This is Mediaquake, our regular interview series with journalists, activists, and scholars, asking big questions about journalism, capitalism, and the future of both.
Carla Murphy is an assistant professor of journalism at Rutgers University in Newark; she is a reporter, teacher, critic, and advocate focused on journalism reform. In a pair of recent essays published in Dissent, Murphy called for the creation of a working-class media, and argued that only public investment—and a renewed commitment to public media policy—will lead to meaningful change.
In 2020, Murphy published the “Leavers Survey,” featuring interviews with 101 former journalists of color about their experiences; a second survey focusing on working journalists of color is on the way.
I got together with Murphy to talk about community, journalism, policy, capitalism, and the path forward. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kate Harloe: You’ve identified as a “leaver,” but you also still do journalism. Did you ever really leave? What brought you to journalism, and what was your experience of the industry?
Carla Murphy: I’m an immigrant, and I came to this country—specifically New York City— in the late 80s, when I was nine. My mom still lives in the same apartment that we landed in, and that my aunt had lived in before. Typical immigrant launching pad. Soon after, I attended a predominantly white, Jewish, elite private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I grew up between multiple cultures, races, classes, and religions.
It was at a time that was similar to what you’re seeing now with Black Lives Matter, in terms of the energy and volume of protests and the police violence. The Central Park Five happened a few blocks from the school. During my adolescence there was Yusuf Hawkins, the Crown Heights Riots, Rodney King in LA. I was paying attention to how my local news was covering these issues that were shaping my life as a black girl growing up here. And it was quite dissatisfying, to put it mildly.
When I actually got to go into newsrooms, much later, I was able to see one reason why: newsrooms still looked like it was 1964. I always thought, if newspapers were forced to take a picture of their newsrooms, and put them up on a billboard or a bus in New York City, I’d be very curious to see the blowback from the public.
But they’re not. They’re not forced to do that.
Anyway, these experiences in my adolescence led me to pursue journalism. I thought that I could cover criminal justice, in particular. I was arrested a number of times before I even hit 25. I thought I could be fair, and do those issues justice, for my family members, for my friends, for my neighbors. I thought I could report that news in a rigorous way for them, and for communities that looked like mine. Naively, I thought those opportunities existed in journalism, but they didn’t.
A lot of my journalism experience was just trying to find spaces that allowed me to do the work that I wanted to do, for the audiences I wanted to serve.
How do you see your role now?
You know what, it’s exciting. Though that question used to scare me, because I thought you had to have an answer: You have to have one title. When I left the industry, I was having a heart attack, and I was sad, and I was crying, and I was frustrated, and I was angry.
Now I’ve gotten to the place where I realize: maybe I’m making the way. Maybe my title isn’t one thing, and maybe it can evolve.
Doing these surveys, for example. Never in my life did I think I was going to be doing surveys. But they were a way for me to arrive at answers to these questions that I had. And they were a better, more impactful tool for arriving at those answers than writing an article would have been. Our industry really likes status, elitism, and the voice at the top of the pyramid. I’m interested in the ordinary voices at “the bottom”—in hearing from people who are rarely heard from. The survey format allowed me to get at and expose that diversity.
I had gotten to a point in my career where I saw that it didn’t matter how much content I produced individually. I came up in a time where the ideal was: you can write the brilliant article, and it’s going to change something. But I came to understand that the problems are way bigger than that.. This notion that an individual reporter producing an individual article is going to effect much change—within, as you say, 21st century capitalism, and what it is doing to journalism right now? I came to see that that didn’t add up.
Even for the articles that have won Pulitzers, or the investigations that have led to hearings, I have questions about the extent of the changes those articles inspired, or can inspire. When we go back and measure it, I wonder what we will actually find.
You’re saying we should ask: what are the tools I need in order to do the important work? Instead of: I’m a journalist whose process is X, because I’m a journalist.
What you said about our industry’s focus on elitism leads into my next question. The essay you wrote for Dissent about why we need a working-class media provides a great jumping-off point: What does a working-class media look like, and what does it entail? How do we get there?
The main prescription that sticks out in my head right now is anger.
Yeah, I loved that part!
Who are we producing journalism for? If you only produce journalism for the audiences who pay for it, and who have been educated to pay for it, we’re excluding a lot of people.
I wanted to make a comment about your series. The structure of Mediaquake—and who you’re allowing into that room—is a massive change, and actually an example of the approach that we need to take going forward. When it comes to deciding the future of journalism, it can’t just be journalists in the room. That’s still the dominant model—that really describes Nieman, CJR, these industry publications. They’re only for journalists. But we need more stuff like what Mediaquake is doing, inviting the community into the conversation. Changing who is invited into the room is an easy structural change to make.
Largely, this country is a working class, lower middle class population; I say this knowing that class can be open to wide interpretation. But when I read or watch the news, it’s clear to me that that is not the audience for which news is produced.
I mean: Whose questions are you asking, and answering? That’s the simplest way that I come at this stuff. The radical shift that would actually empower the people who are consuming the news is: Answering their questions. The news has to be for them not about them.
The other thing is: News for a pluralist society. How do you produce news, not just for the broadest mass of people, but for a pluralist society? What does that mean? How does that change our journalistic values, our journalistic practice? How would the idea of community shift in our conceptions?
Because when you’re in J-school, and you’re learning ethics and values, community doesn’t factor into it at all. But if you’re producing news for a pluralist society, one of the things you have to think a lot about is, how are you knitting those groups together? Or: How are you producing news that divides these groups? Defining community within journalism now, and news standards for the 21st century: these are the questions we should be working on.
A related question: How is it that we have a product that says that it’s the fourth estate, but it has no built-in mechanism for feedback from the community?
Right. Structurally there’s nothing built in for that, and that’s just so… weird.
Yeah, it’s really weird. There’s no standard practice that is like: “Oh, let’s do our annual survey and see how we’re doing with the news. Are we actually informing the community?”
There’s no mechanism for testing the assumptions journalists make about the work they do, nothing. We claim to platform what the community’s saying—but never actually going to the community to ask, “Wait, did I do a good job?”
Given what we say our role is within this democratic society: Where is the accountability?
This brings me to the other essay you wrote recently on media policy. You listed out all the different things we need in a media system, like community ownership, living wages, no paywalls, etcetera, and then you wrote: “All of the above is media policy—a subject that was not part of my master’s degree in journalism, but should have been.”
Yeah, to underline, I wasn’t taught this stuff. I paid for school to be a journalist and I was not taught media policy. I’m learning on the fly.
Media policy is about the structure within which journalism operates. You’re fooling yourself if you think that that structure does not shape and control how you gather the content, make that content, make editing decisions, and seek and serve an audience for that content. The structure that you’re in determines all of it.
I wanted to produce news, especially for communities of color and low-income communities, in a system that is pretty antagonistic to those communities in the first place. In the 21st century, the number of newspapers serving black audiences has been completely decimated.
Decisions made in the late 90s helped to crater out the system, and create monopolies in media. And I need to know that, as a worker within the system. That’s why I started paying attention; I need to know what I can do.
And still, there’s just so much that I don’t yet know about how media policy has shaped this profession that I love. It’s humbling.
Are there any policies or initiatives that you’ve been particularly focused on or excited to see?
One way to understand the work that I do, and how I approach it, is to appreciate that I don’t anticipate change in my lifetime. I read a lot of history; right now, I’m reading a new book called Journalism and Jim Crow by Kathy Roberts Forde and Sid Bedingfield.
I take a very long view of justice. I don’t expect to see media policy within the next 15 to 20 years that will make me super excited. I’m also less interested in the congressional level; I have a lot of questions about who writes that legislation and for whom.
But, I am pleased to see that some state-elected officials seem to be very interested in talking more about supporting journalism for their communities. That terrain is really exciting.
How do you think about the relationship between capitalism and the problems in journalism we’ve been discussing?
Whenever I hear “journalism” and “capitalism” being mentioned in the same sentence, I think to myself, a billion eyes just closed, or a billion ears just closed. Because we are in the United States of America.
Ever since the founding of the first black outlet way back in 1827, news outlets have also been economic engines. They’ve created entrepreneurs within communities that were targeted for economic marginalization. This complicates the critique, as well.
I would like to see more critiques of capitalism and journalism that directly address the role these institutions might play in the lives of ordinary black people, and how these critiques come across to ordinary small business owners who are black. Again, remembering that a news outlet is not just a platform for the community, but a place for entrepreneurship and small business ownership—and thinking about what it means to be seen as attacking that role.
Fundamentally, we’re not going to get to change without community. Understand the community’s relationship to capitalism within their particular geographic spaces, and start the conversation and the dialogue there.
Another example: the word nonprofit. “Nonprofit” for certain people doesn’t equal “good.” It might, for certain educated people. But the word has a different ring in the context of this conversation than it might when I go to the South Bronx, where “nonprofit” could also mean a social service agency that’s making life difficult for your brother.
To return to the vision you were describing earlier—for a different media system than the one we have today—how is that situated in relation to this giant economic system that we’re living in?
I am a reporter through and through. I ask questions and provide a forum for people to discuss and respond. I’m not a convincer. I’m interested in asking questions, and making sure that people are informed enough to have a conversation.
That said, I love imagining, because why be limited by what you see? After seeing all that humanity has done. Listen. I’m like, seriously? Even just flying! Wasn’t nobody flying 100 years ago!
[Lots of laughter.]
Imagining, I am absolutely for that. But the future thinking that gets me excited is creating forums where these conversations are happening. And expanding who’s in the rooms to bring these conversations up. And there is so much work to be done to make these sorts of conversations possible. So many people don’t know how media and information systems work.
Media literacy is not yet a requirement for graduating high school, in a global economy based on information. We can’t expect newsrooms alone to inform people about how all this works, and why it matters, because many of them are under siege.
Are there people whose work has especially influenced your thinking on these topics? These can be books, or articles, or films, or songs—no limit.
Victor Pickard’s work, for sure.
I intentionally sought reading outside of journalism because… master’s tools. Critical black studies, because I was trying to solidify my thinking around “reporting for” versus “reporting about” and the fundamental difference that makes. That simple reframing entirely remakes the meaning of “journalism production” and “original reporting.” So, John Keene, Toni Morrison, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Raoul Peck.
Anamik Saha helped me to understand that the ‘production’ part—how we make news—is the target for change efforts. Then, too, back to exploring what it means to produce news for a multiracial pluralist democracy (and not a white-dominant society surrounded by non-white satellites), I’m interested in our media system’s belief that because he’s black, a black news owner checks a box for representing 45 million black peoples—plural. Like, that’s seen as homework completed?
I read folks like Kevin Quashie. There’s an older essay, David Lionel Smith’s “What is Black Culture?” that helps me to get at this idea of the democratic damage done when the “racial satellites” aren’t able to express internal diversity and debate, with each other, on their own terms. There were times in history when our media system, and the commercial markets of those times, facilitated diversity and critical debates among and between Black publications and peoples. There was space for a variety—not the “one ring to bind them all” thinking that the media system of our own era seems to support. This gets at our system’s 20-year decimation: scarcity, monopoly-creation.
To help me explore what a working class media might be, I’ve been drawn to the mid-20th century New Deal and WW2 era. So, folks like Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, Michael Denning.
And to get at this idea of journalism that serves a multiracial pluralist democracy, I’m also super interested in the folks who are now recovering and writing previously “unseen” (to put it mildly) peoples into histories or storytelling—and this really ranges. It could be something like that Amazon series, “The Expanse,” “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg, “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters, Lisa Lowe’s “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” Saidiya Hartman, or Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke.” Right now I’m reading a book from 1963 called, “The New World of Negro Americans” by a white journalist named Harold Isaacs.
So… yeah. I think I’m making up for the perspectives and possibilities that J-Schools typically don’t provide? Craft matters. But craft alone leaves journalists pretty vulnerable to a hostile media system—particularly those journalists who belong to “outsider” groups.
You’re a professor at Rutgers now, and that is exciting. Congratulations. What are you working on there?
Thank you. I am excited. This is really the first time where I’m going to have support to write a book. And I’m really excited to teach.
Eventually, my classes will be about imagining 21st-century journalism, and evaluating the models that are pushing things forward.
I have a feeling that the surveys may continue. And figuring out these questions about journalism and community—and what that can look like in Newark—is exciting to me too. It’s a public school. There are working-class students. I’m pretty pleased about all of that.