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Book review: ‘News for the rich, white and blue’

Nikki Usher offers a remarkable reimagining of the media ecosystem – and insights on how ‘news deserts’ could bloom again

Jonathan Heawood
2 October 2021, 12.00am
Usher argues the American news media is too ‘rich, white and blue‘ to represent the diversity of the US
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David Adamson / Alamy Stock Photo

Nikki Usher, ‘News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism’(New York: Columbia University Press, 2021)

Nikki Usher has written a remarkable book about the death – and possible rebirth – of the local newspaper. This is not just another swansong for a mythical past when local hacks pounded the streets of towns and cities in search of the truth. In fact, Usher believes that local newspapers too often failed to fulfil their mission, in her words, to “build a sense of collective memory, social cohesion, and civic imagination”.

Usher’s focus is on the United States, but her findings will resonate in many other countries. She charts a complex history, where 20th-century newspapers both enhanced democracy and perpetuated injustice, and even the most lauded titles were implicitly and explicitly racist. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board was against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, whilst the Boston Globe advocated against integrated housing in the 1970s.

The American news media of today is, in Usher’s terms, too “rich, white and blue” to represent the economic, racial and political diversity of the United States. Journalists are more affluent, more white and more liberal than the American norm, and so are their audiences (at least, those who are prepared to pay for news in print or online). As a result, Usher argues, journalism as a whole is biased towards the interests of rich, white and liberal groups, leaving the rest of the population underserved and disengaged.

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Usher poses some hard questions for journalism philanthropy. Over the past decade, funders have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into non-profit news publications across the United States, on the basis that market failure has created ‘news deserts’, where people do not have dedicated local newspapers. However, by mapping journalism philanthropy against the number of outlets and journalists in each state, Usher shows that, in many cases, these dollars are going to places that are comparatively news rich – in particular, to Democrat strongholds and big cities. In other words, journalism philanthropy is not addressing but enhancing information inequality.

The value of news isn’t always limited to readers who ‘have’ it in front of their eyes

Usher is also concerned about the way that new models of reader revenue are turning journalism from a public good into private property. When journalism was funded by advertisers, it might be freely available to readers. But when readers are forced to pay for it, then news becomes “something not everyone can have”, which has “distinct consequences for access to news and information”.

I find this argument less convincing. Yes, the number of readers might go down if you put a site behind a paywall; but the value of news isn’t always limited to readers who ‘have’ it in front of their eyes. News can provide benefits that go far beyond its readers, viewers or listeners. If openDemocracy exposes corruption in the freedom of information regime, then everyone benefits, not just openDemocracy’s readers and donors. In fact, readers don’t gain any particular advantage from this story, apart from having one more thing to worry about.

It’s similar with academic publishing. Most people in the US won’t be able to buy or borrow a copy of Usher’s book, but they can still benefit indirectly from her findings and recommendations. Just because Columbia University Press puts a paywall around the book doesn’t mean that its social value is circumscribed.

Despite these quibbles, the central thrust of Usher’s argument is compelling: “the less the public thinks journalists are like them, the less likely they are to trust them.”

So, what should we do about this? For a start, Usher recommends that we should encourage a “post-newspaper consciousness”, in which journalism is “unbundled” from all the other elements of the traditional newspaper. Coupled with this, she says, we should see journalism as only one part – albeit a vital one – of a wider local information ecosystem, alongside libraries, community groups, active citizens and so on.

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Most radically, Usher says that American newspapers should stop trying to be “objective” and acknowledge that they have a stance, whether that is on the Right or the Left of the political spectrum. As she writes, “it is important for interest groups to be able to adjudicate their needs through partisan media, which can be a healthy way to embrace a spirit of pluralism of thought and interest.” In a rare departure from her focus on the US, she claims that other “thriving democracies” have a “robust partisan press” alongside “partisan television and radio”.

This isn’t quite true. Most of the highest-ranked countries on the 2020 Democracy Index have media ecosystems that are anchored in public service broadcasting, which is, at least in theory, impartial. Nonetheless, Usher is right that partisan media can support a plural political culture but there’s no guarantee it will. It all depends on the ethics of the partisan media in question.

Some media outlets might be upfront about their values whilst taking steps to get their facts right, in order to represent other points of view fairly and to avoid distorting reality by overemphasising certain stories at the expense of others, and so on. Other outlets might be Fox News.

Like Usher, I’m sceptical about objectivity, and I’ve argued before that we need to embrace partisanship within public service media. But that doesn’t mean we should welcome news media where lies go unchallenged, opponents are defamed and reality is bent to suit a certain worldview.

Addressing the journalism crisis is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when the picture keeps changing

In fact, it’s perfectly possible for a media outlet to combine an explicit moral or political position with a staunch commitment to intellectual courage and intellectual humility, what philosophers call the ‘epistemic virtues’. That’s how we foster genuine pluralism, not through a winner-takes-all model of partisanship, which incentivises ever wilder claims and counterclaims, but through a genuine marketplace of ideas.

For this to work, we need to be clear about our ethical expectations of the news media. We need to be clear about what journalism is, and what it isn’t. Usher doesn’t really address this existential question, though she is clearly keen on a normative model of ‘watchdog’ or ‘accountability’ journalism.

Addressing the journalism crisis is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without being able to see the picture on the box. In fact, it’s like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when the picture keeps changing. Usher has not solved the puzzle, but she has done two valuable things.

First, she has painted a picture of the solution. True, her picture is fuzzy around the edges and would benefit from more clarity about what distinguishes journalism from other forms of discourse. But she rightly directs our attention away from the needs of journalists and their employers, and towards the information needs of communities. She shows us that we shouldn’t be trying to protect the news ecosystem of the past. Instead, we should be trying to imagine and build the news ecosystem of the future.

Second, Usher has thrown away some pieces of the puzzle that no longer fit. She has shown that traditional local newspapers, with their random bundle of contents, their bias towards elites, and their blind spots, probably don’t have a place in this new landscape. What goes in their place remains a mystery.

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