Dr. Nikki Usher, associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, has spent many years conducting research and fieldwork in newsrooms across the United States. Her latest book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, takes a look at the changed print news media landscape, and considers the ways in which news media has become increasingly exclusive — for the wealthy, white, and politically liberal. It’s a book that straddles the line of academic text and something accessible to the general public, which is to say, you don’t need to be a student of journalism or media studies to meaningfully engage with it. If you are a scholar of journalism or media studies, then you might be pleased to read a thoughtful, unpretentious take on the state of contemporary news media.
I learned a lot reading News for the Rich, White, and Blue; Usher does an excellent job of identifying, articulating, and explaining many of the weird, intangible, and disappointing feelings I often have when actively consuming the news. Who is this for? Why did the newspaper and journalist choose to cover this story, in this way, at this time? Am I the target audience? Is this just affirming my already held beliefs about something? Is there any way out of this mess?
I recently spoke with Usher about her book (you can find it here); you can read our interview below. If you want to hear more from her and her research, check out her reading at 9 p.m. Saturday, September 25th during PYGMALION’s Literary Marathon at Analog Wine Bar.
Smile Politely: Can you give Smile Politely readers a brief overview of how you arrived at the topics covered in News for the Rich, White, and Blue?
Nikki Usher: In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I was in DC working at George Washington University. It struck me that there was something terribly out of touch with national news media to miss the groundswell of right-wing populism that had happened — in some cases just 30 miles from the Capitol. I wanted to know what had caused these blind spots. And it became clear to me that the story was not just about journalism, but about larger shifts in equality and opportunity across race, class, and geography that were also happening within the news media itself. I’m really writing against the narrative that accepts that journalism is above reproach and holds power to account — because so often, journalism has upheld (and continues to) a white power structure and maintained the status quo. If journalism is for democracy, I guess the past four years have really required a deep rethinking about who is included in this vision of democracy.
SP: In your book you write about subscriber funding as a key component of fiscal solvency, but that doesn't necessarily equate to the readership having influence. Can you briefly describe why that is?
Usher: So subscriber funding matters to most local news outlets (hyper local outlets like Smile Politely fall into a different category) in part because the digital advertising model is so broken and thus, news outlets depend on people who are willing to pay. But only some people in any one area are willing to pay for journalism [it’s always been that way…not everyone subscribed to the local newspaper] and this distorts the way that journalists think about what should be news: what appeals to that small population of subscribers we’re depending on to keep the lights on. One recent commentator called it “subscriber bait” rather than “click bait” — more money exacted from fewer readers. So the general readership really doesn’t have much power unless they’re all paying; and the less defined an audience, the less that advertisers are willing to pay to advertise against it.
SP: If newspapers are increasingly becoming media for the wealthy, the white, and the politically progressive, how does that explain how and why so many are so politically conservative?
Usher: Oh Jessica! This is a huge question. Media is only one aspect of social identity, but arguably, media, including news media, is not about information but about identity. Increasingly, we see Republicans and Democrats living in different news bubbles and there is a tremendous imbalance (we call it asymmetric polarization in the academy) in how much more Republicans distrust the mainstream news media. What’s interesting to me, though, is that most local media in the Heartland, like in C-U, are far more conservative than the so-called national liberal media. I’m not sure what to make of this given the trust differential, as people tend to trust their local news outlets more, and local news outlets with homegrown talent probably reflect community values more, building trust for that outlet. But, simply put, people shape the news media and the news media shapes us — so much of what we know about the world outside our own experiences comes from what we see in the media (including journalism).
SP: Many of the arguments in your book focus primarily on what you call "Goldilocks" newspapers — those that are mid-sized, serving smaller metro areas and the surrounding region. Do you consider Chicago's newspapers Goldilocks-sized? How do you see news production and distribution affecting us here in Champaign County/Central Illinois?
Usher: We’re in a weird spot — in part because of the Champaign-Urbana community. This is a highly educated place within a rural/non-metro region, which does make the market a bit weird. However, it’s hard to imagine the community home to the University of Illinois as a “news desert.” So I tend to think that commercial news media, especially newspapers, are really threatened — and the love/hate relationship that many have in this community for the [News-Gazette] isn’t the kind of deep loyalty that I think would be needed in the long term.
So, let’s say we woke up and all the big commercial legacy media in C-U had disappeared or something. What would happen? Well, [Illinois Public Media] is one of the oldest public media stations in the country and it’s hard to imagine the University or the community letting that tradition down. Plus, there are so many smart and engaged people living here that have come up with ways to produce news and information that isn’t traditional legacy media: Smile Politely, ChambanaMoms.com, Champaign Showers, even that Southwest Champaign monthly glossy. And yes, Spotted in Chambana is an important resource. The journalism department at UIUC is already doing incredible stuff with CU Citizen-Access and the affiliated Midwest Center for Investigative Journalism. Some of this isn’t traditional journalism at all, but it’s going to fill important information gaps — I do feel that is likely. We’d be okay.
SP: What's your assessment of the state of our news media/landscape here in Champaign County?
Usher: You know, the last chapter in my book is inspired by local media leaders in C-U. It’s all about news resilience, or the factors that might make a difference in making a community more or less able to withstand the loss of legacy local media. So, this relates to the previous question, but legacy media in college towns does collapse — it happened in Ann Arbor, and television stations aren’t always so local. The big question is: Are there noncommercial and non-legacy alternatives to fill that gap? Absolutely.
SP: I think some people were hopeful that the sale of The News-Gazette would mean a loosening of the conservative stranglehold on the content they publish, but that doesn't seem to be the case. How, in such a "blue" area, can The N-G can still continue to publish the way and what it does? What gives?
Usher: So remember we’re not a true-blue area. The two congressional reps that represent this region are both Republicans. Champaign and Urbana, proper, are, but even Champaign itself is politically mixed — you just have to drive around to see the Back the Blue and Blue Lives Matter and Trump 2024 in this city to know that. The N-G’s target audience is old, conservative Champaign-Urbana and outlying more rural towns. Older people still subscribe to print newspapers. (Separately, I don’t think the 2020 presidential vote share and even municipal wins really get to the underlying dynamics of the county — was this blue or was this no, please no more Trump?). I think there was a moment of “woke” with the mug shots and the series on Black civic leaders, but the coverage generally is exactly the kind of stuff I malign in my book when I talk about the myth of local newspapers and their role in democracy. And look, the N-G’s dying. I don’t want to be truly mean, but maybe if it can’t shift its coverage and diversify its staff, it deserves to.
SP: In the conclusion you outline several paths forward. Which do you think are the best ones for C-U and this region?
Usher: For the C-U region: invest in public media such that it can staff up to replace some of the news production of the N-G, although it would be helpful to insure editorial independence from the University more robustly. Create local incentives that make it desirable to advertise with local independent news outlets. Consider carefully the dependency of local civic organizations and government on platforms like Facebook.
SP: Finally, you've been in C-U for a few years now: What are the things you like most about being here?
Usher: I’ve been able to develop amazing, deep friendships in such a short time, even with people who have lived here for a while, and even during COVID, which I think really speaks to the character of this community. I appreciate that people are open to meeting new people; non-university folks certainly wouldn’t have to be.
Also tennis. All the tennis. Wow, there is a tennis community here! I would play tennis all day if I could — and I probably could here, though I’d have to quit my day job as a media misanthrope.
Literary Marathon at PYGMALION
Analog Wine Bar
129 N Race St
Sa Sept 25th, 9 p.m.