Our podcast: How can we create a journalism that reaches out beyond elites?

In this episode of our podcast, we look at challenges around equity, diversity and sustainability with the help of Nikki Usher
The New York Times building. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The New York Times building. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

13th April 2021

The topic

In this podcast we explore the structures that determine who makes the news and who accesses news, and what can be done to ensure the news industry runs on a more sustainable and equitable footing.

The speakers

Our host: Meera Selva is the Deputy Director of the Reuters Institute and the Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme.

Our guest: Nikki Usher is an award-winning author and associate professor at the University of Illinois in the College of Media's Journalism Department. Her upcoming book is News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, and examines the challenges facing journalism in terms of place, power, and inequality.

The podcast

On Spotify | On AppleOn Google

The transcript

On news inequality | On philanthropy and funding news | On rethinking the role of news | On equity of access to journalism schools | On #JStudiesSoWhite | On why diversity in newsrooms matters

On news inequality

Meera: Nikki, let’s start at the end. Well, the end as in your new book, News for the Rich, White and Blue. It touches on a key problem in journalism. As you say, large national, international outlets have pivoted to serving readers who can and will choose to pay for news, and therefore you end up skewing coverage towards the wealthy, White and liberal audience in the US, and a wealthy, White, possibly less liberal audience in the UK. Could you speak a bit more about the consequences of that?

Nikki: What I really worry about is you see essentially the news that’s most likely to survive is coming from these extremely large institutions and organisations that have global friends. And I think this is particularly the case when we look at what might be formally called a newspaper because I don’t think the Guardian or the New York Times, or the FT resembles anything close to a newspaper anymore.

It’s just kind of the archaic name. What this ends up doing is that the people who can pay for news, and the people producing and writing the content, thinking about the content, are all members, increasingly so, of a global elite and the way to make money is no longer through advertising but through subscriptions.

And there’s always been all sorts of inequity and access to news and information. The New York Times, for instance, has always positioned itself as head above shoulders, above the rest. They have their own particular sense of gravitas ever since Adolph Ochs took the thing over. So I think it’s really important to think about what the implications are when the news media that provides the most robust coverage of events around the world and of government and politics, particularly in the United States, is increasingly less representative of the people it purports to cover.

So I really worry about that because if we want to talk about the future of media and trust in journalism, and we want to think about how to minimise misinformation, and mitigate polarisation, and fight for social justice, when you are having that conversation and it's produced by and directed to a small class of elites, I just wonder how you can meaningfully have that conversation.

Meera: Considering how we got here, as you said, there’s always been a kind of inequality of news access and in many ways the news media has always been a kind of elite profession for quite a long time, so populated by an elite sector. In Britain certainly I think it sits in tandem with the kind of role of public sector broadcasting, which is meant to fill in some of the gaps we are talking about but also, you know, if you look at how the people in the BBC sounded they were very much from a social class and a kind of – a very narrow social class.

I can see where this is coming from in countries that had a kind of strong history of public sector broadcasting, do you think that’s the same case in the US or are there other factors at play here?

Nikki: We kind of see this rising inequality between accessing news and information. I think actually the UK is pretty interesting. The Reuters Institute itself has showed that there’s greater inequality at accessing news and information in the UK than there is actual real social inequality, and you all are from an aristocracy so I find that a particularly potent point, and in some ways a real sort of existential question about what the BBC was supposed to be doing all along if that’s really the case, right.

But I think in the US one of the things that we’ve seen is the hollowing out of local newsrooms and I am not one of these people who walks around saying we need to save local newspapers, we need to save community journalism, we need to save big city delis, because in many places the most important thing that a newspaper has long provided is the bulk of coverage, the just sheer quantity of information about any one place. But a lot of those news organisations, many of the ones we worry about losing, have these horrible racist near histories and present histories, and really strong legacies of maintaining a power status and status quo of the people around them and the institutions around them.

And so I don’t think we should be uncritical, but I do think that the emptying out and the hollowing out of local news and information in the United States leaves people who are hungry for news and information looking for alternatives. Those alternatives might be deeply partisan, cable, radio content and those alternatives might also be the New York Times, but there’s a real difference between somebody who’s choosing the New York Times and choosing to pay for it, versus somebody who’s resigned to now listening to their terrible local tap radio.

Meera: Where does the role of digital disruption sit here? Because we know about the loss of advertising revenue, and that’s kind of fairly clear, but there was also kind of a, you know, a very optimistic vision of journalism which is that once you lower the barriers to entry, you will start getting new kinds of journalists putting out blogs that become news products, that speak specifically to communities.

That can use Facebook for distribution and then you can get this ecosystem, and you do see it in many communities that were excluded from both local news and national news, finding their spaces, but this often doesn’t pay.

Nikki: Well, it often does pay, and I think that if I had to critique my own work I would say that I paid less attention than I should to the organic longstanding efforts of historically marginalised communities to produce their own news and information, and there are really strong legacies of this across the United States, from Youth Radio in Chicago to the legacy of Black and immigrant newspapers that you’ll see all across the US and I believe also in the UK.

So I don’t want to disregard that long and important history because that sort of being heard has long been a fight that these communities have attempted, but I think that what we’ve seen is that the power of platforms is to amplify the already powerful, and if you look across any sort of big viral story there is always a major media player, a major media celebrity who’s provided that critical lift. 

When we were having this conversation, this very optimistic conversation about the rise of niche and the power of the people to publish, and the power of the audiences, that was in 2006, right, this is before most people had access to Facebook. And so I think that it was a naïve wonderful sort of moment but even at that time, as some of my colleague's work Matt Hindman shows, digital democracy was very much occupied by White Ivy League and privileged men.

So, it was never as quite as utopian, but I want to get back to something that you asked me in the previous question, which was essentially that we’ve had this longstanding inequality and why does it matter more now. We’ve had this longstanding inequality in access to news and information. And some of that is based in socio-economic status, based in access to education, based in something as basic as something as time.

If you’re fighting all day just to make it through the day, the last thing that you care to do is turn to news that’s going to tell you about the terrible things in your universe. The news avoidance stuff that you all are doing. But what’s more concerning now is that the kind of news organisations that provide the stuff that feed democratic life are increasingly ones that charge.

And this is the high quality news and information that you would expect to maybe see circulating on social media. Everybody listening to this podcast is overwhelmed with the news and information that their friends are sharing. But this is not what the streams of people who aren’t regular consumers of news and information are engaging with and so it’s hard for us to almost imagine a universe where, you know, you’re not seeing CNN in the airports or BBC or Sky News, or whatever it might be. But for lots of people in the United States these accidental encounters with news and information have gone, and they’ve gone in ways that you might not even notice. Starbucks stopped carrying print newspapers. And if you’re waiting in line at Starbucks, like back when we are waiting in line, you might actually like to pick up a copy or somebody would have left it out.

There are these ways in which exposure to local news and information in particular is drastically diminished when there’s a high bar of entry, and it’s not just about pay, it’s also about bandwidth. So there are lots of people in the United States who have really terrible internet connections, maybe because they live in rural America, maybe because their kids are using it for Zoom, and so when you’ve got the clunky loading of these horrible sort of advertising sites, people with older devices, phones or – they just can’t even handle that.

So there is a sort of more subtle barrier to entry that actually has to do with technological devices that can handle all that malware that these news organisations are putting on our software. This disconnect has been there but increasingly the survival of the news industry depends on people who will pay and the people who don’t want to or can’t pay are being further and further left out, and that’s what I worry about.

We have reached a critical breaking point where the market failure of especially local newspapers is impossible to ignore. This is not a crisis. This is like actually things are closing down and there will be no more. 

On philanthropy and funding news

Meera: I want to come back to the malware issue, because this is something I think where journalism as an entity bears some responsibility for using software that people can use, but the more fundamental question is you’re absolutely right that the financials of the media industry don’t make any sense anymore. There’s basically a market failure of what people recognise is a public good in many ways.

What’s the solution? Is it subscription models? [With these models] you get these scenarios you’ve described, that it’s the people who can pay who get the news that’s served for them.

Nikki: I want to answer this question almost backwards. What I tend to do is I tend to study how news gets produced and the forces that challenge and constrain it, and provide opportunities for how journalists do their work, and I think that to some degree the answer begins with having more inclusive news organisations

In the US I think the average rate of college graduation is maybe 25%. And in newsrooms it’s something like 99%. And for many people just entry and access to work in a news organisation has required being at an elite university, often requires having a family that can provide a financial back step against a precarious news industry, and I think to some degree, right, because we’re talking about massive structural equity shifts, to do that you need people that are in newsrooms to advocate for the kinds of stories that cover wider segments of the community.  People who about the news consumption experiences of people who don’t have great digital devices, who don’t have social media following their streams, and who wouldn’t think to spend extra money on news subscription per se.

In the US I think that there are a couple of things that can be done.

This of course is like a very nominative, very like political rant, but look the topsy turvy digital advertising economics are absolutely absurd and the fact that Google and Facebook occupy so much power in the domain of our data, which enables the power of their digital marketing. That is something that really can be regulated as a privacy matter, not as a speech matter.

And I think that can destabilise their stranglehold on digital advertising, which I think provides an entry place for many news organisations to think about a do over. 

What I really worry about, and my research in the book shows this, is that there is a real sort of political economy of who gets to be supported by philanthropy. And it’s because donors give to places that they know, to people that they know. Our research actually showed, my research actually showed that the most common – it’s a geographic pairing, and in Silicon Valley there’s that 20 minute rule where most investors give to organisations with businesses within 20 minutes. In this case it's most founders in big blue cities give to news organisation in other big blue cities.

The issues in places that are not super urban metro areas are going to be different. The ways that you can even fund journalism are going to be different. So my call is to go back to real geographic specifics because markets all have different and unique properties, and what works in one won’t work in the other. And so I’ve got a whole chapter about how seemingly like demographically similar places have very different institutional responses and structural responses to the crisis in news and information.

Some of it just depends on who your local billionaire happens to be. If you’ve got a local billionaire like Warren Buffet who’s decided that investing in news is super risky now, you’ve lost your like local billionaire. If you’ve got a local billionaire, as I point out, in Youngstown, Ohio, the first city in America without a local newspaper, who’s getting parted by the Trump administration, you also don’t have a local billionaire.

On rethinking the role of news

Nikki: There are three things we can do. I think first we think about offloading the duties of journalism, like institutional news media. So, there are many things that news organisations do that local community organisations and community institutions, and civic groups already do.

The public health department, in my county, has been responsible for producing graphics and maps, and charts, and case numbers, and testing sites. A news organisation doesn’t necessarily need to replicate that and arguably the public health department might have greater reach and potentially more trusted public authority in a local community. So, offload. Offload, there are basic responsibilities of ordinary information provision and gathering to places that are doing a great job of providing.

If you want to go to the local school board, you can stream that on your computer now. You don’t actually physically have to send a journalist to go to it. But there is this documenters programme in Chicago that’s run by City Bureau and they actually train people to go to public meetings. These are not journalists, people have to be trained as traditional journalists, but you can send people who are already engaged to help become reporters for their communities.

So I think news outlets should offload all kinds of information gathering people are already doing in other centres and institutions, and double down on the role that journalism plays to do things other people can’t. So what do journalists do in particular communities in particular states, and particular countries that other people or institutions don’t do? 

Figuring out that is key. It may not be market-supported, but at least it’s cheaper to run and organisation when you’re not covering everything. So, that’s one thing.

Meera: The data just jumped out at me, we’ve been having these conversations about data, public data across the different countries. I mean some countries it’s fine. You can get the statistics and you trust them, and in others you absolutely can’t, and journalists do play a crucial role. So, even in the US or the UK, you know, I’d be weary of kind of taking local authority data uncritically.

Nikki: I don’t think it’s about local authority data. I think it’s about like very basic orientation. There is absolutely no reason for the local newspaper to rush out a snowstorm edition. So I think what you’re talking about is actually that unique role, right, checking, legitimating public data, that is absolutely a specialty that journalists have. So, what is that is – and I also think, and this is like radical in the United States, and people want to like pillar you for it.

But I think that being open and honest about partisanship is really important, particularly in local communities and I think that you actually create some market incentives if you actually have hyper partisan local media. I know that people are really resistant to hearing this and people think I’m crazy, but I actually think it’s a really good thing for at least the American news market, that the Republican party is going around and funding these local news organisations because what does that do.

It forces the Democratic party to think about how they’re going to counter, and I think that arguably we’re going back to like the 1830s or maybe 1820s in American journalism where we have a party subsidised press. I know, it’s crazy. People think I’m totally nuts but I actually – look, partisan media sells. OK. You’re not a bad person because you re-polarise news. In the United States it’s often perceived that way, or watch partisan news. In the UK it’s different because you have your party allegiances.

Meera: It's different for newspapers and broadcasters. Sorry, I interrupted you, you were about to move to point two.

Nikki: No, no, I mean I think that’s point two, and then point three in terms of changing the structure of how we actually make journalism more representative and more attuned to novel solutions, I think that one of the things that I propose is actually changing the way that we fund federal student aid. In the US you get money to work at your university from the federal government by like swiping people’s lunch cards at the dining hall.

Or, you know, running the school bookstore or something like that, and in some cases it can be used – this money can be used to sponsor internships at like community organisations, but not always. It depends. And I think there is a way to re-direct some of that money to actually encourage young people to work for their news organisations. 

This is also I think a reform that might make a difference to tech companies too, right, if students can – as part of their financial aid package – these are kids who already need money, can go work for a tech company instead of swiping lunch cards I think you’ll see a real huge change in the way organisations and institutions think about equity. So, I think really it’s like a multi-pronged approach of simplifying, understanding specific community needs, understanding what journalists do best in those communities, and municipalities and states, and, you know, countries.

And breaking up big tech, returning the partisan media and changing higher education financially, that’s my platform. If I were to be elected as like newspaper, local media, journalism, digital media reformer and chief that’s what I’d run on. 

Meera: But then it’s also about getting people to work in newspapers, that would also do a lot for media literacy, because even if these people didn’t stay in journalism they have a stint of being exposed to how it works. 

Nikki: Yeah, I mean I think that it’s – I teach a lot of classes that somehow aren’t taken by journalism students and last night I had to spend a full hour just explaining that what is objectivity, where did it come from and why is it such a miserable ideal that really is impossible for any human. So, I mean I think that, you know, that in the sense that we all have our perspectives when we approach content and journalists select and choose what to... like, there’s always a process. Anyway, that’s a longer conversation.

But the point being is you’re absolutely right. Even in the smallest municipality a news organisation is a place of power that not everybody is guaranteed access and entry to. And so, giving more people an understanding of how this powerful institution works I think maybe would increase cynicism, but it would also increase transparency.

On equity of access to journalism schools

Meera: Which actually brings me to my next point, which is about the state of journalism education, and certainly in the US you’ve got some of the biggest well known journalism schools in the world. And there’s a debate everywhere about are these schools teaching journalists the skills they need. Are they having the right debates on objectivity. 

Are they taking the issue of diversity and the kind of topics that are covered seriously enough. What do you think – but if you were ruler of the media world and you were given journalism schools as a brief what would you change instantly?

Nikki: I think tuition. I mean seriously I think that the Columbia School of Journalism is what the same price as many MBA. I mean if you want to think about equity and access I think that’s the easiest place to go. I think it’s – one of the things that I also think is that there is also this weird global power hegemony where all these journalists from all over the world go to the US to get trained.

And these networks are super important because that what enables the Panama papers and the Pentagon papers, these are old friends from journalism school, and so in that regard it’s really important but I also really wonder about how our US journalism schools end up exporting a certain way of thinking about doing journalism that may not really make sense within the context and countries in which many of the journalists that are doing work and go back to do the work actually function.

And so, I think there needs to be a really honest conversation about like – look, I hate to use word post-colonial because it’s a very academic word to some degree, but gosh, I can’t think of better expression of America hegemony than journalism school. Oh my gosh, I’m never going to work at Columbia. [Laughs]. No, but it’s true, right? I mean amazing valuable skills about theatre scraping and how to build new technology which arguably is not something a journalism school actually needs to do because you can just like get training in tech skills.

So, what are you training journalists to do? Are you training them to think a particular way about analysing the world, and about how to source, how to think about major technological changes, how to think about power, well who’s doing that training, I mean you can have a really big discussion because I think the impact of journalism schools is far more profound than many people even working in them know. I’m sorry, I’m so terrible!

Meera: I think there’s kind of an aspiration that this is – it’s given a gold standard and then people adopt that internally – they internalise that without necessarily thinking through whether it’s relevant to their situation.

Nikki: I think we could have a more honest and robust conversation about how doing journalism in certain contexts is simply impossible the way that many American journalism schools would wish that it be done. 

On #JStudiesSoWhite 

Meera: You’ve turned your gaze on diversity into academia too, and I remember your keynote at a conference when you asked some senior White male academics on the board – who sat on the board of more than two journals to consider resigning and recommend that they replace them with someone who was either non-White, female or from the global south.

I’m interested to know why you thought that was needed and what happened after you made that call, which was two years ago I think.

Nikki: Yeah, so I mean I think there are a couple of different ways in which – like I was – this is sort of like part of a larger dialogue happening within the field of communication, and so I wanted to kind of do a journalism is so White thing because when you’re given the opportunity to redress basically all the most powerful people in your field and given the power of a keynote, I mean yes, it can be about promoting your own research.

But for me it’s about how that privilege can be used to kind of start a conversation to dismantle some of the reasons that there are only certain types of people in that particular room, and so, you know, there are academic gatekeepers just as there are gatekeepers in every other institution, and one of those gatekeeping functions is the academic journals and these are very symbolic because who’s on an academic journal tells you something about who’s important.

It tells you something about what research is valued and half the time many of the very senior people who are on those journals don’t even do much of their reviewing anymore so their expertise is lost, they can say like “Oh, I’m too busy” and it falls to the invisible labour of marginal scholars. So I think it’s a – the editorial broad composition of any journal, and you can look at this across the academy, is a signal of what matters and who matters.

And I think that if we’re really serious about thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you have to think about how to make those extremely important gatekeepers and symbolic artefacts more representative, and maybe over representative of places that have been – places and people that have been historically marginalised. 

Meera: And what happened after you made that call?

Nikki: Well, later that night I went to the bar and cried because someone yelled at me. It was constructive yelling but, you know, I think I want to just acknowledge that as somebody who doesn’t have to do the emotional work of having to confront diversity and equity in every single interaction I have that the decision to do this work and to have to live this work is extremely fraught with emotional labour.

And to just go to the next like well what happens I think it’s important we all recognise that doing this work is hard and it’s really important for news managers and news readers to know that when they’re asking their employees to be part of the conversation that it isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch. So, I just wanted to kind of put that out there and not – because it was like a terrifying thing to be able to do, and to use that space for.

What is really exciting is that a number of people stepped up, but I would say these were arguably more woke people who have acknowledged the problem and the real people who really need to be sitting back and questioning their power, and whether they’re giving back as much as they’ve taken, it really didn’t do that. And so, I think that – so it was like a small motion forward to have the conversation and many people did step off.

And so, I think that that was progress. I think that if I were to track the membership of these boards pre and post I think that many of the journals have radically improved. They’ve added associate editors that are more diverse. There have been more special issues on journalism in the Global South. There has been a real renewed effort to – especially with Digital Journalism – one of the journals, to provide translation of key findings.

And these are all things that structurally some of them were in the work, structurally maybe I helped start that conversation, but, you know, journalism research especially in some place can pave the way to reform and to better conversations, and so that research is more equitable and inclusive than the whole conversation around the future of journalism can also improve.

Meera: How much do you think it sits in tandem with the conversation on diversity in journalism in newsrooms? Because if you look at both industries there are a lot of journalists who just don’t keep an eye on communication studies at all, but diversity is one of the topics that does seem to have crossed over.

Nikki: I think one of the things is, is like, you know, there are things that journalists think they know about that they don’t really need the academy for, and we definitely over theorise and do academic performance, and all of the stuff, because it’s the academy, it’s what we’re supposed to do, right. It’s a different sort of thing. But something a journalist – like they have a less of a grasp on I think is how to make their institutions more diverse and equitable, and how to confront larger structural barriers to actually make journalism itself and the practice of journalism more aware of power.

And I think that academics are in a natural place to think about power but the inherent sort of whiteness, Americanness, Anglo-ness of the academy has long prevented a lot of that research from even being through of. Right now, I have a student who is a non-traditional academic student, and she’s coding right now for misogynoir. So, Black misogyny – misogyny against Black women and something she’s coding for is something I have never seen coded for in an academic journal, which is hairstyles as a proxy for sexuality.

And sexualisation and as a White woman who doesn’t necessarily think about that because I should be but maybe it’s just not within my register, that variable of hairstyles, a proxy for stereotyping, we need people in the academy but also within news organisations who have those insights and are empowered to say look at what we do when we present people in this way. 

We’re reinforcing legacies of stereotypes and this is a conversation that is crosscutting hopefully across every major field and institution in, you know, social life today. 

On why diversity in newsrooms matters 

Meera: Absolutely. I think it’s a really important point and also goes back to this idea of who’s making these decisions, who’s making the calls, and we’ve done research at the Reuters Institute on leadership, so the kind of gender and leadership, and race and leadership, because ultimately I do think it’s about power and that’s why your call to the editorial boards struck resonance for me because I feel like things aren’t going to really change until there’s…

You know, it is a zero sum gain for someone to be in charge, someone else has to not be in charge. You can’t just keep adding numbers. 

Nikki: Well, and I also think though it’s about, you know, there is some generational change that has to happen because, you know, my primary research set in an organisation that I both love and critique all the time, the New York Times – Dean Baquet has been running the New York Times for, I don’t even remember how many years now, but having the first Black editor of the New York Times I wouldn’t say that the New York Times is suddenly a paragon of coverage for race and diversity.

In fact, Dean killed the race equity and diversity, beat, right. So, I think that we have to be really careful too in not just assuming that physical representation is a proxy for the willingness to challenge institutional norms. So, I think that’s really important because it’s not just what people look like, it’s what their commitments are, and what people look like is a pretty good proxy because often those people aren’t even in the room.

But just because you – I mean you know this well, but your allies and advocates aren’t necessarily people who look like you because they look like you.

Meera: Do you think there’s more pressure for changing coming? You’re absolutely right that it’s generational, but do you think the pressure is coming more from within newsrooms or outside newsrooms from the audiences and would be audiences?

Nikki: I mean I think it depends on the news organisation and it’s reach, so my local newspaper here in central Illinois has been publishing mugshot photos. So, this is like something that I don’t think is done outside of the US when somebody gets arrested and before we try them we publish their picture in the newspaper, so you can see their race and their name, and everything else.

And they say innocent until proven guilty, but it generates massive click traffic because everybody wants to see who was arrested. And in the wake of the George Floyd protests my local newspaper said maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore. So, local community protest, and I think that that was an example of pressure coming from the outside. 

When you look at some of the huge new organisations I think the New York Times and the Washington Post stand out for me, and also to some degree NBC with regard to gender equity. I think you see a lot of that pressure coming from within, and I think some of that has to do with the increasing power of unions. LA Times too. The power of unions to give journalists a sense of power against the management.

So, there’s a sense of protection that you can advocate for diversity because you have a space to have these conversations with colleagues to push for change against management. So, I think those are coming from within.

Meera: That’s really interesting and unions again in Europe – part of the problem has been that many of the journalist unions again don’t represent this new generation, they’re kind of quite entrenched, they deal with it in their own way.

Nikki: Everything I’ve learned about French journalism from my colleagues suggests to me that the union man is – a French journalist is like the antithesis to innovation in news and journalism.

Meera: Not always, it's complicated, but it’s another organisation with its own power structure.

Nikki: I feel like I’ve just taken all these terrible pot shots at people and institutions, so please make sure that I haven’t totally thrown anybody under the bus or embarrassed myself in doing so.

Meera: You haven’t at all, it’s been fantastic. Thank you so much Nikki, it’s been a terrific conversation.

Nikki: Thank you so much.