This article is one in a series of arguments on class and race in our summer issue.
I suppose I’m meant to care how “the left” talks about race and class. I fit the profile; I’m a black female journalist. My stories since the early 2000s have featured men and women made invisible or marginalized by society, sometimes by their own communities, and certainly by newsrooms. But as a news gatherer, I’ve always tinkered on the borderlands of mainstream and progressive journalism, the left’s gathering space. I never fully committed. That’s because early in my career I settled on an important distinction: it’s not how you talk about class and race that matters; it’s to and for whom. Audience determines how.
Left conversations about race and class rarely center my folks as their audience: the precarious middle-class, working-class, and working-poor residents of my Brooklyn street; recent immigrants; and native-born Americans like them. Left conversations seem unaware of the value of redistributing news media power such that non-whites and working people construct their own left conversations about race and class. This, to me, is the problem—not how the left’s well-educated upper-middle class, unharmed and unbothered by journalism’s poverty wages, talks about race and class.
As a journalist I always conceived of my role as working for folks who are not in the room. I don’t view the progressive or liberal journalist’s pursuit of news about marginalized people as progress. From my view in the borderlands, the progressive mission should be to expand the production of news (about race, class, and gender) for these audiences. It should be to create multiple mainstreams strong enough to compete with the mainstream. Producing news about low-wealth people for a better-off, highly educated audience carries a high civic and socioeconomic cost for folks on the losing side of economic inequality and those of us driven to expand democratic participation.
It never made sense to me to believe that a shooting in a New York City outer borough has gotten sunlight because a white guy in Greenwich, Connecticut, read about it in an issue of the New York Times. What does informing him have to do with journalism fulfilling its public service for the people living in that outer borough? Where is their trusted mainstream for surfacing debate, sifting truth from misinformation, and building consensus?
I come from city blocks that at one point seemed to be losing one member of every five households to Rikers and to prisons upstate. No mainstream outlet has ever covered that phenomenon commensurate to its effect on generations of families in the sending and receiving zip codes. The affected persons—black, brown, and white—aren’t whom those outlets produce news for. Otherwise, we would see newsroom beats like “community health and safety,” “justice,” or “the prison economy”—instead of “crime.”
The way that mainstream news media covers healthcare, housing, and higher education, for example, is also shaped by the audience it values. These outlets don’t consistently answer the practical, mundane, or even existential questions of people and communities that are low wealth, of color, or immigrant. They answer the white guy in Greenwich’s questions. However those outlets talk about race and class, it’s for him. They explain the world to him. They center him. They seek to expand his world. They seek to persuade and convince him. They engage and value him. They believe his civic participation matters more than that of the audiences I value.
Meanwhile, the nation is browner in real life, and even browner on Gen Z’s TV shows and social media. Right now, to paraphrase Ian Haney López, white people are trying to figure out what it means to be white in the United States. For low-wealth families the cost of upward mobility is prohibitive. Is our news system designed for now? It makes sense to me that the journalism industry should serve pluralities, or multiple mainstreams—not only the imagined white, suburban one penning in the black and brown inner-city. That’s a throwback to when white-majority society was culturally dominant and dominating, and that was accepted even if not acceptable. Discursively, “whiteness” has been displaced. We are in a different era.
New media organizations must fill the local news vacuum and fellowship with publics that never trusted mainstream news in the first place. This will require community ownership. It will require paying living wages to attract journalists who both come from and want to produce stories for ordinary working people. Considering the ubiquity of misinformation, it will require that news be plentiful and free; that means no more paywalls in front of news articles. It will require free or subsidized broadband for low-wealth and low-news-consuming communities. All of the above is media policy—a subject that was not part of my master’s degree in journalism but should have been.
From the nineteenth century through today, the businesspeople, publishers, journalism schools, and politicians creating media policy have allowed outlets producing news for low-wealth, immigrant, and indigenous communities, or communities of color, to fail. All those disappeared local outlets had expanded, complicated, and enriched discussions of race and class. Imagine if over the past twenty-five years, media policy had created a path for that diversity to thrive.
In this century, new outlets have taken on the challenge of producing news for either ignored or talked-about communities. Their audiences don’t consume news like the mainstream, so these outlets are also upending anemic and solipsistic industry conventions. Via SMS text messaging, Outlier Media in Detroit provides news about housing, utilities, and COVID-19. The audience of Enlace Latino NC is rural workers who may not read or write well in either English or Spanish, so it produces news for the ear and short, easily understood text messages. City Bureau in Chicago trains and pays residents to monitor local government. MLK50 in Memphis produces news for ordinary working people. A 2019 investigation it undertook led the city’s largest nonprofit hospital to erase $11.9 million in debt owed by the city’s poor.
Will these outlets and others like Documented, Scalawag, and El Tímpano be allowed to fulfill their missions? Without public investment, no, I don’t believe so. In our monopoly market, they are climbing Everest without oxygen. The scavenger’s yard that is the journalism industry belongs to Alden, Google, Facebook, and the New York Times. Local and regional news outlets for marginalized communities need far more than the nominal sums they currently receive. But philanthropists will never fund these outlets the way they fund mainstream-serving organizations like ProPublica. They’ll never give those outlets a similar chance to maximize their public service potential. Those outlets don’t talk to audiences that white philanthropists value. Only public investment will deliver a media system that can serve the news needs of our time, which is a critical mass of well-funded and community-owned outlets throughout the United States.
Carla Murphy is a journalist and educator who also consults on journalism industry reform.