Author Nikki Usher proposes a “post-newspaper consciousness” framework to viewing media today
Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin
I live in a town where, while we do have local newspapers, none of them regularly cover school board meetings (or police or fire department or other town meetings, for that matter). I would venture an educated guess that many – if not a majority of – college newspapers don’t regularly send a reporter to cover student government meetings, either in person or virtually during the pandemic. This state of affairs, both on campus and off, no doubt, is not good. In her recent book, “News for the Rich, White and Blue,” Nikki Usher tells us why.
“Journalism anchors American democracy by connecting people to the places they live,” Usher writes, “providing them with critical news and information as well as a sense of cultural rootedness and belonging.” If journalists are not covering the day-to-day meetings and events that impact our lives, are we getting what we need to be an “active and engaged citizenry,” college students and adults alike? We are not, Usher forcefully argues. She shares with her readers studies reflecting the underlying premise that without local news, the public cannot make informed decisions
In connecting “the broad themes of place, power, and social inequality to what is happening to journalism in the United States today,” Usher analyzes her “normative vision of the role of news in democracy,” maps journalism’s retrenchment, shares empirical results (and her worries) about the current state of journalism, but also does ultimately offer promising proposals for a way forward. In thinking about the crisis in journalism through place, Usher depicts how “markets, race, class and politics intersect to shape the news” we see.
An associate professor of journalism in the College of Media at the University of Illinois, Usher has written a dense, academic book complete with quantitative studies, several appendices and detailed notes with her research methods. But, she says, this book “is not intended only for academic audiences.” (emphasis added). And she is right – Usher’s historical analysis of “the crisis in journalism through place” and her suggestions for “alternatives and paths forward as a way out of the dismal future of news for the rich, white and blue” is worthy of consideration for all of us involved with or merely interested in journalism.
As for the current state of journalism, Usher is certainly not alone in writing about her worries. Just in Chapter 1, she laments: “Journalism perpetuates inequities and the status quo,” “[o]ne would be hard-pressed to find a general-interest newspaper, large or small, that does not have a legacy of racial exclusion, keeping people in place and out of places of power,” and “[p]erhaps one of the biggest concerns surrounding the messiness of our contemporary media system is the fear that audiences will develop blind spots that in turn leave them vulnerable to a host of persuasive influences, undermining their ability to make informed political decisions.”
The concerns don’t end there. “Journalism has a class problem,” Usher posits in Chapter 2, explaining the “Rich” and “White” parts of her title. As for “Rich,” she says that “[r]esearch suggests that journalists devote more coverage and attention to the powerful and wealthy.” As for “White,” the death of George Floyd and the significance of Black Lives Matter underscored the “embarrassing whiteness of legacy news outlets.” And the “Blue” in the title? Usher asks: “Is the news that’s left just news for the left?” (Although this is her premise, she does also recognize right-leaning media outlets, for example that “Sinclair-owned local television stations will likely “push a similarly obscured partisan agenda.”)
“The future looks grim for newspapers,” Usher writes. “Given the market ceiling on digital subscribers, diminishing returns on digital advertising, and technological infrastructure barriers that benefit the platform companies,” the commercial viability of newspapers is suspect. Usher joins so many others in writing about the converging factors leading to the questionable economic viability of newspapers. But what I found most appealing and unique about Usher’s book was her “Place as the Way Forward” conclusion.
Despite the sorry state of local journalism that she depicts, she concludes with a decidedly more optimistic outlook. There are ways to keep places both “informed” and “united,” she argues. “If we reimagine the core functions of journalism, leverage expertise, and consider how to take the best of what the newspaper ethos of journalism can offer to places. . . the news that powers democracy can be more inclusive” and we can “get the democracy we deserve,” she writes.
Usher proposes a “post-newspaper consciousness,” or a way of thinking about how to do the best of newspaper-style journalism in a time of limited resources. She proposes “solutions journalism,” which aims to provide solutions rather than simply dispassionately reporting on problems. She proposes unbundling the news or scaling back on journalistic functions. By this, she means that other community institutions can serve community information needs and rather than being duplicative, news organizations should use their skills to focus on accountability journalism, a unique value proposition that cannot be found elsewhere.
And one of Usher’s most compelling and applicable proposals for student media outlets may be her proposal for “journalism of authenticity and diversity.” She suggests that higher education may be one of the best places to start thinking about how to fix journalism’s diversity and inclusion problems. Her solution includes rethinking federal work-study programs to include student-run media where more students would be able to participate in these organizations. This would allow students to gain journalism skills “without sacrificing paying for living expenses or having to work extra jobs.” She unequivocally argues that “[t]o make journalism more inclusive, the unpaid internship racket has got to end.”
These are just some of Usher’s proposals to reimagine journalism and journalism education. Whether they are ultimately realistic or not, they make “News for the Rich, White and Blue” a thought-provoking read.
Carolyn Schurr Levin, a media and First Amendment attorney, is a partner at Miller Korzenik Sommers Rayman LLP in New York. She was the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday, Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media, and Media Law Adviser for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. She teaches Media Ethics & Law at City University of New York’s Baruch College, and has also taught media ethics and law at Stony Brook University, Long Island University, and Pace University. From 2010-2019, she was the faculty adviser for the Pioneer, the student newspaper at Long Island University, during which time the Pioneer won 28 awards.