GW Research, Spring 2016

Shelf Life:Interviewing the Interviewers

Nikki Usher (Photo by William Atkins)
Nikki Usher (Photo by William Atkins)
May 29, 2015

The New York Times has supplemented its well-known mandate of publishing “All the News That’s Fit to Print” with “All the News That’s Fit to Click”—a journey that has been neither smooth sailing nor unexciting in its prospects, writes GW professor Nikki Usher.

By Menachem Wecker, MA ’09


Making News at The New York Times (University of Michigan Press, 2014)
Nikki Usher, assistant professor of media and public affairs

Even if rumors of journalism’s demise are premature and exaggerated, it’s no secret that the industry is in crisis and must evolve to meet a new digital landscape. There is, surely, no better front seat to observe that transition as a scholarly fly on the wall than the newsroom at The New York Times, which is precisely where Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs, set up shop for an estimated 700 hours during the first six months of 2010. Dr. Usher spent most of her time at the Gray Lady’s business desk and paid careful attention to the ways that three “core values of online journalism—immediacy, interactivity and participation—emerged as points of tension and change,” she writes. 

These three values orient journalism in the new online world. “Journalists must reckon with how to adjust to the demands of a 24/7 news cycle [and] an environment of interactive engagement,” she writes. “... The result has been a restructuring of news routines, albeit in a contested way.” Objectivity, the age-old news value, remains a factor, according to Dr. Usher, but it has perhaps been displaced somewhat by journalists’ new marching orders.

There are challenges in trying to pin down a speeding target in book format, Dr. Usher admits. “Yet there are some underlying themes that remain the same regardless of the technological change,” she says. While her book captures a moment in the history of a particular newspaper, it tells a story “about the clash of old and new that has been repeated over and over again throughout the history of news.”

Since completing her research in 2010, Dr. Usher has noticed considerable changes in the field. The biggest, she says, has been the evolution of “analytics,” or measurements to track online user behavior—metrics that are becoming increasingly important in editorial decision-making and to advertisers. “Yet at The New York Times, analytics are only beginning to make major inroads, as company interviews and documents suggest that many journalists only have a cursory understanding of their meaning,” she says.


Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values
(Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014)
Lawrence A. Cunningham

Since this book was published in October 2014, Warren Buffett’s behemoth conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, has been anything but still, using its Procter & Gamble stock to buy Duracell, among a host of moves. That’s par for the course. But so too is Berkshire’s rock-steady culture and philosophy, which is something of an anomoly among large U.S. corporations, says Mr. Cunningham, a research professor of law. “It is more like what is found in smaller business partnerships. Berkshire shareholders think of themselves as owners or partners, while managers see their role as stewards,” he says. “Throughout the organization, overhead is kept low, loyalty is prized, individual autonomy promoted, entrepreneurship stimulated, and capital allocated shrewdly.”


Narcissism and Politics: Dreams of Glory (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
Jerrold M. Post

Narcissus, of Greek mythological notoriety for falling fatally in love with his own reflection, epitomizes the Facebook-addicted “me generation.” The “apparent epidemic of narcissism” doesn’t infect all politicians, writes Dr. Post, GW professor of political psychology, but the “arena of public service and its limelight is particularly attractive, indeed irresistible, to individuals with narcissistic propensities.”


Constructive Illusions: Misperceiving the Origins of International Cooperation
(Cornell University Press, 2014)
Eric Grynaviski

This book topples what is surely conventional wisdom—that the parties at the international diplomatic bargaining table ought to come to the best understanding of one another possible. Dr. Grynaviski, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs, instead writes provocatively that global cooperation is often likeliest when countries erroneously believe that they have much in common. “Actors may cooperate,” he writes, “precisely because they lack mutual understanding.”


The Last Blank Spaces: Exploring Africa and Australia
(Harvard University Press, 2013)
Dane Kennedy

British explorers tended, at least initially, to treat the continents of Africa and Australia as if they were uncharted oceans, which needed to be mapped and logged carefully using the best scientific instruments and techniques. That changed when boots hit the ground, according to Dane Kennedy, the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at GW. Locals proved much more useful. “Where [explorers] went and how they got there was often predicated on what they learned from guides, go-betweens, and other indigenous peoples,” he writes. “So too was their access to food, water, shelter, and other necessities.” Explorers also weren’t the independent actors they might now seem, operating through sheer force of will. Dr. Kennedy says he initially shared “many of the stereotypical notions of who the explorer was and what motivated him, and was surprised to discover that the reality was far more complex and interesting.”