Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

“Successful independent journalists will realize how difficult it can be to strike the right balance between cultivating enough of an audience to effectively monetize and becoming beholden to their whims.”

In 2020, we saw the lines between journalists and digital creators continue to evaporate.

Traditional writers have adopted influencer tactics, growing their own audiences online and leveraging direct distribution channels to promote their work. A slew of high-profile writers have also left traditional media companies to launch independent businesses on digital platforms like Substack. Other journalists have built up careers as successful podcasters and YouTubers, or are relying on subscription platforms like Patreon to fund their reporting.

Two years ago, I predicted this shift, writing about the rise of the journalist influencer and how more journalists will recognize and harness the opportunity to own and monetize their personal brands.

But in 2021, I believe we’ll see the dark side of this movement. Right now, I believe we’re in a honeymoon period, with many independent journalists still starry-eyed over the promise of digital platforms like Substack, Patreon, YouTube, and more. But the more journalists become digital creators, the more they’ll become subject to the type of struggles mainstream influencers have been dealing with for years.

One is burnout. As any freelancer knows, being your own boss doesn’t come with built-in vacation days. In 2018, top internet creators burned out and broke down en masse, buckling under the pressure of having to satisfy their audiences with regular content. Substack encourages a similar mentality. Writers must write and publish regularly to maintain a paid subscriber base, and that work can be exhausting.

As more journalists become digital creators, they’ll also recognize the precarity of building a business on a tech platform. YouTubers know this well; many have weathered multiple storms that reduced their income overnight. Journalist influencers will need to walk the same tightrope. Veer too far into commentary, and you could be subject to stricter community guidelines. Building a news page on Instagram is all good and fine until the platform launches a new feature that throttles your reach.

These shifts will also force journalist influencers to adapt, potentially faster than they’re used to. Successful digital creators are chameleons who can shift the nature of their content to ever-changing trends, features, and platforms. Journalist influencers will have to be as nimble and comfortable producing reporting in a variety of formats.

Tending to your fan base as a creator is also key. Successful independent journalists will realize how difficult it can be to strike the right balance between cultivating enough of an audience to effectively monetize and becoming beholden to their whims. Many influencers have seen their careers destroyed over public missteps and backlash from fans, while others have emerged from cancellations more powerful than before. Undoubtedly, some journalists will face similar struggles.

Navigating all of these challenges alone can be grueling, which is why so many digital creators collaborate, form groups, and, in some cases, live together. While I shudder at the thought of a journalist-influencer Hype House, I do think we’ll see more collaboration between independent media figures. Already, some Substack writers are bundling their newsletters. I think more like-minded personal media brands will form mutually supportive allegiances and collaborative groups.

Just as an entire industry of secondary workers has formed around YouTubers, TikTok stars, and streamers, we’ll also see more supporting jobs crop up to support this new class of journalist/creators. Perhaps the new entry-level media job will be editing a big-name writer’s Substack, or helping an independent journalist with their Patreon podcast launch.

The good news for anyone in traditional media seeking to stake out on their own is that generations of digital creators have paved the way. Internet culture writers have chronicled these struggles, which offer valuable lessons for navigating this new environment. But in 2021, I think we’ll see a lot of independent media figures learn things the hard way.

Taylor Lorenz is a technology reporter for The New York Times.

In 2020, we saw the lines between journalists and digital creators continue to evaporate.

Traditional writers have adopted influencer tactics, growing their own audiences online and leveraging direct distribution channels to promote their work. A slew of high-profile writers have also left traditional media companies to launch independent businesses on digital platforms like Substack. Other journalists have built up careers as successful podcasters and YouTubers, or are relying on subscription platforms like Patreon to fund their reporting.

Two years ago, I predicted this shift, writing about the rise of the journalist influencer and how more journalists will recognize and harness the opportunity to own and monetize their personal brands.

But in 2021, I believe we’ll see the dark side of this movement. Right now, I believe we’re in a honeymoon period, with many independent journalists still starry-eyed over the promise of digital platforms like Substack, Patreon, YouTube, and more. But the more journalists become digital creators, the more they’ll become subject to the type of struggles mainstream influencers have been dealing with for years.

One is burnout. As any freelancer knows, being your own boss doesn’t come with built-in vacation days. In 2018, top internet creators burned out and broke down en masse, buckling under the pressure of having to satisfy their audiences with regular content. Substack encourages a similar mentality. Writers must write and publish regularly to maintain a paid subscriber base, and that work can be exhausting.

As more journalists become digital creators, they’ll also recognize the precarity of building a business on a tech platform. YouTubers know this well; many have weathered multiple storms that reduced their income overnight. Journalist influencers will need to walk the same tightrope. Veer too far into commentary, and you could be subject to stricter community guidelines. Building a news page on Instagram is all good and fine until the platform launches a new feature that throttles your reach.

These shifts will also force journalist influencers to adapt, potentially faster than they’re used to. Successful digital creators are chameleons who can shift the nature of their content to ever-changing trends, features, and platforms. Journalist influencers will have to be as nimble and comfortable producing reporting in a variety of formats.

Tending to your fan base as a creator is also key. Successful independent journalists will realize how difficult it can be to strike the right balance between cultivating enough of an audience to effectively monetize and becoming beholden to their whims. Many influencers have seen their careers destroyed over public missteps and backlash from fans, while others have emerged from cancellations more powerful than before. Undoubtedly, some journalists will face similar struggles.

Navigating all of these challenges alone can be grueling, which is why so many digital creators collaborate, form groups, and, in some cases, live together. While I shudder at the thought of a journalist-influencer Hype House, I do think we’ll see more collaboration between independent media figures. Already, some Substack writers are bundling their newsletters. I think more like-minded personal media brands will form mutually supportive allegiances and collaborative groups.

Just as an entire industry of secondary workers has formed around YouTubers, TikTok stars, and streamers, we’ll also see more supporting jobs crop up to support this new class of journalist/creators. Perhaps the new entry-level media job will be editing a big-name writer’s Substack, or helping an independent journalist with their Patreon podcast launch.

The good news for anyone in traditional media seeking to stake out on their own is that generations of digital creators have paved the way. Internet culture writers have chronicled these struggles, which offer valuable lessons for navigating this new environment. But in 2021, I think we’ll see a lot of independent media figures learn things the hard way.

Taylor Lorenz is a technology reporter for The New York Times.

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