The rise of the journalist-influencer

Substack is just the start.

A song to read by: “You and Me,” by Penny & The Quarters

What I’m reading: “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn

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Editor’s note: I was recently asked to contribute to Nieman Lab’s annual “predictions” package. Every year, the Harvard institution asks a range of people in journalism, digital media, technology, and academia to make predictions about what the new year will bring in the world of news. 

The series will run next week, but the responses are due today, so I thought I would kill two literary birds with one stone. So, in this week’s Medialyte, I answered the question: What do you think 2021 will bring for the future of news and journalism?

Update: You can read the 2021 predictions here.

Creators by a different name

Forgive me if this sounds like a case of the hammer seeing everything come up nails, but as someone who covers the creator economy by day, I’ve noticed that the difference between influencers, creators, and journalists seems to shrink every time I check on it. 

Reporting on not just Substack, but Patreon, Cameo, Twitch, and OnlyFans, I find myself struck more by the similarities than the distinctions between the entertainers, artists, digital professionals, influencers, and journalists who populate these platforms. Though we like to count ourselves distinct from the other groups by dent of our craft’s supposedly elevated calling, journalists are really just creators by a different name. 

We all create content designed for consumption on the internet; we all cultivate a niche and then work to make ourselves indispensable to it; and we all make use of tools and platforms that turn our skill sets into revenue. Indeed, what Patreon has done for podcasters, OnlyFans for sex workers, Twitch for gamers, and Cameo for entertainers, Substack has done for writers.

And while the content might look different, the process is very much the same: produce something valuable, charge people for access. 

More than ever, it’s paywalls that do this charging, and their importance to this trend cannot be overstated. In the wake of a decimated digital advertising industry, and in the face of FAANG’s unassailable scale, creators have embraced a new(ish) method of monetization: the digital subscription. Thanks to this technology, “1,000 true fans” has transformed from a koan into a business model. You no longer need a million views to turn a profit, just a couple dozen supporters.

This shift has revolutionized solo entrepreneurship, because subscriptions unleash the individual creator. So long as their expertise lies in some breed of digitally distributable content, these second-generation influencers can use the financial model to turn their side-hustle into a day-job more easily than ever. This is as true for journalism as it is for any other field.

Substack and the other horsemen of the newsletter apocalypse have made this reality all too apparent, and in doing so have upended much of the media world. The siren song of Chris, Hamish, and Jairaj has been so irresistible that top writers have left pedigreed publications in droves to strike out alone on the platform. 

The allure of bootstrapping a career in writing has even encouraged other, less naturally endowed newsletter-whisperers to give the creator economy a shot. Most of these amateur authors (yours truly included) have found only modest success on the platform, but a lucky few have managed to strike gold organically, cultivating a following through nothing more than sheer talent and an origin story that would bring a tear to Horatio Alger’s eyes.

This is bad and good for all the reasons you might imagine. It’s bad because many of the journalists finding success as creators are the same kinds of people who were finding success before: mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent or well-connected. It’s good because the standard methods of gate-keeping no longer apply; as long as anyone can make a profit all by themselves, everyone can make a profit all by themselves. 

So, given that this seems to be the emerging reality, we need to begin to prepare accordingly. What will journalism look like when its most influential practitioners prefer to go it alone? Who loses when publications are forced to vie with lone writers for eyeballs? What happens when the media unbundles so thoroughly that everyone competes with everyone for everyone’s attention? 

It’s time to start asking these questions, because the foundation of the next decade of problems is being laid right now. The media can keep chasing its tail, going about the same routines and expecting different results, but perhaps it’s time to have a larger conversation about the system at a distance.

A for-profit model means everything comes at a price, including knowledge. As the people most engaged in parsing and parceling that knowledge, maybe it’s time journalists play a larger role in making sure this arrangement really works for everyone.


Some good readin’

— For Business Insider, I spoke with former Bon Appétit food editor Molly Baz about her new Patreon, Recipe Club. (Business Insider)

— I have always assumed the weirdness of LinkedIn was impossible to put into words, until Fadeke Adegbuyi put it into words. (Divinations)

— I’m late to sharing this, but The New York Times’ expose of racism at Coinbase is rock-solid reporting, and further proof that you can’t divorce politics from employment. (The New York Times)

— Given how indebted this week’s newsletter is to the rise of subscription-based platforms, I would be remiss in not recommending this depressing piece. (Real Life Magazine)


Cover image: “Automat,” by Edward Hopper, 1929