In an interview with ProMarket, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Nikki Usher discusses how news in the US came to be produced and consumed by elites, why large international outlets like The New York Times increasingly appeal to a global, “placeless” readership, and why this is largely a self-inflicted crisis.

It is hardly a secret that American journalism is experiencing an acute, historic crisis. More than 70 local newspapers have shut down over the past 15 months, and thousands of journalists have been furloughed or laid off. The pandemic only exacerbated the adversities that news organizations have been facing following the rise of the large digital platforms and the collapse of the industry’s business model. According to one estimate, nearly 2,200 newspapers—one in four—have closed in the US since 2005, and newspaper employment shrunk by 42 percent.

To deal with this existential predicament, newspapers—no longer able to earn enough from advertising—shifted to focusing on paying digital subscribers. But the subscription model has its own downside: because American society is deeply divided economically and politically, and because trust in journalism tends to split along economic, regional, and political lines, the readers who are most likely to pay for news are white, affluent liberals. American newspapers today, particularly the ones large enough to have a national or international audience, largely serve this very particular segment of the population, thus mirroring existing cleavages within society and effectively foregoing the long-standing ideal of a free press that ensures the survival of American democracy by maintaining an informed and engaged citizenry. 

This, in short, is the central thesis of Nikki Usher’s new book News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, which explores the implications that “the larger fracturing of the United States around geography, social inequality, and race” has for the news industry. Drawing on a decade of research and fieldwork, Usher highlights not just the damage caused by the rise of digital platforms, but what she describes as a self-inflicted crisis: news in America today is largely consumed by people who tend to be wealthy, white, and reside in a handful of winner-take-all cities where wealth and opportunities are increasingly concentrated, and produced by journalists who tend to share many of the same characteristics. This, in turn, contributes to journalism’s ongoing credibility crisis.

We recently caught up with Usher, an associate professor of journalism in the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (with affiliate appointments in communication and political science) and a senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism and Liberty, for an interview about her book. In her ProMarket interview, Usher discussed how place and privilege came to define America’s news media, the role of Big Tech, and why large international outlets like The New York Times increasingly appeal to a global, “placeless” elite. 

Nikki Usher

[The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity] 

Q: The book’s title seems to suggest that place and privilege have come to define, in a way, mainstream American journalism. Would you agree with that? 

As we think about the evolving news industry, particularly around who gets to be a journalist and where newsrooms have a chance at being financially successful, we see that place and privilege intersect in a very important and critical way in determining the future of journalism. If we’re looking at the so-called “mainstream” news media that includes local and national newspapers, television, radio, and digital-first sites, where you are shapes your worldview and your opportunities, and that implicitly and explicitly shapes how journalists think about stories and how executives think about profit strategies. But place is more than just geography. Place is also conceptual—the place that you occupy in the social structure of the world. 

These issues are not new. But they’re particularly acute and problematic now, and they’re just going to get worse, unless we consciously try to fix them.

Q: We’re used to talking about the crisis of journalism as a function of the rise of Big Tech and the collapse of the business model, or the threat that extremists and would-be-authoritarians pose to freedom of the press. Your book points to a crisis that is largely self-inflicted: the mainstream press is increasingly targeting or catering to a very specific social and economic class—white affluent liberals. Why do you see that as a crisis?

The self-imposed crisis really begins with the local newspaper monopolies presuming that they had the lock on audience attention and local advertisers when, in a changing digital environment, none of that would prove to be the case—so there’s a story of lazy monopoly in here.

But also, we have tremendous asymmetric polarization in this country, and people do not trust the national news media. This trickles down to those sort of mid-level Goldilocks newspapers that I talk about in the book [“not big enough to claim national audiences but still big enough to serve a vital role in the larger national news ecology by being the authoritative voice of a city or region”], but also large national newspapers. The people who believe in the power of local and national media are largely liberal. And so, the strategic way to go about capturing subscriptions—and the survival strategy for newspapers today is all about the digital subscription game—is you need people who are going to pay for news. People who are going to pay for news look a certain way, and when you have traditionally white institutions targeting their imagined audiences, those imagined audiences are white, and they have a certain cultural or actual capital that will make them compelled to buy a subscription. Given the polarization in this country, national opinion polling data suggests that they’re going to be liberals.

That’s a crisis because this isn’t the kind of journalism that serves democracy best. If we believe that news should shed light on power and privilege, or challenge the status quo, the fact that both inside and outside the newsroom you have elites, that the people paying for it are elites, there’s a real imbalance that leads to a twisted version of democracy.

Q: The people who report the news are very often graduates of elite universities as well. So you have news by elites about elites for elites.

Yeah, and that’s deeply problematic. The barriers to entry of becoming a journalist in America today are almost impossible for anybody that doesn’t fit a certain profile to overcome. And that profile is usually somebody who has the financial wherewithal to work in a fragile industry and take unpaid internships; race and class really do intersect here. For journalists of color, the institutional news media is an extremely hostile place to be, and we see increasing evidence of that as journalists speak out.

“the fact that both inside and outside the newsroom you have elites, that the people paying for it are elites, there’s a real imbalance that leads to a twisted version of democracy.”

Q: The book’s discussion of geographic disparities reminded me of Alec MacGillis’s recent book Fulfillment, which is ostensibly a book about the rise of Amazon, but really is about regional inequality—this state where you have immense concentrations of wealth and prosperity and a number of winner-take-all cities, and then there’s the rest of America. Where do you see the role of media in that? 

I agree with MacGillis’s analysis. In the book I talk about Youngstown, Ohio as the first city without a newspaper. It’s a small city, for sure, but the city also failed. The city failed and the newspaper failed. But when you have no advertising base and no subscriber base, how do you expect a newspaper to survive? That is a function of that winner-take-all environment and concentration of wealth. 

Journalists are smart people that want to live in places where there are other smart people and exciting things happen and powerful people reside, and covering the mayor’s race in New York City is just far more interesting to many journalists than covering the small towns of central Illinois. So in some ways, it’s a function of these much larger geographic and social polarizations in the United States, and the increase in inequality.

But New York and DC have been media capitals for a long time. Are they growing more concentrated in terms of raw numbers? Not really. But in terms of cultural power? 950 percent. And when you have people who don’t understand the experiences of people outside the cities, it becomes really hard to see authentic journalism. Increasingly, it’s going to be The New York Times that’s going to cover any kind of political fallout in my community, and they’re not going to know anybody here. They’re not going to be able to provide authentic coverage, even though The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal may be the only newspapers that have enough of an economic base to survive.

Q: This touches on a very big question that is often under-discussed: Who is journalism for? The assumption is that it is for everyone, to maintain an informed public and ultimately serve democracy. But the book suggests that is increasingly not the case.

On one hand, news is more widely available than it ever has been, and there’s lots of free news available to people who want it. The question is what about that is quality journalism. I think that you saw this really break down in Covid: if you compare the kind of Covid information you’re getting on your local TV news, you would get a two-minute soundbite about the number of cases across a whole bunch of different counties, and that might be it. Whereas if you went to your local newspaper, you would find highly detailed coverage about restrictions and trends, and what important people are thinking. The quality of that coverage was just so much better. 

It’s really telling that in the beginning, in the pandemic, those news organizations realized that everybody needed to have access and dropped their paywalls. And then those paywalls went back up. That’s a really clear indication of how inequality affects news and information. We’ve long seen this trend, but it accelerates and it’s worsened. 

Q: Most journalists don’t see themselves as catering to a specific social class or a certain demographic. How do you explain this disparity between how journalists perceive their role in society and the way that the media actually functions?

I think you’re talking about white journalists, because if you think about prominent journalists of color in the United States, they are increasingly loud and vocal that journalists don’t serve democracy and journalism reinforces the status quo. You’re even starting to see a little bit of a recognition within the largest news organizations themselves that sometimes they don’t do a good job serving democracy. There’s been reckonings by the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer editor-in-chief had to quit the job after the “buildings matter too” column headline. But journalists operate under a delusion that they’re the unelected representatives of democracy and have this mythical understanding of what they do. Most journalists go into journalism because they want to challenge power, and yet what they end up doing is actually reproducing it. Who the news is for is often who the news is by. 

Q: What I found quite fascinating about this is also that it’s not necessarily ideological affiliation—i.e., journalists are liberal so the newspapers are liberal. It’s also a smart business strategy: you aim for the people who can and are willing to pay.

Right, but let’s be clear—we don’t have great data on journalists’ individual political persuasions, though we can infer them (which is dangerous), but if we look at most newspapers in the US, yes, even The New York Times, they really embrace the status quo and reify existing power conditions of the US, which is not what you’d expect of the “liberal news media.” Going back to that geographic inequality, as those local newspapers disappear, some of those more local authentic voices that may represent county-level political norms disappear, and then what’s left? You’ve got hyperpartisan talk radio, and you’ve got national news media, and you’ve got conglomerated local television. That builds a real sense of disconnect. And so the survival strategy is to serve a particular audience, because digital subscriptions are the only way that newspapers are going to survive, especially given the twisted logic of digital ad markets and the growth of Big Tech in seizing all forms of advertising. You have to have people who recognize the value of paying for news. Well, who are those people?

Q: You write in the book about the placelessness of global elites, pointing to The New York Times as an example of a newspaper that really thrives by targeting this interconnected global class of elites. Can you elaborate on the role that this placelessness has in our current media ecosystem?

I have this metaphor of the “placeless guy,” this person who has so much cultural capital and actual capital that their physical experience in the world really doesn’t change that much as they go from one capital to another, drinking the same delicious Manhattan made with the same delicious bourbon. Their circumstances don’t change wherever they are, and their interests are so above any one geographic location, because they care about the flow of financial markets and capital and the changing balances of larger geopolitical power dynamics. 

The New York Times has always served an elite. The Times also recognizes they’re not going to get digital advertising abroad—the restrictions are growing even stronger in terms of collecting private data—so the only strategy for them is to continue to expand their subscriber base; there are only so many people in the United States that will subscribe to The New York Times—ultimately, it’s a very specific, limited market. And so you have to go beyond borders, to get somebody who fits that profile but doesn’t live in the States.

Q: As you point out, though, journalism in America has always served elites or the status quo. That was the main argument of Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and you quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1971, talking about journalism being “a profession attractive to elites.” How is today different?

Look, since 2004, we’ve seen 1800 newspapers close. And in the past five years, we have seen such a tremendous consolidation that one-sixth of daily American newspapers are controlled by one company. And that’s before the GateHouse-Gannett merger. And the Chicago Tribune—the most important newspaper in the state of Illinois—was bought by hedge funds. I’ve been talking to local politicians, they don’t know what ProPublica is, or don’t at least invoke it as an institution to be reckoned with (oh, they’re wrong!). The Chicago Tribune still is a tremendous force in the state, and now it’s being gutted. That’s really terrifying to think about.

On the other side of it, this turn towards paying for news has never been more disparate. And even [The New York Times executive editor] Dean Baquet himself says that 98 percent of Americans want to have access to this news. I think it’s really hard for people outside our social class to realize that most people don’t have Slate articles on their Facebook or Twitter feed constantly. In that way, news exposure mirrors inequality.

“Who the news is for is often who the news is by.”

Q: Earlier, you touched on the role of digital platforms. You write a lot about the impact of platforms funding journalism, whether through philanthropy or partnerships with news organizations. You also participated in a new Columbia University Press anthology on Media Capture [edited by Anya Schiffrin]. One of the things that happened during the past decade or so is that large digital platforms have also donated a lot of money to journalism research. Do you worry about academic capture?

Entirely. I am deeply concerned that I’m using Facebook’s CrowdTangle to gather data, as that is my only option to do the kind of monitoring I’m doing. While I personally refuse to accept money from Big Tech, I know that ultimately hurts my capacity to scale research. But even just using software from Big Tech ropes you into their system—I get emails about Facebook trainings, links to all the “great new” research being done by researchers using Facebook. Other people probably just don’t want to knock a gift horse in the mouth, as it were, but if you are going to critique Big Tech, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.

Q: You write in the book, “what scares me most is not the market failure of newspaper journalism but the well-intentioned solutions that, if poorly executed, threaten to further undermine trust in quality journalism,” like news philanthropy. What scares you about journalistic philanthropy?

Philanthropists have their pet causes, and pet causes change. News might just be a pet cause in the wake of 2016, or people seeing their hometown newspaper bought, but that can change. People have millions and millions of dollars to give away, the wealth is largely concentrated on the coasts, and you have money coming from the outside to create media organizations. My goodness, talk about elites!

Q: One of the things you advocate for is a return to the party-funded press of the 19th-century. Why? 

If we could go back to the 1800s to 1820s, we would have no funding issue, because the Democratic Party would be funding local media in every precinct, and the Republican party would be funding local media in every precinct, and not all of it would be psychotically out of touch with reality. If there were a local Democratic Party press in central Illinois that was covering social justice, for instance, you would get far more people paying attention to that than subscribing to my local newspaper, which has a very white power center. I think that this is the only sustainable model for local news: local commercial media as a party-funded press. I know I am pushing a radical, very different approach, but I’m going stand by it, because that’s what you get to do in academia.