Local news is losing out to online, nationalized, and more polarized outlets. How do the economics of news production and the contributors who write it affect the political content that Americans see? Nikki Usher finds that local newspapers are losing staff, but declines are not concentrated in Red small towns. Nick Hagar finds that contributors to online media are an insular group, with conservative outlets disconnected from the rest. Both the producers of news and their dominant consumers are unrepresentative–that’s changing the content and style of news.
Matt Grossmann: How the Media Economy Drives Political News, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Local news is in decline. Online, nationalized and more polarized outlets seem to be gaining steam. How do the economics of news production and the actual writers who portray the news affect the political content that Americans see? Newspapers, the bulwarks of news production, aren’t keeping up. Freelancer networks and well-off white, urban elite reporters may be making writers even less representative of their readers. This week, I talk to Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois about her new Columbia book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue. She finds that local newspapers are losing staff with most not able to compete online.
But declines are not concentrated in red small towns. Journalism was always concentrated in cities and has long failed to reflect local diversity. But news philanthropy is now concentrating in democratic places like cities and college towns. I also talk to Nick Hagar of Northwestern University about his new media and society article with Johannes Wachs and Agnes Horvát, Writer movements between news outlets reflect political polarization in media. He finds that contributors to media are an insular group overall, but conservative outlets are disconnected to the rest of the media infrastructure. The content of news, including stylistic and substantive differences, matches these contributor networks. Usher looks at the broad changes in the news industry and how they reflect inequalities in political trends.
Nikki Usher: This is one of these books where the title almost sums up the whole argument. It’s News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism. What I’m really arguing is that a long and prevailing trend of newspaper economics and media economics generally being targeted towards more desirable audiences. It’s just getting worse and worse as the crisis in newspaper journalism accelerates. I tend to look at all of this from a production standpoint. So what happens inside the newsroom that creates these pressures. And really what I realized is you can’t just operate from inside the newsroom thinking about this stuff, that really the story of what’s going on in American journalism is deeply embedded in sort of the story of winners and losers and these winner take all cities and growing geographic and social inequality.
And so the book tries to really wrestle with what’s happening in the US at large, trends from big trap, big tech, to sort of this political regionalism and apply that to what’s going on in the news industry. So I think that that’s kind of like the big framing. And something to really highlight is that news is made foreign by people with cultural capital who are willing to subscribe who are largely white. And these newsrooms, especially the institutional newsrooms, remain white institutions. And the blue part is a little bit more complicated because I don’t think I would say American newspapers are necessarily liberal institutions, but I would say the people supporting them are because liberals are the only ones that still believe in mainstream American journalism. So, that’s kind of the big 30,000 foot view.
Matt Grossmann: It was born of an effort to understand news in the Trump era.
Nikki Usher: I am a news ethnographer, which means I go inside newsrooms to kind of try to understand how people work and how they make decisions about what becomes the news. My first book actually did this on the New York Times. It’s called Making News at the New York Times. And my second book did this in sort of a multi-sided approach looking at the rise of data journalism, but I kind of got my start as a journalist. I’m a very failed cub reporter. My first real job was at the Philadelphia Inquirer. A lot of my career prior to this book was really about thinking about the promise and the future and sort of, I guess it was a little techno utopian.
There was this moment where I realized that these newsrooms, like these really grand big newsrooms are physically being knocked down, and it was such a symbol of their diminished influence. One of those newspapers was the Philadelphia Enquirer. As a cub reporter, I wasn’t allowed to go into that building because of union rules. And so, I don’t know, maybe it just hit me really, really hard. So I think I started thinking really about the physical places of newspaper journalism. And then kind of prior to the 2016 election, I was driving through upstate New York to get to Cornell. New York is bluer, like purple upstate. You know what I mean? It’s not a red state place. I was so surprised to see how many Trump signs I was seeing.
I landed in national airport in DC and I saw that the Trump books were outselling the Clinton books in an order of 10 to one. I kept trying to tell my friends, many of whom were journalists, that they needed to really think outside the data that they were getting from polling and that kind of like places I wasn’t expecting to see such energy around Trump were really showing it. Lo and behold, I don’t want to say I called it because I think that’s obnoxious, but it really shifted my understanding of the importance of journalism being connected, especially big national outlets, failing to connect to sort of anywhere outside of the concerns of these big cities. And so, that really altered book from being about the places of news physically to the places of news more conceptually, like yes, physical but also cultural and in terms of power.
Matt Grossmann: Hagar’s work was also motivated by a look at how news production impacts what we see.
Nick Hagar: I come to this from a background in attention markets. So anywhere online where people are consuming any kind of content and there is some flow of money based on attention, social media streaming, obviously news. There is often in that kind of research a focus on distribution and how people are consuming content and not so much on the production side. And so I wanted to look at this production angle in news. This worked out great because I had two phenomenal collaborators on this. Agnes Horvát is… I’ll take this again. I had two phenomenal collaborators on this. Agnes Horvát brings this wonderful network’s expertise and helped design our main network analysis. And Johannes Wachs did our topic modeling and our language analysis which really tied the content analysis piece of the paper together. So we were able to bring all that together really nicely into this analysis.
Matt Grossmann: They found polarization in news contributors, especially on the right.
Nick Hagar: We looked at, in digital news media, a group of people who worked for outlets in a freelance capacity and were interested in where are they writing and where are they moving over the course of a period of time? We found three big things. First of all, there is a huge gulf on the production side of news between mainstream media, so what we think of as sort of major newspapers and also some left-leaning media and right-leaning media sort of isolated in its own part of the media ecosystem. We also saw that between those two groups, there is a massive difference in the kinds of topics that writers are covering, which translates to a difference in the kinds of coverage that news audiences get exposed to. And there is very little crossover between those groups. So the key takeaway is that we focus a lot in polarization discussions on filter bubbles. What are we reading? What is the algorithm exposing to us? When there is also this really key news production component that is helping to feed into this whole polarized environment.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s dig into each project, starting with Usher’s. She says, “Our nostalgia for the local news of old is a bit misplaced.”
Nikki Usher: I want to start, Matt, with kind of I really think that the role of this book is to kind of knock some of the nostalgia out of the arguments that are made by stakeholders who believe that journalism matters, and it does. Journalism matters, but this idea of local journalism as like the accountability nerve of communities and even cities across the United States is a really sort of like post 1970s even version of big city journalism. And certainly in many sort of smaller areas, areas where you would see even 20,000 circulation newspapers to like 5,000 circulation weeklies, those newspapers have never held the power to account. They’ve been these booster rags that have enshrined a conservative pro-business establishment and in many cases both large and small newspapers have been a valid supporters of segregation.
I think the story of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, if you dig back to Henry Grady and the New South, I mean, either really are some stories of American newspapers being profoundly anti-democratic in many ways. So I really kind of like, I’m talking to a political scientist and I often get a ton of pushback on this, but I think that we need to be really much more intellectually honest about the role that news have served on the ground around enshrining existing power institutions. And that hasn’t always been in the service of kind of a more egalitarian representative vision of democracy. So that’s like one thing. I start out with kind of a big history chapter and I think that that kind of sets the tone for the book kind of thinking more about where these losses are and are not occurring.
Matt Grossmann: Usher finds local news declines are responsible for the reddening of small town America.
Nikki Usher: You hear a lot about news deserts, and particularly this narrative of local newspapers disappearing in places that are red and growing redder and sort of the implicit kind of, it’s not necessarily said by academics but it’s certainly much more explicitly argued by journalists and commentators that when you lose local news, you lose important information and then you vote redder because if you had better information, maybe you’d vote more in your own interests, which is a very paternalistic frustrating argument that I really dislike. But there’s also sort of like how do you measure losses in journalism? I just use a slightly different measure, which is newspaper employment, which kind of gives you a more granular view because it’s where a journalist is actually located. It gives you a sense of resources because you can have a newspaper, but if only one person’s working for it, that’s not necessarily going to be a huge supply of original content.
I think there is some like how do you actually measure where the losses are occurring and how do you tell all kind of more complicated and nuanced story? There are a lot of ways to think about this. You can think about county just as pure counties losing newspaper employment red or blue. And you can think about in terms of local populations. Or you can think about it in terms of relative to the news industry as a whole, where are those losses taking place? And that tells you a little bit of a different story because it acknowledges that journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, is weakening everywhere. Where are the sheriffs happening relative to losses in the industry as a whole? And I think that matters.
I think it’s more than just red, blue, newspaper open, closed kind of way we have to think about. We have to think about it, yes, relative to population, yes, within sort of what’s happening on the ground in terms of political shifts. But we also kind of have to think about where are these losses occurring relative to across the industry, which is struggling. So it’s really interesting to see kind of a within industry measure.
And then it matters whether you look at absolute number or proportional numbers. And I think that when you start to layer on even something like a more dynamic understanding or more subtle understanding of counties, so at Michigan state there’s the American Communities Project and it clusters American counties into 15 different county types. And so you get a much better sense of like what kind of county is this that might be losing news, and how does this county as a big city in an urban suburb. Those are kind of pretty similar, but an urban suburb is different.
I think that I’ve tried to provide a little bit more texture and I think the two kind of big takeaways that are really important, first is there are places that have just really not had a lot of local news. And so when we look at places as news deserts, these are places that are kind of what I call historical news deserts. When you think about the African-American South or native American lands, working class country kind of areas, those are places that have really been traditionally underserved for local news. And the market conditions that we were talking about really kind of explain that. So I think it’s a misnomer to kind of look at these places that have just had very little journalism and ascribe some sort of new sense of crisis.
I think the second thing is when you look at where the shifts are occurring within industry. What I find is that Republican areas actually tend to be a little bit more over-provisioned relative to places that are blue. And so that kind of disabuses the notion a little bit that Republicans are so distant from the national news organizations and therefore feel disconnected. There’s a lot of media distrust and therefore are doubling down on their hatred of the news media and reddening and so forth. So there’s something more complicated going on and I think that you can’t just use partisanship and news as like solo indicators. There has to be something more on the ground because places that have lost news have both grown redder and bluer.
Matt Grossmann: Journalists have always been concentrated in New York and DC.
Nikki Usher: When you look at sort of these concentrations of where journalists are, there tends to be this presumption that like places are kind of emptying out of their journalism and that’s why national journalism has gotten so strong. Maybe that’s a partial explanatory effect. But when you actually look at the populations of journalists in Washington and DC, you see that these have always been media capitals. It’s not like DC suddenly woke up after 2008 and became a media capital. And actually my analysis shows this. I think over the ten-year periods steadied, the combined gain across DC and New York was like roughly 6% across both areas, which like is some but it’s not like you saw a 70% jump in the number of journalists.
And so I think it’s sort of like is it about both national attention to politics and national attention to larger political narratives; because it’s not just a supply thing, it’s also a demand thing. And I think that, again, an ethnography attacking a political scientist, but I do think there’s something about how are those messages being ratified within a local context? And I think that we don’t necessarily have a good sense of that. And so some of my research right now on more rural areas has shown that local radio plays a really important role in translating those larger political narratives locally. So, I guess the answer really is it’s always more complicated and that’s why we love social science and that’s why we do it.
Matt Grossmann: Congressional journalists continue their hard job of translation between home audiences and politicians.
Nikki Usher: I had a day pass because I am not a journalist to basically follow around the Press Corps for a day inside the Capitol. I learned so much about the nature of pack journalism that it really became clear for me why when you have a swarm of like 30 journalists chasing you up the stairs, it is no wonder that you say that a Senator might say something totally ridiculous about immigration because they’re literally being chased up the stairs. That point aside, there really is something to the physical presence of congressional journalists, particularly these Washington DC correspondents who are usually newspaper reporters covering a state for a newspaper quote back home. And they’re kind of like that moment where the Beltway and Heartland intersect in like a corporeal existence. If you are covering Alaska in DC, you are that point where the Beltway and the Heartland intersect.
I think what’s really interesting about this is I actually don’t think that the coverage that’s happening is really all that different. It may be is more geographically focused, but it’s still like win loss gain frame, like maybe it’s a little bit less palace intrigue of character stories. But what really matters is the physical presence of a journalist from that state asking questions. It reminds and centers the Senator or the congressperson that like their state’s there and their state’s paying attention to them. And I think that that’s maybe the most kind of interesting thing that I’ve found, that it’s like a journalist is almost like an unelected representative to some degree and kind of reminds you that Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, you’re actually there to represent South Carolina. So let’s talk about what’s going on in South Carolina.
So I think that that was really, really kind of an interesting takeaway for me. But like the physical presence part of being there, I mean, I was there for a day doing my fieldwork. I did a lot of other field work, but in terms of actually like being able to tag around with the press, I had a day. I found myself alone with Amy Klobuchar and we had a chat about this particular chapter and I had her undivided attention without her press aides and that’s like why there’s a real physical component to how journalism happens and why you actually need people there to ask these questions. So I think that that maybe is like the sort of more subtle… You wouldn’t hear that necessarily in the chapter though I do talk about the Klobuchar encounter.
Matt Grossmann: Usher sees it as a competition problem due to the basic fact that online advertising broke newspaper monopolies with an integrated system.
Nikki Usher: I am a senior fellow with the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism & Liberty, which is funded by Knight. They’re kind of essentially a competition policy antitrust think tank. One of the sort of realizations you have to think about is that local newspapers were monopolies in most cases. And so to some degree the story of the decline in advertising is a story of chipping away at inefficient monopoly, because newspapers always thought that they would be in the position of selling audiences to advertisers even online. So there is part of that story. And then so Google and Facebook build a better mouse trap. That mouse trap is unfair because it includes every sort of side of the digital advertising kind of supply chain. So it includes the data to target, it includes the servers that serve the ads and it includes sort of the placement and delivery of those ads.
So when you own the entire pipeline, there’s no way, there’s absolutely no way that a local newspaper or even a digital first publication can really compete because not only are the ad tech infrastructure much worse or Google owned where Google takes a cut or Facebook takes a cut rate, but there’s just they don’t have the data like if news organizations, which do. If you were able to collect all the cookie data of all the people coming to a local news site and do something with it, you might have, and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal do have a better understanding of how to do this. Maybe you’d start to get close to reaching target audiences and making a case to advertisers that you can reach particular types of people. But it’s really just unfair.
And so I think that if we really want to at least start, like provide a starting point or kind of like a fresh of breath air, I don’t think it’s going to fix everything, but just better data privacy laws and dismantling the choke hold on every aspect of the digital advertising system through antitrust I think is a reasonable kind of policy intervention that I am more comfortable with politically because I do not love the idea of the IRS deciding what is and is not a newspaper, for instance.
Matt Grossmann: Pack philanthropy may even be accelerating the problems.
Nikki Usher: When you think about philanthropy and news philanthropy as kind of a salvo for a broken commercial system, at least initially that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea and I think it definitely is one pillar of all of these potential solutions. But philanthropy has built into it perhaps even worse dynamics of elitism. There is something called like pack philanthropy where people find a place that they like investing in or donating to and then everybody else piles on. You see some of these dynamics and a lot of the philanthropies are more familiar with cities, they’re located in cities. They may know some of the journalists individually. There may be like pre-existing relationships. And so when we crunched the numbers for investigative journalism and kind of looked at where geographically the money was flowing, we saw a lot of big city to big city financial flows and big city to college town, and I think some of that may be a clustering effect of having public radio and public media in some of those college towns.
I couldn’t really explain why this might be happening. I just think it was important to substantiate, and there could be a couple of different reasons. It could be that journalists in blue places are better tapped into the philanthropic universe because that’s where a lot of that philanthropy is clustered in giving in cities. It could be that these journalists have better know how. So that could be one explanation, that the talented journalists who have been laid off from the Chicago Tribune are the ones that go and run the first iteration of ProPublica, Illinois. So it makes sense.
But I think that there’s also a real disconnect between the needs on the ground in sort of more non-traditional blue states and more sort of rural areas where they’re just not as tapped in to the philanthropic circles. And so if you look at some of the more rural oriented news outlets that have been funded by philanthropy, The Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, those are funded by primarily, at least initially, by regional development grants like econ grants. It took almost seven tries for 100 Days in Appalachia, which is based out of West Virginia University, to get money from Knight. And I think that that tells you a little bit about kind of the political economy of philanthropy.
Matt Grossmann: Hagar took a more specific look at online media outlets, analyzing freelance contributors across sources.
Nick Hagar: In our study, we looked at about 6,000 articles written by 300 some contributors. It is largely freelance journalists. We use the word contributors because we also have people like politicians, academics, writing columns for a news outlet, other kinds of writers if you’re promoting a book or a novel. But for the most part, it is professional journalists working in a freelance capacity, which is really important because these are the folks who are producing more and more of the news that we read every day. There is an increasing reliance in newsrooms on freelance journalists as more stable long-term jobs start to disappear from news media. So understanding what freelancers are doing in their careers, where they’re writing for over time, gives us a window into an increasingly prevalent part of news media production.
Matt Grossmann: The right has a dense network, the left less so.
Nick Hagar: There are two interesting network dynamics that emerge. One, like I alluded to earlier, there is no overlap between these groups at all. We found that you are statistically unlikely to cross over. If you’re writing for say Fox News and Breitbart, you’re not going to jump over to an outlet like the Washington Post and vice versa. We also see that in terms of the network structure, the right-leaning cluster of outlets is extremely dense. For the rest of the media, there are sort of these loose connections where some contributors move from Vox to the New York Times, to the Guardian, but they’re not all completely interconnected in terms of contributor movement. That is almost what we see on the right-leaning side. There is such a dense collection of network connections where you can move almost between all of the outlets at any time. So, we see not only the separation but this really strong core of movement where you are writing for not just one or two but almost all of these right-leaning outlets.
Matt Grossmann: The major news outlets are unattached to the right.
Nick Hagar: Our data suggests there is a more mainstream media and then a more isolated conservative media, because we see these connections to very prominent outlets that regardless of whether their reporting or their content has a political leaning, they produce high quality primary source reporting. Places like the New York Times and the Washington Post do this work of producing primary source information that some other outlets are not as focused on. You think of like a digital outlet that’s focused on analysis or interpretation. It’s a slightly different thing that has more room for political leaning to play a role. And so, because of that, because we see that conservative media is so separated from those sources of information, I would argue that that is a clear indication of a mainstream and then a separate conservatives fear.
Matt Grossmann: Hagar says the center left network is not as explicitly political in language.
Nick Hagar: We definitely do see a connection between contributor relationships and topics. This was great topic modeling work that Johannes did. To give an example, there is a huge divergence between these two groups of outlets and what kinds of topics they cover. For example, on the center left, we see topics like science and research, the media, healthcare. On the right, there is a much more explicit political focus; topics like just politics in general, specifically prominent democratic politicians, Republican Party politics seems to be a much more explicit political focus. We look at these topics not so much to make a value judgment on which topics the outlets are focusing on, more to point out that the movement, the choices that freelancers make and the structure in which they move has an impact on the kinds of news that audiences ultimately get exposed to, get to read, depending on their choice of news outlets.
Matt Grossmann: And the right network is more emotional.
Nick Hagar: The big takeaway from the stylistic differences is that we see right-leaning media, contributors to right-leaning media tends to use more effect, specifically more negative emotion, in their reporting. And it’s important to note that our sample is during the 2016 election. A very contentious election, a very polarized time which might help explain some of that. But there is a clear emotional valence to some of the coverage that we see in our sample.
Matt Grossmann: The only ways across the divide are apolitical topics and politicians.
Nick Hagar: We see cross cutting contributors focusing on topics like sports, family issues, finance, the kinds of topics that at least on their face are not as politically charged as what we see covered inside the two clusters. So, it seems like if you’re going to try and make this jump, you’re going to focus on topics that are going to maintain your widespread appeal. You’re intentionally thoughtfully choosing topics that are not going to close you off from either side. The interesting exception to that, one of the classes of contributors we looked at is politicians. Politicians who are writing columns, writing during their campaigns trying to get a message out, move relatively freely. They make up about 30% of the cross cutting contributors that we see.
And so our thought there is that politicians may have a different set of expectations, may have a different almost set of rules about where they can contribute over time than a freelancer would because they are such a prominent public figure trying to get a message out. But that is obviously a little different than our idea of an objective journalist moving and giving a different perspective in say a right to left leaning outlet. So, it’s not super encouraging for cross cutting.
Matt Grossmann: News production means readers might not be responsible for polarization and news.
Nick Hagar: Our results suggest that structure is a huge part of this issue. I like to think of it in the same way as climate change where for a long time we have this focus on individual action like recycling and responsible consumption, while there is this huge structure of incentives and larger actors pushing us towards a place where that individual action is not necessarily impactful. The same way that in news we often say, well, you need to get out of your filter bubble, you need to be aware of the political leaning of what you’re reading and you need to consciously look for a wide range of information sources.
I think those are all good practices, but at a structural level, if news production is still catering to the strong political divide, that individual action can only take us so far. And I think speaking from a US perspective, this is somewhat unique to the constraints of market dynamics because you’re right, there is a feedback loop with readers. News outlets have to make enough money to keep producing news. One way to do that is to give readers what they want to read, which often aligns with their political views. And so part of what we might be seeing here is a distinct lack of say a robust public media option that would help to counteract some of those market constraints that might be driving this.
Matt Grossmann: And journalist career paths also matter.
Nick Hagar: From an audience perspective, I think it goes back to, again, the market conditions to say, well, if I am a right-leaning outlet, my audience is right-leaning, they don’t really want to read something from a left-leaning contributor and vice versa. People don’t really want to spend their time with that. And so from an audience perspective, if I’m an editor and I’m looking at pitches, why would I select a pitch that my audience is not going to react to or is going to really hate and maybe go somewhere else that better aligns with their political perspective. And then from the other side, there’s also an interesting individual journalist angle to this where one way to look at our findings is in terms of pathways through a career if you’re looking at this. These are the well-trodden paths that are going to work best for you as a freelancer moving say from Vox to the New York Times. It’s something that other people have done and you’re going to be more likely to do.
So if I am a freelancer and I know I want to be a successful journalist and go work at the New York Times eventually, why would I cut myself off from that path by going to write for Breitbart? It just doesn’t make sense as an individual. So there are all sorts of incentives that are keeping the structure in place.
Matt Grossmann: Usher agrees that interpersonal networks matter and show a class bias as well.
Nikki Usher: A lot of this needs to be sort of explained as interpersonal dynamics in addition to partisan dynamics. You build a network and that network is reinforcing and mutually reinforcing. I think that if, like so this study included 14 different outlets, the National Review, Breitbart and I want to say one more that I can’t remember, but that’s a really small sample of establishment conservative journalism. I bet that you would see significantly a bigger ecosystem. Yes, it would be partisan, but if you included sort of like the Daily Caller and maybe even some of these more like red state. Like so I think it’s an incomplete picture but a very important one. I think it’s a story of networks.
I think that if you were to look at who the freelancers are, I think that’s really important. We can’t presume partisanship upon them without knowing, but I guarantee you that anybody that’s in the capacity to freelance has something that I think is more concerning in common which is that they’re probably all people who have a financial safety net to put them in the position to freelance. And so that to me maybe is more concerning than what’s happening in terms of the partisan dynamics, but the face validity of the paper absolutely makes sense to me. I also think it’s easier. It didn’t use to be like this I think even just 10 years ago, but it’s definitely like you can go back and forth from writing for the Nation and writing for the New York Times magazine in a way that I don’t think you could have, or Huffington Post and the Washington Post way more than I think you could have even 10 years ago. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but it’s a great question.
Matt Grossmann: Hagar also sees contributors as part of a political class that reinforces itself.
Nick Hagar: People who enter this media class who make it to the top tiers of media tend to be from extremely privileged backgrounds. And if you’re not and you’re trying to make it in media, you are likely in a very precarious position, usually as a freelancer just trying to scrape together work. And if you are in that position and say you have a conservative viewpoint or you even just are wanting to do objective fact-based reporting instead of analysis or interpretation, you are not really in a position to make those calls. You’re not in a position to push back on an editor who is paying your rent. You’re not in a position to try and pitch stories that editors are not going to take from you. You’re only in a position to produce what that editors want and what news audiences want until you reach that position of stability.
So it’s the sort of self-sealing thing where if you are already inside that bubble, you really have no reason to look elsewhere. And if you’re trying to get in, you have to conform with what the current practices, what the current approaches to producing media online are or you’re risking your career.
Matt Grossmann: Nationalized media increases the role of this national political class.
Nick Hagar: On one side, the nationalization I think ties to the drop in event centered reporting because it is a lot harder if you’re based in New York to give you day-to-day reporting about what’s happening say in the Midwest. And it also, to tie this back to Nikki’s work, it also insulates that class of contributors like you’re saying even more because you’re drawing from such a limited pool. And that limited pool often maybe comes with limited perspectives if you’re not getting contributors from all over the country but maybe just one or two cities. So, the erosion of regional and local news makes it so those audiences go elsewhere. They go to a digital source that is not necessarily catered directly to them. And in turn, the outlets that are publishing news for those audiences are not able to really provide the same level of focused, event-centered reporting that we saw before.
Matt Grossmann: Usher says woke media follows in audience demands and generational change in news.
Nikki Usher: What’s happening I think is a real generational divide inside the newsroom and also sort of expectation issue that liberal audiences have with these formidable institutions. I think liberal audiences would like the New York Times as a whole, as an institution, to be more openly social justice oriented because just like writing the words around covering what’s happening is not an indication itself of how the institution as a whole approaches social justice. So I think that there’s like why isn’t… And you see this, like cancel NYT stuff whenever the New York Times writes some horribly neutral headline.
But on the other hand, there is a generation of younger, more diverse journalists that are becoming increasingly powerful at these institutions, some of them emboldened by unions. The LA Times is a really good example of this, and they’re pushing for more woke journalism and they’re pushing for more intellectual honesty within their newsrooms. They’re asking for those commitments institutionally. I think we’re at a really interesting inflection point because newspapers really are only getting subscriptions from one type of person, again, who still believes the mainstream media. So it is one type of person, whether that’s centrist or centrist liberal or centrist Democrat. I suggest this in the book’s conclusion, maybe you just own it. Maybe these news organizations just need to own the fact that this is their audience and be transparent about their intellectual and political commitments rather than hiding behind objectivity.
Matt Grossmann: Hagar says these trends mean news polarization is likely to continue.
Nick Hagar: Based on what we’ve seen and based on the trends in the news media industry, this is not a dynamic that’s going to go away anytime soon. If anything, it will only continue to calcify in this polarized sphere. And that’s because of a couple of things. One, the shift to digital that is… I mean, we keep talking about the shift to digital. It has happened at this point. We have shifted to digital. That means there is this more open media sphere less centered on the professional class of journalists and the values of say objectivity and whatever that come with that. And also a shift to more analysis, more interpretation, away from event centered reporting. So instead of saying this thing happens and here’s when and where and all of those traditional reporting elements of a story, it’s more focused on, well, what does this event mean? What can we learn from this event? What is the take on a particular event as it’s happening?
Those two things in concert work to increase polarization, I think, because if your focus is on interpretation, then you have to have a perspective and those perspectives often fall along political lines. So to the extent that we are more reliant on the kinds of news that are interpretation based, we are more reliant on news that is coming from a particular political perspective. There are some positive trends. The resurgence of some of the national papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post in recent years is encouraging, but it comes down again to the audience and what is the audience on the whole reading and paying attention to. Even if they are subscribing to the New York Times, is that primary source reporting those deep investigative stories? Is that primarily what they’re spending their time consuming?
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes. Does Nationalized Media Mean the Death of Local Politics, How Online Media Polarizes and Encourages Voters, How News and Social Media Shape American Voters, Did Facebook Really Polarize and Misinform the 2016 Electorate, and Can TV News Keep Politics Local. Thanks to Nikki Usher and Nick Hagar for joining me. Please check out News for the Rich, White, and Blue, and Writer movements between news outlets reflect political polarization in media, and then listen in next time.