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Bearers of bad news

Journalism scholar Nikki Usher believes American journalism is hopelessly dependent on the liberal elite

My first job was a paper route. Each morning I’d wake before dawn to the thump of papers on the porch, then I’d kneel on the living room carpet to roll up each copy, reading the headlines as I went. Some were local, others national, but the news always felt important. Rolling through our California subdivision — on a bike or the open tailgate of our family Suburban — I practiced tossing papers close to each door, and safe from bushes or sprinklers. In my own small way, I felt I was helping my neighbors to stay informed and prepared to engage in our democracy. Back then, few would have argued the point.

Those memories make today’s reality more poignant. American journalism is in crisis. The economics are grim, driven by the failure of ad revenue, the demise of print and the dramatic reinvention of the information marketplace. As newspapers have lost money — an estimated $35 billion in advertising revenue from 2006 to 2018 — they’ve cut newsroom jobs in half, gutting the ability to uncover news and tell compelling stories. And now even local papers find themselves competing for attention with behemoths like The New York Times and CNN, but also Netflix and Instagram. It’s a losing battle, but even more tragic is the crisis of trust.

In her recent book, “News for the Rich, White, and Blue,” author Nikki Usher examines an industry that has lost touch with the country it serves. She describes a 2016 “lobster and scotch” party at The Washington Post, celebrating the paper’s move to K Street — known for its concentration of political lobbyists — under a new owner, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos. That image of beltway reporters in power suits contrasts as sharply with the demographics of smaller newsrooms as it does with the rest of the American landscape, but Usher finds her counterpoint in upstate New York, where Trump signs and book sales herald an impending election victory that her friends in the media couldn’t see coming.

As cries of “fake news” spread, Usher saw something different in the growing segment of Americans who don’t trust the media or see themselves in its coverage. A self-described “failed reporter” — despite stints at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune — she, too, mourned what had been lost. Now an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she set out to deconstruct the forces that have reduced the fourth estate to a partisan chess piece.

Usher recently discussed the resulting book in an interview with Deseret Magazine.

Deseret: Why do you think journalism is worth studying and writing books about?

Nikki Usher: News frames the way that many of us understand the world. Even when a citizen journalist is entering the scene, they’re doing so with an idea of what’s important to share. Studying the media tells us about our culture and its challenges, its limitations and its systems of power. I can’t think of anything more important than studying who sets the terms of how we understand reality.

Deseret: Tell us how you got here after your past life as a journalist.

NU: I was working as a reporter during the birth of wifi and the mobile web and became interested in the way technology shapes journalism and vice versa. There was a lot of uncertainty, and I wanted to figure out what we could do to make the news industry more economically sustainable.

In 2010, I started my first book. For six months I went into The New York Times and watched people work, as the publication went from being a print-focused outlet to a digital one. For my second book, I focused on the rise of hacker journalism and data journalism.

These days, I’m thinking more about politics and inequality and how they’re related to journalism. Because as this crisis has gone on, it’s become clear that some people in certain places have been more affected than others, and that tends to track along structural inequalities across race and geography.

Deseret: What sparked your interest in this current line of research?

NU: In the fall of 2016 I started noticing support for Donald Trump in areas that weren’t particularly red. I noticed signs for Trump on a drive to upstate New York, and at the airport his books were outselling Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. I kept trying to tell friends who were national journalists that something was wrong, that the polling numbers might not be accurate. When Trump won the election, the situation came into full relief, and it showed that where you’re geographically situated could impact the kind of journalism you produce.

Deseret: How does the concentration of journalists in places like New York influence the stories that get told?

NU: In the media industry, a lot of people have hopes and dreams that center around working in big cities. You’ve reached a major goal if you’ve ended up in New York, D.C. or Los Angeles.

When I lived in D.C., if I hadn’t kept up with the news in the last two hours, then I couldn’t keep up with the jokes people were making. The people who surround you shape what you think is important, and they shape the decisions journalists make. This is important for two reasons. First, attention to national news media has grown. Some people pay more attention to national news than to local news, and that’s been spurred partially because of the popularization of cable television. The other side of that is the decline of local journalism. The newspapers that used to chronicle community life have become increasingly less demanded by audiences and less vibrant. The ones that end up surviving are these large national news organizations. If we want to get hold of the underlying issues causing distrust in journalism, we need to have conversations about this, because otherwise the division is going to get worse.

Deseret: Why do these changes in the media ecosystem lead to news speaking more to wealthy, white liberals?

Usher: The ad-supported revenue model is broken. If you can’t turn to ads, you have to turn to readers, and certain demographics are more likely to subscribe. One group might subscribe to local news because they feel it’s a civic duty, and another class of cultural elites that tend to cluster in cities are willing to subscribe and pay for high-quality national news like The New York Times or The Washington Post. You need to get the market that’s going to pay and double down on that focus. You’re going to really think about pleasing those people, and you’re creating bait for your subscriber base.

At the Chicago Tribune, for example, there’s outsized coverage of high school football teams in wealthy, white suburbs. That distorts things. There’s also a huge group of people who are not going to be invested and are not going to support institutional journalism. The people that distrust the media are overwhelmingly concentrated in red, rural places. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that 11% of Republicans trust the news media whereas 68% of Democrats say they trust the news.

Deseret: Is there something that the news industry could have done differently? What can we do to fix it?

Usher: The biggest mistake was presuming that local news organizations had a hold on local audience attention. There were also a lot of assumptions about what audience behavior would look like in a digital environment. We can’t do anything about that. But the digital ads ecosystem is problematic because it favors large tech companies, like Google and Facebook, that not only control the pipes to get ads to people, but also the data on consumers. We can’t put everything back to the way it was, but meaningful data privacy and antitrust laws might be the best way to at least level the playing field a little bit. These solutions also don’t rely on government subsidies, or rich people giving money to newspapers.

Deseret: What are the downsides to having the wealthy or the government support journalism?

Usher: Dependency on government funding is a dangerous way to go because it quickly becomes political. With philanthropy, it depends on the individuals’ investment philosophies and the interests of the donor class. When we look at philanthropy funding, almost none of it flows to local journalism, specifically reporting that focuses on the poor. A lot of it funds coverage of the environment and health, and investigative journalism. But the same problems that are built into elite journalism are tenfold here. We’re talking about the elites making decisions about what we want to invest in.

Deseret: In the book, you write about the trouble with bundled news. Tell us more about that.

Usher: Bundling is when you have to buy an entire product to get the one thing you wanted. So you’d have to buy the entire newspaper to get the sports section, or watch a 30-minute local news program to see that one image of your kid. Now we can get the stories we want on demand because the internet unbundled the news.

Journalism covers a lot of different areas. Are there areas where we don’t need professional journalists? In Chicago, an outlet called City Bureau trains people to cover meetings. Citizens learn to take notes, and then those are filtered to reporters. That way, journalists don’t have to focus on incremental coverage, like attending every school board meeting. We just don’t need them for that anymore, not with archived livestreams. If we can disaggregate the functions of journalism, it may be easier to support the more costly functions, like investigative journalism. And if that’s what we care most about, then philanthropy may be enough.

Deseret: Objectivity is starting to look like a lost art. Or was it always a myth?

Usher: Journalists assert their superiority when they say they’re being objective and claim they’re able to stand back and take assessments without their own experiences getting in the way. They’re saying there’s something special about their unique ability to do that, when in fact, journalists are like everybody else.

Objectivity and neutrality are often conflated, and that neutrality creates a sort of “both-siderism” which makes it harder for people to understand what they’re supposed to take away from the content. It also makes it seem like journalists are hiding something. People want to know what team journalists are on, and it’s kind of suspect that we don’t know, that they pretend not to be on a team.

The other critique is that objectivity proceeds from a white default position, because anybody with a marginalized identity can’t just enter a scene and not have who they are shape how people are going to talk to them, or how they’re going to experience what they’re seeing. It’s very different for a Black journalist covering Black Lives Matter knowing that a police victim could have been them, or a close relative or their kid, versus a white journalist who has never had to worry about being pulled over.

Deseret: So what’s the path forward for journalism?

Usher: Nobody’s ever agreed on everything, and we want people to be skeptical of information. We need to recognize that people are making decisions based on their identities, and that they aren’t necessarily the rational, critical actors participating in the public sphere that economists and political scientists would like to believe they are. They’re humans with feelings. The danger is that people who are different, particularly politically, now have an antipathy towards each other. We need to think about why that’s happening, and whether we can fix that in some way. Or, we just have to accept the reality that half our audience doesn’t trust the news media and figure out how we can proceed differently.

This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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