How newspapers came to be written by and for the ‘rich, white and blue’

Newspapers being printed in printing press. (Simonkr / Getty Images)

This year The Washington Post named its first female executive editor, The Dallas Morning News hired its first Black executive editor and Reuters appointed its first trans executive editor. While this representation is an important step for an industry that’s long been dominated by white men, Nikki Usher, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, says there’s still a long way to go before news accurately reflects the country’s diversity.

In her new book, “News for the Rich, White and Blue,” Usher explores the roots of the news industry’s lack of diversity and the challenges it will face moving forward. She argues that as outlets move to a mostly subscriber-based business model, coverage is increasingly being skewed to audiences who can afford to pay — those who are upper-class, white and liberal.

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“What ends up happening is that with paywalls and with limited access to the best news and information, people get left out,” she said. “And so these inequities that are pre-existing in access to news and information just continue to grow.”

Usher spoke to NBCU Academy about the roots of the news industry’s diversity problem, how universities can ensure students get paid to work at the campus newspaper, why journalists should embrace a “post-newspaper future”  — and some solutions for achieving better representation in the media. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the title of your book. How did news come to be written by and for this narrow demographic of the “rich, white and blue”?

News in the United States is commercial, primarily. And commercial businesses need to make money. It’s long been a problem that news organizations have wanted to go for the wealthiest consumers because news organizations sell audiences to advertisers, and so the fancier the audience, the better to sell to the advertisers.

What’s happened is that with the complete implosion of the ad-supported model of journalism, newspapers and digital-first outlets especially need to focus on digital subscriptions, and that means focusing on people who will pay for news. And the people who will pay for news are people who have the money to, and they recognize that paying for news is a value. Increasingly in the United States, that news is consumed by or desired by liberal Americans, in part because the vast majority of Republicans no longer trust the institutional news media. So they’re certainly not going to be buying into it. Or that’s becoming increasingly difficult.

The white part of it is that institutional news media continues to be one, filled with white people and the idea of objectivity from a white perspective. The lack of representation in newsrooms has long been a problem and is not getting better as the news industry becomes increasingly fragile.  

What are some of the historical reasons people of color and low-income people haven’t been well represented in newsrooms?

Historically, newsrooms have been segregated institutions in the United States. At the time of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, there was literally only one Black person working at the [Los Angeles] Times, and it was an advertising messenger, and he was roped into coverage. So on one hand, the people viewed as empowered to tell stories and report stories have been white. And also, some of these news organizations haven’t been particularly welcoming, historically. Some of them in the North, the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe, have in their editorial pages been openly against issues like civil rights.

And the other thing is that journalism is like any other industry, and people get into the industry by who they know, especially the large national news organizations — Ivy Leagues, the best state schools, and the people who are able to succeed at those schools, and that tends to funnel up into a certain kind of journalist who increasingly doesn’t look like our multiracial democracy. These distortions have gotten a little better. It’s not all white men anymore. But these boundaries are being broken as we speak, and that I think tells you something about the enduring historicity.

What’s the impact of journalism being in what you call “market failure”?

What market failure means is that the profit you’re generating can’t support the production and distribution of whatever you’re putting out there. What ends up happening is that with paywalls and with limited access to the best news and information for those who will pay, people get left out. And so, these inequities that are preexisting in access to news and information just continue to grow and it gets harder and harder for people to have access to the best information. And rightly so, news organizations want to be paid for it.

What is also happening is that news organizations themselves are closing or are severely weakened. So there are communities around the country that didn’t have terrific news coverage, but it’s been there. And a lot of those local news organizations are either being consolidated or are disappearing completely. And since it’s so hard to sustain local news, you end up having people who simply know less and are connected less because journalism helps their connection to the places they live.

You suggest that students should be paid to work at their campus newspapers through the federal work study program. How would that work?

A lot of students feel like they can’t take time off their jobs to give labor for free at student news organizations. Depending on the news organization, you might get paid some. But the point is that students who want to be in journalism need newsroom experience, but if they have to use their work-study time to make living-expense money, they can’t go to the newsroom. They can’t shift that time to work at the newsroom on campus, or maybe they can, but something else suffers.

Those sacrifices don’t need to be made. Federal work study is one of these incredibly ambiguous programs that there’s a lot of leeway in. There’s a lot of discretion in terms of how universities can use this money. Especially for the news organizations that are directly affiliated with a college or university, you could use those work-study hours at those news organizations and you’d get paid for that so you don’t have a trade off. [Usher notes in her book that The Harvard Crimson is one example of a university that already offers this.]

What are some of the other solutions to building a more diverse and equitable news media, both in terms of who’s creating it and who it’s serving?

We need to make sure there are news organizations that empower people who represent the communities that are dominant in the cities that they’re in, and we need to make sure there are structures in place inside news organizations where those folks can be supported. I also think we need to put people in leadership positions and put them in positions where they’re able to succeed. We need to change coverage and where the market might be perceived.

Chicago, for example, has the South Side, which is predominantly Black. But the Chicago Tribune has few reporters who are Black and even fewer who are in positions of power in the newsroom. [In a piece for Nieman Lab, Usher notes that white people make up less than 40% of Chicago’s population, but 80% of Tribune newsroom employees are white and leadership is 92% white.] So the news that ends up getting produced doesn’t have an authentic footprint in that community, even though that’s potentially an audience.

Thinking about coverage priorities can diversify the audience, which in turn has the back end of diversifying the newsrooms. They’re all linked together. There are people growing up who don’t want to be journalists because they turn on the local TV news and think journalists got something wrong. This isn’t about politics; it’s about being consistently marginalized.

The most important thing is recognizing there’s a problem. People go into journalism because they want to make the world a better place, and that means challenging power. A lot of journalists do believe in social justice, but their organizations play it down the middle because they’re scared people will call them biased. But people already do. News organizations should lean in and use their institutional heft to be anti-racist and actively pro-social justice. That’s what it would take for real change.

Some people may be shocked that at the end of your book, you say we should accept a “post-newspaper” future. What would that look like?

This idea of journalism being a bulwark of accountability really only exists in a few places in the country and requires enormous resources. And there are a lot of news organizations that have been extraordinarily complicit in the status quo. There are newspapers that have never challenged sundown laws or redlining in their communities.

We need to move past saving broken institutions. We need to think about what was good in them, what we want in them, and think about a future where we can take what was the best of what was offered and do journalism. I think that means empowering more institutions and recognizing the other information providers in communities, like schools or civic institutions. Journalists have to focus on what they do best and what their biggest value-add is. I think it’s accountability journalism, but maybe it’s something else that’s specific to a community.