Photo of professor Nikki Usher beside the cover for her new book
In her new book, "News for the Rich, White, and Blue,” journalism professor Nikki Usher presents the case that the changing nature of journalism and a shifting business model has led to an institution that is no longer accountable to the communities it serves, presenting a real risk to public discourse.

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

In March 1993 a freakishly large snowstorm hit my home in Eastern Kentucky. I hiked to the main road to buy a newspaper (as one did back then), but the Lexington Herald-Leader hadn’t arrived – and it didn’t for a couple of days.

When I did get my hands on the newspaper, I wasn’t much better off. Our part of the state was shaded in pink on a front-page map, and that simply meant that the snow was deep and the information was scarce. That much I knew before I laced up my boots.

In 1993 the absence of a daily newspaper was a rare exception in Eastern Kentucky. Today, it’s business as usual for large swaths of rural America. With fewer daily newspapers left covering rural areas, misinformation is deep, and the facts are scarce.

Nikki Usher’s book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, addresses this fundamental change in the economics and practice of American journalism. She describes the decline of “Goldilocks” newspapers – the metropolitan papers that were perfectly sized to provide regional and state coverage that drove a public agenda and connected far flung populations.

I communicated with Usher via email and video call about the historic role of these regional dailies in serving rural areas, the shift in how publications are paying for journalism, and what might come next.

Usher is an associate professor of journalism in the College of Media at the University of Illinois. 

Tim Marema, The Daily Yonder: The Goldilocks newspapers (not too big, not too small) you describe did a combination of covering their home city and the outlying state. Would you call all this “local” news? Would you call the statewide coverage “regional”? Or does it even matter?

Nikki Usher: I think local is a useless word when talking about journalism because it means different things to different people, especially when you’re talking with people who are in national media. To them, everything that is not national is local. But to people who are on the ground in small communities, the county paper that covers the two main population centers is what’s local, even if the two towns don’t see themselves as similar. The Goldilocks concept was meant to speak to the particularly obnoxious ways that these large papers that you speak of — such as the Des Moines Register, etc. — that saw themselves as the voice of the state or region — have gotten crunched and crunched again by digital ad economics.

DY: The papers you are describing had invested substantially in bureau systems that put newsroom employees close to the localities they were covering. The loss of these rural-based reporters seemed like a huge blow for many reasons, but chiefly the urban centers of states lost track of what was happening in outlying rural areas. And the rural readers no longer got a statewide paper that showed where they fit into other state issues. What do you think of this loss of the bureau system or the loss of the statewide coverage these Goldilocks papers provided?

NU: Oh, my goodness, I agree with this premise so much. I keep coming back to the Omaha World Herald, which slowly curtailed its newspaper from the borders to the state to just metro delivery. Even if people have solid broadband in rural areas (not a given, as you know), why bother if there is just news about Omaha?

I remember the political reporters telling me there that Western Nebraska residents they spoke to said they felt abandoned. Abandoned by the Omaha World Herald. The pull-back of newspapers contributes to the rural-urban antipathy. Newspapers, more so than television or anything else, can provide some of the glue that knits the state together.

But I think we also have to talk about rural “brain drain” where people who own newspapers — the county level ones — have kids who don’t want to take on the increasingly challenging responsibly of running such a newspaper and kids from state universities don’t want to move to these places, or at least not for long. That’s part of it too, I think — that there isn’t enough energy locally within rural communities to provide that coverage in a way that used to be there.

DY: I haven’t seen other journalism scholarship focus on the impact that audience has on how the news is presented — especially when that audience is the “members” or subscribers who are paying for the service. The New York Times has done some excellent work on rural topics. But there’s always that edge to the pieces that lack the tone, feel, nuance of rural places and people. Your analysis of the Times’ strategic direction makes me think this is never going to improve. Is there any reason to think otherwise? Should we just give up trying to critique how the big guys cover rural areas?

NU: Look, the New York Times used a photo of Wichita, Kansas (population 398,000), to illustrate the rural U.S. [The Times subsequently changed the photo. Ed.]

As more people more likely to subscribe concentrate in large cities, this sense of explaining the world to people beyond their immediate horizons becomes more of a mission for newspapers like The Times. But it’s, of course, deeply problematic. More journalists who grew up in non-metro areas need to be empowered to stay true to their roots and advocate for coverage that is not dismissive but accurately represents their communities and hometowns. I have a friend who purposely lost his West Virginia accent because it’s part of code-switching into national journalism. I feel like that’s such a metaphor for what often happens.

DY: You suggest one way to help fill the information gap left by the decline of regional dailies is an emerging type of partisan journalism. There are new statewide information platforms that may be partisan or even ideological, but they do include reporting. Say more about this.

NU: We definitely have one here and it’s pretty influential, and it does break news. It’s very partisan but it’s not misinformation, and my guess is every state probably has a couple of those that are digital first. The people who are looking at them might include the county radio guy, right, so there’s like an information flow that researchers are missing. There’s already a lot of GOP-backed outlets, whether it’s big GOP or little GOP- backed alternative media happening. People in D.C. don’t see it because they’re not in the places you and I are in. People in New York don’t see it. People at the foundations don’t see it.

So how do you convince Democrats that are mostly city based that one of the ways to actually provide an alternative information ecosystem is to use some of the money in politics to actually fund news about politics and make that one of the pillars for competing for every seat in every county.

Book cover with title depicted on ripped strips of newspaper
Nikki Usher’s latest book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism (Book cover by Columbia University Press).

Because I don’t see a commercial solution. I don’t see a non-commercial solution either.

One reason there might be so much money in politics is there isn’t a local media system (and candidates have to spend more on communication). So, instead of sending mailers, maybe the county Democratic party needs to hire a young journalist to just go to stuff and put out content. That’s kind of how I imagine it.

DY: Is there something the Daily Yonder could do that would help these small-town papers and radio stations?

NU: Yes, I think so. The Daily Yonder can probably help with the more sophisticated coverage that brings local and statewide issues together — picking up the broad trends but showing that these communities fight similar struggles….so I’m thinking maybe about the ways that high schools are getting combined, it feels so personal to a place, but it’s really a trend seen everywhere. I also think these county papers do a good job (or did) setting editorial mandates for areas, but without the voice of authority from these papers, there’s no political/civic voice to promote, say, a new rail trail or something. The biggest for me though — gosh, it’s impossible for many people to know who is running for office county-wide. The newspaper used to be the first stop endorsement. But with the loss of other civic organizations, it’s just too hard to keep tabs on your own about who is running for local office.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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