News on TikTok and Instagram is booming, signaling a new era

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One recent study concluded consumers are looking for news that “feels more relevant,” giving a boost to creators on social media

A collection of props one might need to start an online news account: a camera, notepad, clapper board, pens, microphone, and SD card. Cutout heads of Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh and Cleo Abram are also included.
(Illustration by Emma Kumer/The Washington Post; Evelyn Freja for The Washington Post; Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images; iStock)

Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh graduated in 2020 with a degree in journalism from Rutgers University. But instead of going to work in a traditional newsroom, he decided to build his own digital news brand catering to the Muslim community.

Four years later, Al-Khatahtbeh, 25, has amassed over 2 million followers on TikTok and more than 5.3 million on Instagram, where posts to his account, @Muslim, range from features on halal dating apps to the latest news from the Israel-Gaza war.

The young Palestinian-Jordanian entrepreneur is one of millions of independent creators reshaping how people get their news, especially the youngest viewers. News consumption hit a tipping point around the globe during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, with more people turning to social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram than to websites maintained by traditional news outlets, according to the latest Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. One in 5 adults under 24 use TikTok as a source for news, the report said, up five percentage points from last year. According to Britain’s Office of Communications, young adults in the United Kingdom now spend more time watching TikTok than broadcast television.

This shift has been driven in part by a desire for “more accessible, informal, and entertaining news formats, often delivered by influencers rather than journalists,” the Reuters Institute report says, adding that consumers are looking for news that “feels more relevant.”

That’s certainly the experience of Al-Khatahtbeh, who built an audience upon the realization that “there was no mainstream outlet that focused on the Muslim community,” he said, which makes up a quarter of the world’s population. On TikTok alone, @Muslim’s follower count is larger than the average daily audience of 1.1 million people watching Fox News.

“These creator pages that cover news stories have more impact and reach than traditional media,” Al-Khatahtbeh said.

While a few national publications such as the New York Times and The Washington Post have seen their digital audiences grow, allowing them to reach hundreds of thousands more readers than they did a decade ago, the economics of journalism have shifted.

Well-known news outlets have seen a decline in the amount of traffic flowing to them from social media sites, and some of the money that advertisers previously might have spent with them is now flowing to creators. Even some outlets that began life on the internet have struggled, with BuzzFeed News shuttering in April, Vice entering into bankruptcy and Gawker shutting down for a second time in February.

The trend is likely to continue. “There are no reasonable grounds for expecting that those born in the 2000s will suddenly come to prefer old-fashioned websites, let alone broadcast and print, simply because they grow older,” Reuters Institute Director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen said in the report, which is based on an online survey of roughly 94,000 adults in 46 national markets, including the United States.

As a profusion of independent online producers of news programming has risen to prominence, the ramifications for society are still coming into focus. One positive impact is a more diverse media ecosystem, where a wider array of voices can challenge narratives fashioned by the gatekeepers of traditional journalism. But that also serves to undercut the authority of legacy news organizations, draining support from newsrooms that are a primary source of original reporting.

While many online news creators are, like Al-Khatahtbeh, trained journalists collecting new information, others are aggregators and partisan commentators sometimes masquerading as journalists. The transformation has made the public sphere much more “chaotic and contradictory,” said Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of the PressThink blog, adding that it has never been easier to be both informed and misinformed about world events.

“The internet makes possible much more content, and reaching all kinds of people,” Rosen said. “But it also makes disinformation spread.”

Johnny Harris, a journalist whose YouTube channel has more than 4 million followers, covers global news and geopolitical conflicts and conducts deep investigations into targets such as the Mormon Church and the flat earther movement. He rejects talk of a decline in American journalism.

“It’s always uncomfortable for me being in these rooms where there’s so much doom and gloom about journalism and the business of journalism,” Harris said. While journalism is experiencing “a major disruption,” he said, “this is a transformation to fit the technology and the preferences of audiences.”

Harris once worked for Vox, a news and opinion site founded in 2014 by journalists from The Post and Slate. His switch to YouTube has been so successful that he recently recruited another former Vox journalist to launch a second channel. He hopes eventually to build a network of journalist content creators and operate “effectively a music label for independent journalists.”

Harris won’t say how much he makes from YouTube, but the social media analytics platform Social Blade estimates that he could be earning more than $900,000 a year in advertising revenue alone.

Harris acknowledged “some scary downsides” to the changing media landscape, particularly the rampant spread of misinformation. But those downsides are countered by the benefits of serving “an audience with good journalism, in a way that they want to digest it,” he said.

Still, some content creators don’t follow the same ethical guidelines that are guideposts in more traditional newsrooms, especially creators who seek to build audiences based on outrage. That was the case last year, when actor Johnny Depp sued his actress ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation over a Post opinion column she wrote that said she’d been the victim of “domestic abuse.” Though the column did not name Depp, a jury in Fairfax County, Va., ruled in Depp’s favor.

The trial became a sensation on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, as men’s rights activists, right-wing media figures and others with an ax to grind joined Depp’s legions of fans in lending their support. Many online commentators with no stake in the outcome played to this crowd, posting misogynistic pro-Depp content for profit. As the internet turned against Heard, trial coverage evolved into a smear campaign against a woman whose claims of abuse had been ruled “substantially true” in 2020 by the judge presiding over Depp’s failed libel suit against the Sun, a British tabloid.

One 20-year-old content creator in Los Angeles posted a dozen pro-Depp videos about the Virginia trial to Instagram, where he has more than 1.4 million followers. “Personally, what I’ve gained from it is money — as well as exposure from how well the videos do,” he told The Post at the time, adding: “If you hop on it early, it can basically change your life.”

Several social media platforms have emerged to serve conservative audiences. Rumble, BitChute and Telegram give right-wing creators a place to monetize, becoming magnets for accounts banned elsewhere, such as Alex Jones of Infowars who was banned from YouTube and other mainstream platforms for violating hate speech policies.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, a majority of people who regularly get news from these alternative platforms (66 percent) “identify as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party, in contrast with the news consumers on more established social media sites, who largely identify as Democrats or lean Democratic.”

Many news content creators on these platforms claim to be independent journalists but are backed by powerful special interest groups and conservative political activists. Rumble is financed by tech venture capitalists Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican now serving in the U.S. Senate. These creators tend to focus on polarizing topics guaranteed to generate outrage among their conservative followers and attract coverage by national news outlets, feeding political divisions.

For example, after trans TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney put up a sponsored Instagram post for Bud Light, right-wing news content creators including Michael Knowles and Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire orchestrated a harassment campaign against her and a boycott of the beer. The boycott garnered widespread coverage in mainstream media, resulting in the CEO of Bud Light issuing an apology. Right-wing influencers also sparked a widely-covered controversy over Target merchandise during Pride Month in June.

‘A very dangerous place for news’

Navigating social media as events unfold in real time can be tricky. Tommy Marcus, 27, grew up in Tenafly, N.J., with a mother who worked as a teacher and a father who worked in sales. Marcus started his first blog, about the New York Mets, at age 11. By the time he was 12, his blog was receiving as many as 4,000 page views a day.

“People didn’t know how old I was at the time I was sharing news about the Mets,” he said. “I had a podcast on Blog Talk Radio; my voice hadn’t even cracked yet.”

At 17, Marcus became enamored with breaking news when a bomb exploded during the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring nearly 300. An avid Reddit user, Marcus skipped an entire day of classes to follow live updates about the bombing. He watched as the Reddit community pieced together information in real time, faster than any broadcast news organization. Instead of refreshing CNN.com, Marcus listened to a live stream of the Boston police scanner.

After several hours, the crowd on Reddit claimed to have identified the perpetrator, a missing Brown University undergrad whose family was immediately inundated online with attacks and death threats. Marcus later was horrified to learn the internet had named the wrong man.

“When it came out that it wasn’t the guy, and seeing what the internet had done to him and his family, that really stuck with me,” Marcus said. “That the internet can be a very dangerous place for news if it’s not used responsibly.”

Today, Marcus is best known as Quentin Quarantino, his alter ego on an Instagram news page started in the early days of the pandemic. All day every day, he shares breaking news updates on world events with his 1.1 million followers, “becoming an actual outlet for people to check news,” he said.

Other Instagram accounts including the Shade Room, Diet Prada, DeuxMoi and Comments By Celebs also deliver up-to-the-minute information via social media, becoming entertainment news powerhouses with dozens of staffers, millions of followers and related books and podcasts. Sports pages such as Hoops Nation break news faster than ESPN.

Mosheh Oinounou, a content creator and founder of Mo News, his own online news brand, worked for 15 years in traditional media at outlets including Bloomberg, CBS and Fox News, where he served as a campaign reporter. He helped launch CBSN, the organization’s digital streaming network, and was named executive producer of the “CBS Evening News” broadcast in 2018. He left the network in 2019.

When the pandemic hit, Oinounou was taking a break from television, so he began updating people about the news on his Instagram account. Before he knew it, thousands were tuning in. He now has over 416,000 followers on the app, a podcast, a newsletter and a paid premium tier for his news content. Fans can book shout-outs (short, personalized video messages) from Oinounou on the app Cameo. He’s also on TikTok.

“I felt like, okay, there are lifestyle influencers, there are travel creators, there are financial creators. And, like, why not, like, why not also do news on this platform?” he said. “I found a community that really likes this platform and this format, and frankly, really distrusts traditional media. They’re looking for a handful of individuals who they trust instead on various topics, and that includes the news.”

With deep roots in traditional journalism, Oinounou says he is meticulous in his reporting. He cites his sources, couches information and tries to provide unbiased, nonpartisan facts. He knows his audience would be larger if he leaned right or left, he said, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice his integrity — or lose the trust of the audience he’s built. After Hamas terrorists launched a cross-border attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, CNN brought him to its morning program as a commentator.

“When you’re delivering the news in a country that has record-low trust in the media, part of that has to do with the lack of trust in larger brands,” Oinounou said. “I think it’s important that all journalists are building credibility directly with the audience.”

Many news creators have arisen on TikTok. V Spehar is an independent journalist and podcast host who has amassed over 3 million followers under the handle @UnderTheDeskNews, reporting on breaking world events in videos taken from beneath a desk. (The Post has contracted Spehar to contribute to its TikTok account.)

Bianca Graulau, an independent journalist from Puerto Rico, has amassed a large audience by covering news affecting that U.S. territory. King Asante, a Gen Z news content creator with 1.5 million TikTok followers, recently expanded by launching a show on Snapchat and posting videos covering breaking news and pop culture on Instagram and YouTube Shorts.

Cleo Abram, a science and technology journalist who worked as a producer on Vox’s series Explained, left the organization in 2021 to be a full-time creator. She now has over 1.1 million followers on TikTok, over a million subscribers on YouTube, and a dedicated fandom who look to her for news on the latest advances in science and technology.

Meredith Lynch, a TikTok creator in Los Angeles who posts investigative videos on topics ranging from pop culture to the private equity industry, said TikTokers not only hop on breaking news, but often surface scoops before traditional outlets.

“The internet drives news cycles,” she said. “It moves quickly, faster than traditional news.”

News content creators can have difficult relationships with the platforms on which their businesses depend. Shortly after Meta launched its Twitter clone Threads, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri posted on the platform that he didn’t intend it to be a place for news and journalism. TikTok doesn’t have a news partnerships liaison or anyone dedicated to helping journalists use the platform.

Snapchat initially cut deals with big news publishers when it launched its “Discover” program, allowing organizations to create unique shows. But it eventually tapered off those partnerships and has recently focused more on influencer-driven content, such as YouTube celebrity David Dobrik documenting his daily life.

YouTube has bucked this trend. This spring, the platform organized an incubator program for news content creators in the United States, Canada and Australia. The 16-week online workshop offered independent journalists tips on entrepreneurship and strategy for features like YouTube Shorts and other YouTube best practices.

“Another part of it was the networking with each other,” said Ant McCormack, co-founder of Changer Studios, which organizes courses to help YouTubers grow. “They can learn a lot from each other.”

News industry experts are watching the shifting media landscape with a mix of skepticism and curiosity. Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, called the rise of news influencers “the logical conclusion of the atomization of news media and an extension of trends that have been happening for quite a while.”

“I hate to say it,” Grueskin added, but it also marks “the diminishing importance of a lot of traditional media in the eyes of the under 35 demographic.”

Grueskin said he worries about the loss of original reporting as most news content creators simply aggregate or comment on news from traditional sources. “I’m not trying to say that giving opinions about something isn’t important, but ultimately it relies on the quality of the underlying information, which is done through actual journalism,” he said.

However, the primary source of much of that journalism — legacy media institutions — is viewed with growing distrust, especially among young people, said Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. National news publications that rely on access to people in power or serve primarily wealthy audiences deliver coverage that often feels out of touch with average working people, he said.

“There is a sense of a self-serving, self-indulgent elite that’s running things to benefit themselves,” Wasserman said. “For all its claims about independence and bringing a critical gaze to policy, there are vast areas where the press is in lockstep with the people who own and run the country.”

Newspapers covering local news garnered a higher level of trust, he said, but many of those outlets are now gone, leaving national outlets to shape the public’s perception. Those outlets have not elevated issues many young people care about, such as climate change, he said.

“The media is not holding [political leaders’] feet to the fire, they’re not going to the White House and saying when are you guys going to stand up and do something [about climate change], and what kind of sacrifices are in order?” Wasserman said. “That kind of leadership is something that the press should be clamoring for.”

This role is increasingly being filled by content creators, many of whom reject the neutrality of traditional journalism in favor of reporting that takes a stand. Elise Joshi, 21, is a member of Gen-Z for Change, a political collective of young activists with large social media followings. In August, Joshi interrupted White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierreat an event on voter engagement to ask questions about the administration’s decisions to greenlight oil-drilling projects.

After Joshi posted a video of the interaction to TikTok, where she has more than 150,000 followers, people applauded her for asking questions they felt the rest of the news media had ignored.

Whatever happens to famous media brands, Wasserman said, such moments prove that news reporting will survive.

“For all of what we’re seeing which looks like a repudiation of journalism,” he said, “there are a lot of people who want to do it.”



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