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Creators, Influencers, Bloggers—and the Business of News
Aiming for more clear thinking, and some action, amid all the talk
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how traditional news organizations are losing audience (or potential audience, particularly among younger people) to what are increasingly being referred to as “creators.” Along the way, you’ve probably also heard about the “alternative social media” that facilitate some of this, about brand “influencers” (a term that now feels very last year) and other ostensibly related trends.
This week, I want to try to bring a bit more of an analytical approach to thinking about these developments, and to tease out, if we can, some of the implications for the business of news.
Yes, it’s a big deal
There’s no question the “creator economy” is large—a recent very good series of Washington Post stories repeatedly adopted Goldman Sachs’ assertion that it’s a $250 billion business, which is roughly the market capitalization of Chevron or Toyota.
But in thinking about this from a news industry perspective, the aggregate size isn’t as important, I think, as disaggregating what is meant by “creators” into some component parts. When you approach matters that way, a number of salient points emerge:
Creators is a very broad term, perhaps too broad to continue to have much meaning. Influencers hawking merchandise, whether motivated by cash or just fashion choices, are not in any meaningful way in the same line of work as news aggregators, for instance.
Having said that, the craving, especially among younger people, for “authenticity,” and especially the widespread sense that established institutions are almost definitionally inauthentic, has huge implications, if it persists, for the future delivery of news.
Thus, one key question is whether this is fad or trend, whether those currently under, say, 35, will gravitate more toward institutional voices as they age a bit—even if, in some cases, from newer rather than legacy institutions. We should all closely watch that space.
Three types of new news
For now, within the realm of news, I think we should want to be clearer, when discussing the creator economy, to distinguish between what seem to me three very different activities, albeit with overlap. The three might be characterized as 1) independent journalism, largely individuals undertaking original fact-finding (reporting) on their own; 2) aggregators, whose central activity is sifting and curating news produced by others (in many cases the very institutions whose authenticity has eroded) to provide value for consumers; and 3) what I might call, to use a term that dates all the way back to the beginning of this century, bloggers, who mostly express opinions about already-reported news.
Of course, in real life, these categories blur somewhat. This newsletter is mostly a blog under this typology, although I occasionally stray into a bit of reporting, and every hyperlink in any blog might be considered the atomic unit of aggregation. An interesting newsletter of my recent acquaintance, Tangle, which attempts to make sense of political polarization, overtly combines aggregation and blogging.
But the distinctions remain important, as the contestants in the space, old and new, implicitly recognize. When ProPublica was less well known than it is today, Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer (he of the crowd photos, and later “Dancing with the Stars”) thought it useful to deride us as a “blog.” (It didn’t go well for Spicer, by the way.)
Two wings of “alternative” social media
More analytical clarity would also help when looking at the social media side of the creator economy. The Post series used the term “alternative social media” to refer to a mélange of right-wing oriented sites, including Rumble and Telegram. (My favorite fact in this arena is that Rumble is backed by such “anti-elitists” as billionaire tax finagler Peter Thiel and US Senator JD Vance.) This grouping of platforms, we are told, has become a big source of news for 6% of the adult population.
Yes, but. The “but” is Tik Tok, which is a major source of news for a larger group—14% of adults (more now than for Twitter), according to data released by Pew yesterday— which appears to tilt considerably to the left, despite the site’s ultimate control by the authoritarian government of China. It seems unwise to me to consider Rumble and Telegram politically other than in the same breath as Tik Tok.
Beyond these analytic distinctions, what lessons for newsrooms should we draw from all of this?
The roots of authenticity— and beyond it
First, going back to the root of these trends, the popularity of these new “authentic” voices, and the increasing distrust of institutions, is the obvious injunction to humanize your newsroom by elevating its outstanding voices to the extent you can without surrendering standards or endangering staff. Next is a reminder to act with greater humility. Authority isn’t an antonym of authenticity, but these days it’s close.
Going further, three key aspects of authenticity, I think, are transparency about newsgathering and editing processes, a willingness to admit mistakes when they, inevitably, occur, and more openness about publishing not only what you do know, but what you don’t. None of this comes naturally to old fashioned newsrooms; all of it needs to become the new norm.
It may also make sense to conclude that if you can’t beat ‘em, joining ‘em is the next best idea, as both USA Today (1.9 million followers) and the Washington Post (1.7 million) are doing on Tik Tok.
Nor is authenticity the only value at play. Part of the appeal of news from creators is that the traditional forms of news delivery are increasingly perceived as overwhelming and inaccessible. Newsrooms urgently need to get better at translating what they produce, making it more digestible by the potential consumers they are not yet reaching. (If they would open their minds a bit, they might see that AI could help here.) And they need either somehow to leaven the news so many are avoiding, or perhaps to lean into how overwhelming news can feel.
Whatever the nomenclature du jour, it does seem increasingly clear that many aspects of the creator economy are here to stay. Traditional newsrooms need to better appreciate this, more closely reckon with it, and adapt themselves while they still can.
Second Rough Draft will be off for Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday; see you at month’s end.
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