As the internet and technology develop, so does their coverage in the media. Over the past few years, dedicated publications have emerged to chart online news and trends, with long-established publications setting up new desks and hiring specialist reporters.
Digital culture and internet reporting typically focus on what is happening online and why it matters, scrutinising new influencer celebrities or brands and companies’ internet presence and success.
Freelance journalist Chris Stokel-Walker jokes that he got into digital culture reporting because he "needed to professionally justify the amount of time spent on platforms like YouTube and TikTok." He frequently writes for WIRED, Digital Culture Insider, and other publications, and is the author of "TikTok Boom: China's Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media".
"Two or three years ago, you could probably count on two hands the number of digital cultural reporters. It's really exciting that that's ballooned a lot lately," he says.
"It's a natural reflection of the fact that huge media platforms have large influence; people are starting to recognise that, and commission coverage of this space."
One large organisation that dedicated a section to digital and internet culture was Insider with its Digital Culture Insider, set up by former senior editor Ben Goggin.
"At most medium to larger sized media organisations, there were tech desks, news desks, and culture desks. But none of those desks had expertise in covering creators and the news that was happening in internet culture," explains Goggin.
"There are so many important things for society that are happening online: disinformation, new celebrities, giant cultural stories. News organisations hadn't really set up the infrastructure to properly cover those topics."
He pitched his own specialist desk to the editors at Insider in 2019, and after a successful three-month trial run with journalist Kat Tenbarge, they were given the green light and hired their first two reporters and a fellow in early 2020.
"My idea was to cast the net as wide as possible for the desk - we mapped out what our coverage areas would be. Influencer news, trends emerging online - and the weird side of the internet like conspiracy theories, digital crime. I wanted to create a space where we could have reporters covering Twitch, TikTok, YouTube, from their own expertise."
Amelia Tait is a freelance features writer who broke into digital culture reporting early.
"British newspapers just didn't bother to write stories about big scandals on YouTube and things like that. It was completely under the radar. Pitching those stories, I was able to get my foot in the door.
"Now it's an entire beat in its own right, and there are some phenomenal reporters who are just so tireless about uncovering these stories and reporting on them," she says.
A growing newsroom trend
Though now an established area of journalism in its own right, digital culture and internet reporting is still largely dominated by US publications.
According to Stokel-Walker, the UK is quite far behind the US in terms of the number of people covering it, the opportunities and outlets. It is a bigger media market, with more money to spend, and the ability to take more risks.
"UK digital culture reporters have to go to US publications to get bylines.
"I often find it quite difficult, even a decade into my career, to get editors of more mainstream and older demographic publications to bargain with a digital culture pitch," he says.
"It is quite a challenge to make a story understandable enough for [older readers], while not just completely misrepresenting what it is."
However, as coverage progresses, so does the depth of reporting. Stokel-Walker adds that even mainstream publications are doing less coverage of trends just for the sake of it.
"A couple of years ago, you could just pitch pretty much any old trend that was happening on social media. Now they’re more discerning."
Another aspect of digital culture reporting that has changed significantly is the rate of engagement from influencers and their communities, which can make it difficult for journalists who cover hard-hitting or controversial topics.
"There's going to be YouTube videos made about journalists and their accusations, which was always a risk but now, the ecosystem is much more intertwined," explains Tait.
"I really admire the journalists that tirelessly wade into it even knowing that they're going to be named in YouTube videos and get hate comments (you don't want to get on the wrong side of the BTS ARMY!)"
Breaking into digital culture reporting
For journalists who want to break into this area of news, it can be hard to gauge what will make a good pitch or interesting story.
To find good topics and news, Stokel-Walker advises to spend a lot of time on the platforms and look with a critical eye at why certain posts end up there. Tait agrees, adding that you have to immerse yourself online and spot trends and patterns.
"There are so many people [online] talking about their experiences organically. You just have to reach out to them, and more often than not, they're willing to chat."
You can also collect data, for example, survey internet users, but always take extra steps to verify that they are who they say they are. For example, you can conduct interviews offline or on Zoom.
When pitching your first stories, focus on specialised publications that are more likely to appreciate the merits of a digital cultural story for a digital cultural audience.
Goggin encourages journalists to explore how they can do this type of coverage on other desks.
"Try not to pigeonhole yourself and bring your interest in the digital culture wherever you go."
The future of digital culture reporting
Digital culture reporting will continue to change and develop rapidly, alongside the topics involved. New niches may emerge, and new publications will become established voices.
"The responsibility of digital culture journalists is to understand how major tech platforms and social media platforms are affecting and changing people's lives," says Goggin.
"With influencers, technology shifted the culture in such a way that these celebrities can exist, and is changing their lives too."
Stokel-Walker adds that digital culture consumption has an impact on the real world.
"We should treat it more like a business sector, than an intangible, cultural thing that has no effect on reality."
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