In 2009, the former editor-in-chief at Thomson Reuters David Schlesinger described journalism as one of the great self-declared professions. He wrote, “I am a journalist because I said I was one more than two decades ago and have spent the years since working on my abilities. I am not one because I am somehow anointed with a certificate or an exam result. Journalism is ideally designed for democratisation.”
We’re living in a remarkable time when reporters no longer have to win an editor’s approval to publish a story, reach an audience, and get paid. In fact, anyone can technically do it, which is why the distinction between professional journalists (people employed by news organizations) and creators (individuals producing journalistic content online) no longer exists.
Our current state of affairs shouldn’t be a surprise. Since the mid-2000s, we’ve documented the proliferation of bloggers, YouTube creators, and social media influencers on Instagram, Snapchat, and now TikTok, with measured skepticism, if not outright disdain. In 2009, the idea of newsrooms publishing “citizen journalism” and “user-generated content” were hotly debated issues. In 2012, when Instagram came onto the scene, photojournalists penned scathing columns criticizing “app photographers” for creating artistic masterpieces without learning the tools of the trade. In retrospect, these industry terms—citizen journalism, UGC, app photographers—revealed our collective trepidation. They served to differentiate the role of journalists from everyday citizens, as if we were never both.
In 2017, nearly 17 million Americans earned a total of $6.8 billion dollars by posting their personal creations on platform companies. Over the years, that number has undoubtedly grown as almost everyone with an Internet connection communicates, learns, works, or plays on a digital platform. Whether it’s TikTok or Twitch, these platform companies are developing the tools, and progressively the rules, for how we conduct ourselves online. If we’re not building these platforms, then we’re players within them, and in the ever-expanding passion economy, journalists are creators like everyone else.
It partly explains why the public’s trust in traditional media is at an all-time low while digital news consumption is at an all-time high. If people are trusting legacy news organizations less and less, where else are they turning to for news and information?
The numbers speak for themselves:
Journalism’s ability to reach eyeballs and engage people’s attention matters. Digital subscriptions might be helping legacy news organizations survive, but paywalls aren’t addressing the massive amounts of people who are seeking their daily news and information on YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and the like. There is a vacuum of factual reporting on these platforms, and this is where journalists and creators can learn a lot from one another.
Creators are self-made storytellers and entrepreneurs. They began by mastering a platform’s features to develop their own brand of content. They didn’t raise venture capital or apply for foundation funding to kick off their journey, and success didn’t strike overnight. The creator path is an exercise in persistence, and their profiles are littered with failed creative experiments.
Isabelle Boemeke is a perfect example. Dressed in funky, colorful outfits, Boemeke’s TikTok videos riff off of personal wellness and makeup routine tropes to sneak in facts about nuclear energy and carbon emissions. Her videos use TikTok’s augmented reality filters, sound effects, and editing features to create bizarrely captivating content about abstract topics like climate change. Boemeke’s content looks more like music videos than legacy journalism, but she’s informing her 19,000 followers (and counting) about a complex issue that they may not have learned otherwise.
Finally, creators are incentivized to be collaborative. Michael DiBenigno is a TikTok’er and cofounder of an augmented reality startup called Flow Immersive. Last November, he teamed up with fellow TikTok’er Dr. Kat Wallace, an epidemiologist and adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, to produce a video about the spread of COVID in America. Their video generated 2.2 million views, 323,000 likes, and 3,500 comments. Unlike lone reporters who were trained to hunt for scoops and break news before their competitors, creators optimize for originality and creativity.
In the eyes of platforms and people, journalists and creators are one and the same. What many journalists once coined as “user-generated content” are now stories that regularly educate, entertain, and inspire billions of people around the world. As our media ecosystem rapidly evolves, it would be a mistake for the news industry to double down on traditional standards of “quality journalism” when people on platforms have already redefined what quality news and information means to them. Democratic appeals to save journalism continue to reek of fear and self-preservation because we refuse to appreciate how technology has systematically democratized our craft. Creators are thriving on the frontier of this tidal shift, and together, journalists can thrive too.
Yvonne Leow is a columnist for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. She's also a strategic consultant and the founder of Bewilder. Send her comments and ideas at @YvonneLeow. This edited column was originally published at RJI.