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April 23, 2024, 2:43 p.m.
Audience & Social

What journalists and independent creators can learn from each other

“The question is not about the topics but how you approach the topics.”

— The International Symposium on Online Journalism is, by definition, a celebration of the craft of journalism. But this year there was also an overall examination of the role of the journalist writ large: As the media industry winds its way along the precarious cliffside of collapsing business models and eroding trust in journalism, panelists asked, again and again, whether the role of the journalist is — or ought to — change. Some suggested journalists drop the veneer of neutrality to engage more with readers where they are, taking on the role of community steward. Others suggested a move away from just reporting the news to a broader focus on information that affects readers’ day-to-day.

A panel on what social media influencers and journalists can learn from each other offered one other potential path of transformation. “I don’t think people care if I’m a journalist or a content creator,” said María Paulina Baena, a Colombian journalist and political scientist who co-founded La Pulla, a political satire channel on YouTube owned by the newspaper El Espectador. “Deep inside myself, I feel like a journalist, but the thing is that I create a lot of content too, and I’ve learned from both landscapes.”

One of the biggest differences between traditional journalism and social-first (often YouTube-first) work, the panelists said, is the degree to which creators have to put themselves into their work. When Sam Ellis, creator and showrunner of the YouTube channel Search Party, worked at Vox, he didn’t have to appear on camera — people trusted the Vox brand, and therefore didn’t need Ellis to establish his personal credentials. “But when you’re independent, people really do need a connection to you,” he said. So Ellis started putting himself into what he called the “edges” of videos, appearing on screen during the credits to make announcements and help viewers establish a personal connection with him.

That personal touch can be a double-edged sword: Baena said she faced more sexism and misogynistic attacks after starting her work at La Pulla, and she recently left to pursue other projects. “But I have no problem blocking people,” she continued. “At some point, I think people will get bored if you don’t answer them.”

Creating journalism for social media means also being beholden to the algorithms that govern each platform and their constant demand for new content. When Ellis worked at Vox, he’d spend four to six weeks on a video; as an independent creator, his production time is essentially halved. This means he has to think more carefully about his stories, finding a way to maintain the rigorous journalistic standards he set for himself while also keeping up with the publishing pace required to stay successful. When the war in Gaza broke out, for example, he chose to focus on how the conflict put Arab leaders in a bind instead of making a broad-ranging video about the underlying history.

Hugo Travers, founder of HugoDécrypte, a social-first news channel that dominates the 18- to 34-year-old market in France with 200 million monthly views on TikTok and 35 million on YouTube, has a “love-hate” relationship with the algorithm. “When I was 18 and starting the channel, I had no money to push ads,” Travers said. “The only way for my work to get discovered was the algorithm. And the algorithm helped a lot.”

The HugoDécrypte social media channels combined now have more followers — 14 million — than Le Monde, the French paper of record, and Travers runs a team of around 25 people. They’ve interviewed some of the biggest names in France, including French president Emmanuel Macron. But even then, they had trouble getting press cards from the agency that provides journalists with official credentials, because HugoDécrypte didn’t have a website of its own when its staff first applied for press cards. So Travers and his colleagues created a site that housed the transcripts of each video, presented that to the agency, and received their cards. They’re now able to cover breaking news and attend protests as other accredited French journalists can, and some of their work can often look similar to the news bulletins and roundtable discussions one might expect to find on a cable news channel. But their videos are tailor-made for social media, primarily YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.

Over the course of building his channel to where it is now, Travers said, one thing became clear to him: the idea that young people are uninterested in “serious” news is false.

“The question is not about the topics but how you approach the topics,” he said. Younger audiences are interested in topics like geopolitics and international conflicts — just look at the protests over the conflict in Gaza, which is roiling universities — but, Travers said, creators and journalists alike have to make those topics accessible to their audiences.

“Journalists have always been content creators, they’re just bound by this common set of rules and procedures,” Ellis said. Going independent, he said, comes with its own set of challenges — a shifting algorithm, a quicker pace, more individual scrutiny from the audience — but that, he continued, “Is just a parameter for you to be more creative about the stories that you cover.”

Screenshot: Search Party on YouTube.

Neel Dhanesha is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach Neel via email (neel_dhanesha@harvard.edu), Twitter (@neel_dhan), or Signal (@neel.58).
POSTED     April 23, 2024, 2:43 p.m.
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