Newsrooms stand to gain if their journalists become influencers - but the skills and added responsibilities of the role should be reflected in their salary and job description. That is the topline of a recent report by Polis, the journalism thinktank at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The paper 'Can journalists be influencers?' looks at the changing nature of modern journalists.
While independent influencers dominate social media platforms (typically gaining followers by sharing aspirational or relatable content about their lives or a specific topic, then monetising their engaged audience through brand partnerships), a group of 'journo-influencers' has emerged, combining the personal, informal touch of an influencer with the educational and rigorously reported content of a journalist.
Some of those who have pioneered this new form of journalism are VICE News' Sophia Smith Galer (though she made her name while at BBC News) and Max Foster of CNN.
These journalists use social media similarly to influencers, posting life updates, snippets of their stories, behind-the-scenes of their jobs or "trend" videos. Smith Galer, with more than 400k followers, posts about anything from being featured in Vogue, to language trivia, writing tips, journalism ethics, professional developments, and, importantly, adapting her news reporting for the platform.
Why don’t countries include abortion restrictions in their travel guidance? /1 pic.twitter.com/RAmnanDgTb— Sophia Smith Galer (@sophiasgaler) July 2, 2022
This combination of light-hearted videos and hard-hitting news has put her at the forefront of a changing journalism landscape, where this month's Ofcom research revealed that British teenagers are getting more of their news from social media and less from traditional news and TikTok is the fastest growing news source for British adults.
Instagram remains the most popular news source for British teenagers, with TikTok and YouTube close behind. Nearly half (47 per cent) of TikTok users also reported getting their news from "other people they follow", compared to around a quarter (24 per cent) who say they get it from news organisations' own accounts.
Speaking recently on BBC News, Smith Galer said that social media users want entertainment and strong personalities on their social media screens. By dabbling in these waters, journalists can build their own brand and that of their news companies, as well as supporting their journalism through deeper newsgathering and engagement processes.
The downside is that this usually falls outside of the remit of journalists' work duties. Smith Galer has previously put much of her success down to investing large amounts of personal time into the platform.
A lack of time and support to pursue this form of content creation within the newsroom is one likely reason there are few journo-influencers.
Salla-Rosa Leinonen, the author of the Polis report and a producer at the Finnish public broadcaster Yle made the case for newsrooms to support staff who want to experiment with a journo-influencer role, speaking on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast.
"I don’t know where this weird idea comes from where social media work isn't work," says Leinonen, adding that newsrooms often struggle to know how to resource social media work. "It's not a side hustle that people should do in their spare time."
A Scandinavian resolution
Instead, newsrooms could make this a defined part of some journalists' jobs, compensating them for the additional workload, responsibilities, skills and demands of the job. These include planning, developing a consistent tone of voice and style, and often specialist knowledge.
Yle recognises the power journalists have when they have big follower counts, so that reporter Jaako Keso, for example, has a hybrid personal-work YouTube account (with Yle's name in the channel name and a Yle watermark in the videos). Even though a significant portion of viewers would not differentiate between this and a corporate account, reporters are trusted to abide by the company's guidelines. This is 'influencer' type content that directly benefits the newsroom, and Keso is employed to do it.
Keso has made a name for himself investigating 'underground phenomenon stories' which has earned him the trust of vulnerable sources and 42k subscribers on YouTube.
"What makes Jaako special is that he produces a lot of content about his life, his hobbies and the interests he has. He also shows a lot of his personality on Instagram and he is all the time communicating with the audience, so people feel he is approachable."
That is a far cry from the UK's own public broadcaster BBC News, which has doubled down on its social media guidelines in the last year to cement its status as an impartial broadcaster.
Leinonen, who produces videos for Keso in her day job, says that Yle could not operate under the BBC's strict guidelines and that the company feels they cannot monitor or muzzle all of their reporters.
One caveat to bear in mind is that Finland has substantially higher trust towards the media than the UK, as shown in the latest Reuters Digital News Report 2022, which found that 69 per cent of Finnish news consumers trust the media, compared with the UK’s 34 per cent. This different context - and the fact that Yle reaches a smaller Finnish audience compared to the BBC's global one - may make it difficult to compare policies directly.
Are journalists the ideal influencers?
But does the role of 'influencing' go against the role of the journalist to be objective?
Leinonen argues that journalists have always sought to influence news readers - and that since influencers play such a prominent role on social media, it simply makes sense for journalists and reputable news organisations to occupy the same space and use it to share factual and accurate information.
A report by Takumi in 2019 found that "general apathy among influencers towards eliminating misinformation appears out of sync with the rest of the industry."
Then there is the risk that influencers, who make money through brand collaborations, may not do due diligence into who is benefiting from the messages they promote to their followers. Leinonen's report discusses Swedish influencers who collaborated with the United Arab Emirates (Visit Dubai), and were criticised by those who saw this as tacit endorsement of dictatorship.
The Polis report concludes that the 'journo-influencer' is a necessary role.
It helps journalists by connecting them with sources and stories they might not otherwise unearth; it helps news organisations because successful journo-influences can engage hard-to-reach audiences; and it helps social media users who can gain access to accurate news in a format they enjoy.
The trouble is that newsrooms often do not prioritise these benefits - which means the number of journo-influencers is limited to those who have the means to do it in their spare time.
Leinonen offered two words of advice for would-be journo-influencers: embrace the familiar "trending" formats that you see on the platforms until you can find your own voice, but do not worry about sticking out - that can be a bonus because you are offering specialist insight that often thrives on the platform.
There are many more tips on what followers expect from influencers and other considerations when trying to create journo-influencer content in the full report.
This article was updated on 28 July 2022 by Jacob Granger to include Ofcom research
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