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July 12, 2021, 11:03 a.m.
Business Models

“White audiences who will pay” is still metro newspapers’ survival strategy

“We don’t write for white subscribers, but it ends up being white people who read us,” a Midwestern news executive told an audience earlier this year.

In late June, journalist Tennyson Donyea’s Twitter thread and essay about his experiences trying to pitch and cover Black culture went viral. “Black journalists can’t breathe and it’s become my mental health hell,” he wrote.

One of the most serious limitations preventing Donyea from chronicling Black life and culture in New Jersey?

His editor telling him to remember he was writing for white audiences.

Journalists of color don’t just have to battle white newsroom power structures that marginalize and disempower them (see this recent thread). They also have to deal with the reality of the survival strategy presumed to be optimal for metropolitan and regional newspapers: targeting white audiences who will pay for a digital subscription.

Both explicitly and implicitly, the future of journalism, at least as imagined by white news media executives, is serving white, paying audiences, a preexisting problem made far worse by the market failure of local newspaper journalism and the distortions of the digital advertising market.

Sometimes this is explicitly said in the newsroom, as Donyea’s editor told him.

Sometimes, it slips out in public forums and conferences, as it did at the University of Michigan’s Symposium on Journalism and Politics in February, when a Midwestern news executive told an audience that I was in, “We don’t write for white subscribers, but it ends up being white people who read us.”

In other cases, pre-existing wealth gaps feed into the whiteness of a digital subscription base. The Boston Globe was the first metropolitan newsroom to sign up more digital subscribers than print ones. A Globe digital subscription costs $360 a year after initial discounts.

In Boston in 2015, the average white family had a median net worth of $247,000, while “Dominicans and U.S. blacks [had] a median wealth of close to zero.” It’s hard to imagine anything other than a white subscriber base fueling a newsroom whose customer service page notes that the print Globe is indeed compostable. (It should be noted that The Globe has recommitted to anti-racist coverage, appointed Black newsroom leaders, and is engaging in an experiment to recreate a contemporary abolitionist newspaper.)

A News Media Alliance survey on the willingness of audiences to pay in 2019 found that Minnesota residents would still consider paying for local news — but of the 500 or so people surveyed, 90% were white. Perhaps this reflects the makeup of the state (which is 83% white); de facto, the audiences willing to pay are white audiences.

But perhaps far worse, and far more insidious, are the implicit and coded ways that newsroom strategy and coverage priorities are set: bound up in decisions about what neighborhoods to dedicate coverage or which stories to prioritize, as I detail further in my new book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

When the diversity numbers of any American metropolitan newsroom are compared to the population of the cities they presumably serve, it’s impossible to think that anyone other than white audiences are being targeted for coverage — and this isn’t likely to improve without substantial effort that goes beyond improving newsroom diversity.

The white populations in Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia all make up less than 40% of each city’s total population, but white journalists make up 74% or more of newsroom employees, according to the 2017 ASNE media diversity survey data crunched by digital publication The Pudding.

According to the data, at The Chicago Tribune, 80% of all newsroom employees were white, as were 92% of newsroom leaders. The city of Chicago itself is 32% Black. Following the recent round of buyouts in the wake of the Tribune’s purchase by Alden, it’s hard to imagine these numbers improving.

When I sat in a newsroom meeting in March 2018, just before The Chicago Tribune left the Tribune building, the editors were all white. When they explained to me that high school sports were always a big draw for traffic, it was clear that the high school sports drawing eyeballs were not South Side schools with strapped athletic budgets and dwindling enrollments, but the whiter, wealthier suburban sports. A quick recent scan of the high school sports page revealed coverage of Naperville (72% white), Yorkville (82% white), and West Aurora (59% white).

Does the enduring whiteness of the Philadelphia Inquirer explain the way that the headline “Buildings Matter Too” slipped into a column? Perhaps. But the tone deafness also reflects the institution’s image of who that newspaper is for — white audiences.

Scholars, including myself, have failed over and over again in our research about how journalists understand their audiences. When journalists imagine their mother as their reader, it’s probably a white mother. Yet if you are to scan through our scholarship on audience research, rarely does this get pointed out as problematic; in fact, it’s barely noticed.

And even when journalists are aware of the problem, it’s hard to shift their approach. The Dallas Morning News offers another cautionary tale, particularly as it has taken considerable advice from newsroom consultants and newsroom strategists, including the American Press Institute.

Mike Wilson, former editor of the Dallas Morning News, explained to me in 2018, “The pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we are covering.” He then quipped about probably doing more coverage than he’d like in Plano, a wealthy suburb where the 1980s show Dallas was set; Plano might as well be code for “wealthy,” and, given the context, “white.” Nonetheless, he also noted that the newspaper was well-aware of its historical problems and was working to expand coverage of historically-marginalized groups.

This will be difficult. A 2017 audit of the newspaper’s coverage published in the Southwestern Mass Communication Journal found that “content … did not match the diversity of the surrounding community, which is 40% Latinx. People of color and women are symbolically annihilated through the coverage, which results in stereotypical framing of these groups.”

Some good news, though: to rectify this, the newspaper partnered in June 2020 with Texas Metro News, a Black-owned Dallas news outlet, and promoted long-time editor Leona Allen, a Black woman, to deputy publisher, with a mandate to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

At The Los Angeles Times, journalists are battling against a history of white supremacy and the longstanding perception among communities of color that the paper only serves white Angelenos. In 1978, then-publisher Otis Chandler told an interviewer that the Times did not attempt to target Black and Latinos. “It’s not their kind of newspaper. It’s too big, it’s too stuffy. If you will, it’s too complicated.”

The LA Times has made tremendous gains in diversity under the new ownership and investment of Patrick Soon-Shiong, but the newly established Black and Latino caucus of the LA Times’ union (also new) demanded more — not just in terms of representation but also more coverage, arguing, “We don’t have enough Black journalists — or, more broadly, journalists of color — to cover our overwhelmingly diverse city, state and nation with appropriate insight and sensitivity.”

Given the demographic trends of Los Angeles, the survival strategy of the paper cannot depend on white audiences. Rather, “The Times will not survive without winning over subscribers who are not white, and the only way to do that is to have a diverse and inclusive workforce.”

If newspaper newsrooms are looking for a way to survive, one starting point is to consider the majority of the population that has so far gone underserved and as of yet, has little reason, yet, to consider subscribing. If journalism is supposed to serve democracy, it needs to serve the public that actually exists, not the public white newsrooms imagine.

Nikki Usher is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Media and a senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism and Liberty. She is most recently the author of News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

Photo of newspaper in a driveway by Cory Brown used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 12, 2021, 11:03 a.m.
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