of white journalists relative to the cities they cover is — well, deeply problematic (this Pudding interactive offers a quick overview). The LA Times, which may well be the leader in terms of large legacy newsrooms trying to diversify, has a record of making an effort, noticeably improving, and then, somehow, seeing those numbers and positions of power diminish. Journalists are notably concerned that the promises made will not be kept. But here’s the thing: when journalists resist saying they have a viewpoint, it is because they can approach a subject without worrying about their own livelihoods being compromised by the institutions that they cover. Wesley Lowery, who blurbed the book, has written about being Black while doing journalism, and how this is incompatible with the standard “white” take on objectivity. But until journalists from historically marginalized communities are empowered (as well as those historically marginalized in newsrooms, like veterans and yes, both avowed conservatives and socialists alike) and until we see a new generation at the helm of leadership, I don’t believe we’ll see much change.
Q) What’s the most important thing you hope people will take away from your research?
News organizations themselves are part of the problem — the actions that reputable, quality news organizations take to remain financially sustainable are stop-gap solutions that undermine equity and access to journalism, to inclusive newsrooms, and to authentic, informed coverage of communities that lack power.
You can purchase the book on Columbia University Press’s main site and get 40% off with the AUTH discount code.