Q&A: Nikki Usher and "News for the Rich, White, and Blue"
A conversation about objectivity, power, and the Beltway bubble.
How do metro papers deal with their tradition of “objectivity” after a disaster? Dr. Nikki Usher interviewed the journalists at the Times-Picayune years after Katrina to study this question. “We are the story,” said one reporter. “It’s different than being a combat reporter because a combat reporter gets to go home.” This is just one example of how Usher is challenging newsroom norms around objectivity, investigating how routine practices in newsrooms affect what kind of news is made, and who reads it.
Usher is currently an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the College of Media's Journalism Department, interested in how the digital sphere is changing how news is produced. For example, what drives a local paper to offer swag to the reader that correctly guesses the city’s murder count? (And then, to issue possibly the worst apology ever for it?) How does the modern media business model affect the way we treat and cover our community?
Usher’s scholarship explores how place affects objectivity and how community improves news coverage, with the optimism that we can use this information to reimagine a more equitable newsroom. Her newest book investigates how place and inequality affect who it is newspapers are actually writing for.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your book. Why did you think about this topic as a narrative and not a collection of papers?
The goal of the book is to show what journalism, specifically mainstream institutional news media, is doing to itself to undermine the causes of equity and democracy.
It's baked into the larger conversation about the risks in the U.S. or the geographic polarization that arises from social inequality. I really just wanted to see how that all connected. A lot of this also has to do with newsrooms, in this context of a newspaper market failure … despite goals of becoming more diverse and inclusive (both in terms of race and class and all other intersectional kinds of ways of looking at difference and inclusion), it's just getting harder and harder. I thought we had reached this crisis point where newspapers are actually closing. But the public is having a conversation about race and police violence. How do these things come together to create a real conversation about reform in journalism? That's kind of what I wanted to do.
A lot of times, when we write ... journal articles, [they] live inside the academy. There's also less liberty that you have to just argue forthrightly with the kind of data that you think makes the convincing arguments. The book is peer-reviewed, it's an academic book, but there's just some more liberty and opinion and emotions that you can put into a book. I think for me, this is the statement I have to make after studying journalism since 2007 when I first started going into newsrooms to do ethnography … That's my statement about everything that I think is wrong, and everything I think that can be fixed in journalism today and in the US.
The Objective covers the steps forward and backward of equity within newsrooms. Do you think “place” also plays a role in how equity is prioritized in newsrooms?
Oh, absolutely. And I think that what's happening is, as journalism in the US becomes increasingly a story of well-resourced organizations, these news organizations are also embedded into [those] larger … social inequalities and geographic inequalities.
I think you see that the most with D.C. I have a chapter in the book that is focused on Washington correspondence and the difficulties of [mediating place]. On one hand, most of the folks can’t even go back to visit the places they're covering because of budgetary concerns, right? And some of them aren't even from the places that they cover. And yet they're tasked in Washington with essentially being the unelected representative of the public back home. That's a really difficult negotiation to live and work and do “Washington” while still thinking about “not Washington.”
And I think that there's a little bit more of a consciousness of like, not every job needs to be in New York, Washington or L.A. or [San Francisco]. But the reality is the reason that so many jobs are there is because so many talented people are there, right? And so, media capitals are important, because that's like concentration and resources and talent and stuff like that. But on the other hand, if the most successful news organizations in the United States, and this is something that the Times is acutely aware of, is in New York, that's just not how a lot of the country lives. And I feel like I can really say this having lived in two very different places: in D.C. and in central Illinois. It’s just that there's a real problem with authentic storytelling when their journalists aren't close to the places that they cover, geographically and culturally.
You said one of the reasons that there are jobs in these media capitals is because there are so many talented people there. Would you mind expanding on that?
I mean, I'm sure you've heard of the creative class. And so like, what happens is like, industries cluster together, because there are certain benefits that being a particular place might provide, right? So you can think about Silicon Valley: Why is Silicon Valley “Silicon Valley?” Well, it's kind of got this compounding effect. Because there are big companies there. So other big companies are there. So smart people move there. And so, the same thing happens with journalism, right?
If I think about where my students would really want to go if they wanted to have national prominence, the people who get jobs in New York and D.C., [you’re like] wow, they've nailed it. They're working for national news organization[s], right? And so there are these big draws. That's a good thing, in many respects, because you want journalism to be done by people who are really smart, and have access to good resources, right? This is not a critique of expertise. But it also means that if you're gonna be in increasingly clustered [bubbles].
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And that's really the consciousness that we need and it's like, really dumb stuff … I think there was a picture of the city of Wichita that was being used to illustrate a “rural place” in the Times. It’s photo choices, it's these little subtleties that really scream volumes. And if people are choosing to pay for national news, because they think it's important, or because their local news just … doesn't provide very much anymore, or maybe just has historically marginalized them—why bother?
I think about the increasing misrepresentation of people not like us. I think you really see this with the “Trump safaris” genre. I take it on a lot in my book. There's this genre of journalism, where people are like, “Who are these Trump voters?”
“We don't have any political opinions. But who are these Trump voters? Who are the second-time Trump voters? The vaccine [hesitant] people?” It’s like, it’s probably your neighbor. If you're in a big city, there are also people who are resistant to vaccines.
Political economy (PE) was a theory that didn’t see a lot of action for some time in media scholarship. I think it was openly dismissed in the early 2000s but has seen a resurgence much more recently. Do you think the local news crisis needed to happen in order for media scholars to take it seriously?
Ultimately, it's a way of thinking about how economic forces, political power, and institutional power come together, right? To facilitate power; If we’re going to be just completely straight-up explicit about what it is. And I think that there is honestly a decent tradition of media policy scholarship that looks at political economy.
But for the longest time, and I don't mean any disrespect, but for the longest time there, everybody overlooked the thing, and a lot of that [PE research] was very high level, not always empirically driven scholarship. It was like, “We need to change corporate ownership.” That is, you know, part of it.
But in terms of asking that question in terms of race, class, and equity, with data, I think that we needed the upsurge of nationalism and populism. And we needed this local news crisis. So what I'm hoping my book is doing is it's kind of working from within that framework, but approaching it, and asking questions of things besides ownership, and thinking much more about structure [beyond corporate ownership].
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