A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
The highest-quality types of news coverage are increasingly “about elites, for elites,” and everyone suffers as a result.
That’s one of the arguments in professor Nikki Usher’s new book “News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.”
Usher says that the American news media’s changes have to be seen in the context of the country’s political polarization and social inequality. With media outlets chasing subscription dollars over advertising dollars, content and coverage skews toward affluent and urban customers who are willing to pay. Furthermore, she says, “institutional journalism is a White institution. And when audiences are imagined, especially those paying audiences, those audiences are imagined as White.”
So that’s the rich and the White parts of her title — but what about the blue? She said the blue is the most complicated because major newsrooms don’t think of themselves as liberal outlets. “But the people who still trust American journalism are overwhelmingly liberal,” she says. Countless Republicans have tuned out — dropped out — of mainstream media.
So, Usher says, regardless of intent, the type of news that’s rigorously sourced and thoroughly edited, the type that comes with accountability and peer admiration and prize eligibility, is the “news for the rich, White, and blue.”
Usher’s book came out on Tuesday. And she is my guest on this week’s “Reliable Sources” podcast. You can tune into the conversation via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your favorite app.
Place and power
I have known Usher for the better part of a decade. In fact, I was one of the subjects of her first book, a researcher’s point of view inside The New York Times, in 2014. Usher is now an associate professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a senior fellow with the Open Markets Institute, and The Times comes up in her new book, as well. She says the The Times’ “global ambitions” are a “survival strategy” to gain more and more subscribers.
That gets to the “place and power” part of her book’s subtitle. “You’ve got to think about place in terms of geography, but place also in terms of privilege and the kind of experiences that journalists have,” Usher says. “Journalists sitting in New York and D.C. have a really different orientation of what it means to think about the key questions in America.”
Usher, in Illinois, has had a very different experience of the pandemic than I have had in New York. But that’s just one of many examples. Consider how record-breaking heat in the Northwest was covered versus a standard-issue tropical storm along the East Coast.
A trust-in-media “disaster”
In her book, and in our conversation, Usher talks about how journalism perpetuates “existing power structures,” sometimes in ways that discourage readers who are willing to pay up and put capital into newsrooms. On the subject of power, she says there has been “systemic institutional racism that these news organizations have helped to perpetuate, sometimes even in their very own editorial pages.” How can local news outlets regain the trust of citizens who never trusted them in the first place?
Speaking of local news, Usher tries to distinguish between what’s worth saving, like hungry reporters at city council meetings, and what’s not, like greedy owners. She makes the point that tone-deaf national coverage of local issues is a tremendous turn-off: “If national media is the only news media that’s able to survive — and continues to cover places that they have limited familiarity with, in these ways that really ring inauthentic to the people living in them — then you’re sort of setting up an even worse kind of disaster for a media trust.”
All of this relates to a phenomenon that some subscribers to this newsletter have remarked upon: As more and more paywalls protect primary source material and expensive-to-produce news, more casual consumers end up reading regurgitated, aggregated, unsourced, stories instead. Hyper-partisan and hateful content thrives in a world where more costly news is “for” the rich, White, and blue.
There’s still plenty of “free” news available, but “you have to work a lot harder to find the really high-quality news,” as Usher commented to me after the podcast taping.
When there’s a deficit of original news, there’s tons of talking-about-the-news. And no one really benefits except for the talkers and the folks who own the platforms they’re talking on.
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