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2020
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7

The rise of the journalistic influencer

“How the hell are we going to empower citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing if they’re too bored to even bother?”

How many mistakes are in the pages of The New York Times every day? I counted seven this morning, and that’s to be expected. Journalism is a human practice, and it will always include human error. What we need more of is virtuous risk-taking to the end of hooking people’s attention. In other words, how the hell are we going to empower citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing if they’re too bored to even bother?

Part of the job of the journalist is to make the significant interesting, and experimentation to this end will have its most exciting results through individuals who are able to establish a foundation of trust as guides to the great American dumpster fire. In 2020 and beyond, I hope to see the rise of the journalistic influencer: those who work to entertain the public with utmost allegiance to truth, motivated by the goal of establishing equitable public power.

This sort of risk-taking is dangerous — but, well, so was the Times’ coverage of Hillary’s emails. In order for journalism to evolve and, indeed, in order for democracy to persevere, we need to make more good mistakes.

In my book, How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics, I introduce extensive research and reporting through personal narrative sprinkled with comedy. Despite multiple rounds of editing and fact-checking, I’m quite sure I’ve messed up in those pages, and I’ve certainly messed up while cracking jokes on my Twitter feed. I’ve also recently taken risks with a premature obituary for Mitch McConnell’s career (intended to outline the baldly anti-democratic nature of his obstructionism) and a satirical piece about Elizabeth Warren’s political evolution (meant to expose the perverse incentive structure of progressivism as it is compounded by misogyny).

Perhaps the former was too gimmicky. There were poor, unfortunate souls who read the latter and thought it was written in earnest. Still, I maintain that these risks were virtuous in that my goal was to empower people with information. I believe part of my journalistic obligation is to make the significant interesting. I am 100 percent serious when I say I believe it is part of my journalistic duty to entertain.

I’ve received some criticism that amounts to saying I am using my platform “for attention.” While I’m irked by the inherent sexism of that critique, I must admit it’s essentially correct: What’s the point of being a writer if not to get people to engage with your ideas? It is absolutely my goal to “get attention,” in order to get as many readers as possible to feel so empowered with information as to insist on their right and duty to the political conversation.

This is how I have chosen to use my platform as an “influencer.” I hear that word used with derision, but I take no offense at the assertion that I am influencing the culture. What’s troubling is the stigma of frivolity around the term. There are scammers, to be sure, and altogether too many Instagram celebrities selling that tea that makes you shit. But there is also democratic potential in the advent of the influencer.

It seems to me that readers connect most often with individual thinkers rather than the publications they write for. If we can see more journalists aspire to build large platforms, and see more of those who already have them insist on operating out of duty to citizens, there is an opportunity to build a model of ethical influencing that expands into a broader journalistic culture in which citizens comprehend the purpose of the journalist and their personal duty to empower themselves with information.

It is endlessly clear that our democratic crisis is also an epistemic one. Individual minds are trapped in feedback loops, and no two bubbles are the same. The solution to this fractured reality requires citizens to invest in media diets maintained through the constant rigor of critical thinking. Indeed, not everyone is a journalist, but anyone can be a journalist, and I believe we should all operate as journalists in interacting with the onslaught of content, verifying information, and always asking questions, both of authority and of ourselves.

The only truly certain prediction for journalism in 2020 is that mistakes will be made — so let’s make some good ones.

Lauren Duca is a freelance journalist.

How many mistakes are in the pages of The New York Times every day? I counted seven this morning, and that’s to be expected. Journalism is a human practice, and it will always include human error. What we need more of is virtuous risk-taking to the end of hooking people’s attention. In other words, how the hell are we going to empower citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing if they’re too bored to even bother?

Part of the job of the journalist is to make the significant interesting, and experimentation to this end will have its most exciting results through individuals who are able to establish a foundation of trust as guides to the great American dumpster fire. In 2020 and beyond, I hope to see the rise of the journalistic influencer: those who work to entertain the public with utmost allegiance to truth, motivated by the goal of establishing equitable public power.

This sort of risk-taking is dangerous — but, well, so was the Times’ coverage of Hillary’s emails. In order for journalism to evolve and, indeed, in order for democracy to persevere, we need to make more good mistakes.

In my book, How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics, I introduce extensive research and reporting through personal narrative sprinkled with comedy. Despite multiple rounds of editing and fact-checking, I’m quite sure I’ve messed up in those pages, and I’ve certainly messed up while cracking jokes on my Twitter feed. I’ve also recently taken risks with a premature obituary for Mitch McConnell’s career (intended to outline the baldly anti-democratic nature of his obstructionism) and a satirical piece about Elizabeth Warren’s political evolution (meant to expose the perverse incentive structure of progressivism as it is compounded by misogyny).

Perhaps the former was too gimmicky. There were poor, unfortunate souls who read the latter and thought it was written in earnest. Still, I maintain that these risks were virtuous in that my goal was to empower people with information. I believe part of my journalistic obligation is to make the significant interesting. I am 100 percent serious when I say I believe it is part of my journalistic duty to entertain.

I’ve received some criticism that amounts to saying I am using my platform “for attention.” While I’m irked by the inherent sexism of that critique, I must admit it’s essentially correct: What’s the point of being a writer if not to get people to engage with your ideas? It is absolutely my goal to “get attention,” in order to get as many readers as possible to feel so empowered with information as to insist on their right and duty to the political conversation.

This is how I have chosen to use my platform as an “influencer.” I hear that word used with derision, but I take no offense at the assertion that I am influencing the culture. What’s troubling is the stigma of frivolity around the term. There are scammers, to be sure, and altogether too many Instagram celebrities selling that tea that makes you shit. But there is also democratic potential in the advent of the influencer.

It seems to me that readers connect most often with individual thinkers rather than the publications they write for. If we can see more journalists aspire to build large platforms, and see more of those who already have them insist on operating out of duty to citizens, there is an opportunity to build a model of ethical influencing that expands into a broader journalistic culture in which citizens comprehend the purpose of the journalist and their personal duty to empower themselves with information.

It is endlessly clear that our democratic crisis is also an epistemic one. Individual minds are trapped in feedback loops, and no two bubbles are the same. The solution to this fractured reality requires citizens to invest in media diets maintained through the constant rigor of critical thinking. Indeed, not everyone is a journalist, but anyone can be a journalist, and I believe we should all operate as journalists in interacting with the onslaught of content, verifying information, and always asking questions, both of authority and of ourselves.

The only truly certain prediction for journalism in 2020 is that mistakes will be made — so let’s make some good ones.

Lauren Duca is a freelance journalist.

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