University of Illinois Associate Professor Nikki Usher is an expert on news production in the shifting digital environment — a hot topic, growing more pressing amid distrust and inequity. Her latest work News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism explores how the news industry got to this place and how it can achieve a more equitable future.
Recently, I caught up with Usher to find out more about trends in news, how the ACP types aided her research, and her recommendations for making journalism better.
Ari Pinkus: Why and how is news skewed to “the rich, white, and blue”?
Nikki Usher: Well, to some extent news has long been skewed to the rich and white — those are audiences that have long been desirable to sell to advertisers (we forget that news outlets are really reselling audience attention to advertisers).
Now that the digital ad model has collapsed, we’ve got a situation where revenue has to come from readers. That means digital subscriptions or memberships — and the news (or at least high-quality news) becomes limited to those who can/will pay/realize the social value of paying for news, and reifies existing problems with the presumption of white audiences as the main customers.
Newsrooms, too, are increasingly struggling with diversity, as it becomes more and more financially precarious to take the risk of becoming a journalist — and that has a downstream impact for coverage.
The blue part, well, that’s the part that’s maybe most depressing: the vast majority of people who still trust the news media — or the news media as anyone on this site might define it — well, they’re blue — democrats. This is just the reality of the mainstream news media’s audience. These audiences remain the ones willing to pay, especially for subscriptions to midsize and national news outlets.
Pinkus: How have media outlets become out of touch with the democracy they are supposed to serve?
Usher: The biggest news outlets with the biggest national news audiences are those most likely to survive. There aren’t that many, so you might think: New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and some digital-first outlets, maybe.
This has two consequences: These large outlets are simply not embedded in communities — and to work at them, you have to be top of the line or seen as such, which often involves having elite credentialing. This means that the type of people in newsrooms, the type of places they are from or see themselves as belonging to, well, they simply are disconnected from a lot of what we see in rural or multicultural places in the U.S.
When it comes to newspapers, which have long provided the most original coverage about any one place, we see significant cutbacks in many, many communities — so journalists are literally growing geographically farther from people and there are fewer to cover bigger expanses of geography. There’s a physical distancing, too, and that compounds cultural, political, and social distancing. I was able to figure this out in part because I was more interested in the types of places that were losing news versus just the geographic or political orientation of places losing news.
Pinkus: How did the American Communities Project typology help you in your research?
Usher: I used the ACP typology for two chapters in the book — and I can’t imagine thinking about the loss of news and the potential for rehabilitating local news without thinking about the types of communities that are losing news.
What ACP’s typology offers is a way to think about places that is tangible and evocative and methodologically discrete enough to stand up to peer review. The cluster analysis is not just demographic, it also includes marketing data, which to me, makes it much closer to how life is lived versus a county of people in a place. When you say African American South or Exurbs, the places and your imaginaries of them are immediately evident — and that makes America into more than just blue and red, rural or urban, coastal/heartland.
When you mix in other data, like Bureau of Labor Statistics data on newspaper employment per county or the UNC News Desert data set, all of a sudden, the trends become so much more visible — you can imagine in your head what it might mean, for instance, when Rural Middle America experiences a contraction in local news and imagine these places and these scenarios in your head (particularly if you’ve been in places that map on to the typologies).
So for one chapter, we looked at where so-called news deserts were, what political leans they had, and whether journalists were indeed further concentrating in big, blue cities, which ACP calls, conveniently, “Big Cities.”
In another chapter, we looked at where flows of nonprofit philanthropic dollars for investigative journalism were going — were they going to places that had a deficit of news coverage relative to their population? Were these dollars flowing more to one community type versus another? Was there evidence that philanthropy for journalism was just going to end up reproducing the same inequities and exacerbating the same problems that the commercial news media had created and fostered?
Pinkus: What surprised you most in your findings?
Usher: This book felt like a journey of discovery, so I wouldn’t say there was just one finding that surprised me.
But when it comes to what the ACP data helped me see: well, first, there are places that have simply always been so-called news deserts. Some places — some community types — have just been historically overlooked and underinvested by the commercial news media. I mean, this is a central point to the book, so it was helpful to say, you know, the Native American Lands, the African American South, and Working Class Country have not (by our data) had many journalists working in them to begin with, so they were already “news deserts” even before major contractions in the news industry.
I was also surprised to find that when you look within-industry trends for journalism that Republican counties have more journalists relative to Democratic counties — it’s not a story of red, rural America losing the news, it’s a story of some places never having had much news, and places all over losing journalism.
I was not surprised, but a little disturbed in fact, to find that most of the nonprofit dollars flowing to investigative journalism were going to big blue cities and college towns — big city foundations giving to places that they were already familiar with. That was even more of an indication to me that there were really problematic trends in the political economy of the news media, or how the money and the power flow when it comes to making sure that people have access to news and information that gives them a sense of place and a stake in democratic life.
Pinkus: What does the local news landscape look like today?
Usher: It depends where you are and it depends what it means to be local. Many places with solid resources — wealth, educated populations, a strong sense of civic efficacy or community — those places may be losing legacy news media, but they are replacing them in many cases with some really fantastic digital-first efforts, from small-town blogs to what I’ve been seeing in Chicago, which are locally-focused, service-minded digital first outlets dedicated to serving specific communities with news that they need to navigate daily life.
In other places, there are these weekly local newspapers that were never “hard news” to begin with, and often quite conservative, actually, and those are struggling to survive. They simply can’t keep up with fast-moving information needs (consider Covid-19) and the advertising base in many rural areas is simply, well, Graying America, Aging Farmland — let’s just say these places are losing people and losing businesses, too. There’s no advertising base, a limited population to serve, and people need more on-demand news.
That’s where platforms like Facebook come in — serving as a place for people to seek out information not just about the country but about where they live, and community news pages have become the front page, home page, and bulletin board for many local communities. This is a real problem, because Facebook is NOT a company that prioritizes democracy, it prioritizes profit.
Pinkus: Where do you see it heading?
Usher: This is a great question. The darkest version of the outcome: the New York Times, the WSJ, and the Washington Post are the only daily newspapers left standing, and have dispensed reporters to places that have limited local news to meet a need of would-be local news subscribers.
These journalists would be coming from the big cities with limited local knowledge but lots of journalism chops, and other than local television news, which is nominally local, and public media, which is chronically under-resourced, that might be all we have.
Or, we end up moving past the idea that journalism needs to look like journalism, a professional product — and unbundle journalism — some local institutions can provide news, but journalists can dedicate their efforts to the unique contributions that only journalists can make (probably accountability journalism).
Pinkus: What are your recommendations for how journalism can better reflect and address the diversity of issues and readers across the country?
Usher: First, I think we need to diversify and empower journalists from historically marginalized groups — BIPOC, Rural America, and so forth.
If we are going to have a partisan media environment, we might as well lean into it — and maybe we should encourage partisan original news gathering (heresy, I know) — and perhaps even party donor-based news, which definitely is happening on the Right.
I think we need to seriously think about how to reform higher education in ways that diversify all industries but would diversify journalism, too — change student federal work study to include participation on college campus publications or college internships at public media on university campuses, make working for nonprofit journalism outlets clearly part of student financial aid relief, and provide meaningful salaries with health insurance rather than scattered fellowships to people from historically marginalized groups.