A Q&A with Nikki Usher on historic news deserts, inequality in journalism

Dr. Nikki Usher, associate professor at University of Illinois, College of Media

Dr. Nikki Usher, associate professor at the University of Illinois, College of Media, is one of the foremost scholars exploring the future of community media. Her newest book, “News for the Rich, White and Blue,” utilizes over a decade of field research to highlight the challenges facing journalism in terms of place, power, and inequality. 

In anticipation of her talks at The DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University tonight and the UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism tomorrow evening, CISLM Intern Halsey Ziglar spoke to Usher about her research, the effects of news deserts on communities and the future of community news.

Join Dr. Usher at Duke University tonight (Nov. 3) or UNC-Chapel Hill tomorrow night (Nov. 4), in person or online, to learn more. 

Halsey Ziglar: How did you first find the research that you focus on in your newest book?

Nikki Usher: At first, the book wasn’t really supposed to be about (place and power in journalism) at all. I was gonna look at place in a much narrower sense, like literally newspaper buildings, but a certain election happened in 2016. And it very much frustrated me how the journalists I knew very well… seemed really disconnected from things that seemed obvious on the ground…

When Trump was elected, I realized that… I really needed to think hard about how journalism’s blind spots are also sort of baked into a larger story of growing inequality, political regionalism and cultural division in the US. That’s the story of journalism today (that) really has to be told in the context of the larger fractures in the United States. There’s no other way to really talk about journalism right now.

Ziglar:News for the Rich, White and Blue” is your third book, and you’ve also written many journal articles and academic commentaries. With this book, what did you find the most interesting as you were researching and writing?

Usher: I think what surprised me was actually when I went and looked hard at some of what were presumed (to be) news deserts… how much of that narrative was incomplete.

These are historic news deserts. They weren’t news deserts that just happened.First, it’s not just the newspaper crisis — many communities in the United States have really not had any meaningful local news coverage… and that tracks very, very consistently with places that tend to be historically poor and marginalized, like Appalachia, Native American tribal lands, or the Black Belt and the African American rural South.

These are historic news deserts. They weren’t news deserts that just happened.

The second thing that I realized was that I think kind of is particularly relevant to the (Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media), is that it’s really a question of measurement and diagnosis for understanding what constitutes the loss of local news.

When you look at where journalists are, relative to other journalists, and presumptions about partisanship decline, that actually, Republican (dominated) places actually have more journalists relative to more blue places.

I found this interesting because there is a narrative that journalists are growing more distant. I think that it’s more complicated than that. It’s the journalists that have the power to set the national news dialogue that are growing more distant.

But whether places have lost news, how much, and what that means in terms of, you know, political affiliation, and political knowledge is, is much more complicated than conventional narrative.

Ziglar: How did our news deserts research database come into play while you were researching for this book?

Usher: I am very, very appreciative that that dataset exists because it is critical legwork that lots of other people would have to replicate, and would be exhausting to do on one’s own. I ended up actually using (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Data)… It looked at newspaper employment at the county level, which to me was more of a measure of provision. Are there resources for newsgathering versus the circulation numbers, which may be more of a function of demand? What are people choosing?

Ultimately, the News Deserts Database, allowed me to make sure, in many ways, that what I was seeing in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Data was indeed consistent.

Ziglar: How has your work as a professor shaped and intersected with your work as an author?

Usher: I am lucky that I teach two classes that are pretty spot on to my interest. I teach a “Surviving Social Media” class that allows me to help students become aware of the ways that platforms, in many ways, undermine equity at a huge scale and also at the individual level. Ad monopolies and algorithmic curation are certainly something that we cover.

I also teach a “Journalism, Ethics and Diversity” class. I’ve just started teaching it, but I actually teach my own book, which is sometimes frowned upon, but I actually think it’s really useful. There’s a direct application right there, but there’s a reason for it.

Ziglar: In the book, you talk a lot about how marginalized communities don’t have access to local news coverage and there are increasingly more news deserts. What do you think are the long-term effects for those counties and for the journalism world, without total access to local news coverage?

I hope that we just blow up our understanding of what it means to be a local news outlet and what it means to do local journalism Usher: I hope that we just blow up our understanding of what it means to be a local news outlet and what it means to do local journalism, because the news and information needs that people have may not resemble what we think of as traditional journalism at all. I’m really excited to see this movement (transform) from… pretending everything in the past is something we want to get back to, and thinking about the future where we can meet actual people’s needs.

So I am really excited by a number of experiments that I see happening in low-income communities and communities that have been historically marginalized by large news organizations. It’s no retrenchment in many of these places. It’s just never been covered before or never covered fairly.

We’re starting to see some more community-centered media and community-based organizations producing their own content that many journalists would kind of mock as advocacy, but I don’t think it has to be.

I think we’re starting to see experiments with delivering news in new ways. I really like Detroit’s Outlier Media, which has text-based services. There are other outlets in the Chicago area that are delivering news in Spanish over WhatsApp.

I’m just really looking for our conventional understanding to just explode. That’s my hope. Just let go of the past and move into the future because the past wasn’t that great for a lot of people.

Ziglar: What is a message you want your readers to take away from your new research and findings in this book?

Usher: I think that everybody is empowered to change the way that we think about access and equity.

I’m just talking about journalism and making a call to rethink who journalism is for, what journalism is about, and whose democracy we’re talking about, to begin with, but it doesn’t have to stop with a conversation about journalism. It shouldn’t use all of our thinking, because the crisis that we’re in as a country stems out of epic structural and social inequality. We need to talk head-on about what we want to do about that to make this a better place.

Ziglar: Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t kind of touched on in any of my previous questions?

Usher: This kind of research really depends on journalists being open to talking about things that aren’t always their success stories and aren’t always the best sides of their institutions or the places they work.

I just want to really thank all of the journalists that let me into their world so I could tell a story with just a little bit more distance, and methodological rigor.