“Do we fully appreciate and understand the value of influencers?” is an opening question  Salla-Rosa Leinonen, a producer working for the Finnish Public Broadcaster Yle, asks in her research report called Can journalists be influencers?

“Do we understand the role, benefits and pitfalls of having journalist-influencers in the newsrooms?”, I would add. The answer is a loud NO. Leinonen’s report does a good job answering some of the questions, tries to explain the labels flying around and explain their meaning, to codify them so we have more nuanced future conversations on the topic.

I’m all here for that and very much welcome such research. As with any good report, this one also brings up and leaves more open questions, like: Are news organisations ready to grow “journo-influencers”? The answer to that is a topic for a whole new research, though.

Key ingredients for influencers gaining the trust of the audience: Credibility and authenticity

Right in the introduction to the report, Leinonen establishes a contradiction I found really profound and haven’t really thought about before: Traditional news outlets and journalists gain attention and lead conversations on Facebook and Twitter, but they struggle on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. On the other hand, celebrities, influencers and even ordinary people attract the most attention to news on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.

Traditional journalists and news orgs (in general) have been slow to jump on new platforms and understand new trends. Sure, it might look like the news media as an industry is there at the forefront, but it’s usually a few savvy orgs trying to pull ahead while the rest is enjoying the comfort of the platforms they know and understand.

Well, that’s not the case for journo-influencers who produce native content for a specific platform and build their audiences around their personas.

The report also does a good job explaining the appeal of influencers and what can news orgs learn from that. The first and probably most important is that influencers are attracting followers with shared values – because influencers tend to openly share them, something many news organisations try to conceal.

Influencers get their audiences connected through “credibility” and “authenticity”, the report states plainly and illustrates it with an example that happened in 2019 in Sweden.

Swedish influencers who collaborated with the United Arab Emirates (Visit Dubai) were widely criticised for endorsing dictatorship when promoting the country by travelling there. The audience saw that as a sign of inconsistency between the influencers’ personal values and their sponsorship deal and how they chose to not tell the whole story of the country.

Leinonen writes this shows the very intimate relationship between influencers and their followers, when followers show “friend-like” emotional reactions to things influencers do. 

I would say the same is true also for news brands’ audiences and especially for how their paying supporters feel towards them. Just take The New York Times; any time there is a controversy (doesn’t matter how big or small), you can see users on Twitter tweeting they are “cancelling nytimes subscription”.

In a way I feel that’s a deeper than usual relationship to have with a news organisation. If you don’t care, you wouldn’t tweet about it. On the other hand, a bigger scandal might create (and often has done in the past) pressure on the newsroom and the leadership, but that’s another topic for another time.

The report says a newsroom can create such a relationship by more transparency in the news process which could help to achieve more authenticity, especially when it’s clearly communicated to the audience. A kind of “behind the scenes” or “how was it done” approach many influencers use.

Another stark observation from the report: The audience is hoping for quite similar things from content creators (influencers) and journalists: authenticity, transparency, engagement, and quality content.

The following two lists are taken from the report and I find them super helpful and concise in conveying that basics for anyone still lost:

14 things that followers expect from influencers (according to the report)

Influencer…

  • Speaks directly to me
  • Feels authentic
  • Communicates shared values and shares personal revelations of private life (Feeling of authenticity through self disclosure)
  • Is invested, emotionally connected and cares about content that is shared
  • Is credible
  • Is interactive, engaging and present to seem more approachable and “real”
  • Is personally relatable and similar to me
  • Is effortless, spontaneous and their content doesn’t seem “too planned” or “premeditated”
  • Feels like a friend
  • Maintains a consistent quality and pace in published content
  • Shares (personally) relevant information
  • Shows expertise in the subject covered
  • Shares how they get their information and shares negative aspects of sponsored content transparently
  • Isn’t too commercial (too much advertising is disconnecting) and has a good balance between sponsored and organic content

14 things that influencers do to meet those desires (according to the report)

  • Well-planned publishing schedule to balance sponsored and organic content
  • Try to maintain their “creative freedom” in collaborations to seem more “authentic”
  • Creating a connection through interaction with followers to seem more “real”
  • Choosing topics that are “relatable” and trying to act “relatable”
  • Be prepared to receive negative feedback if a collaboration is perceived “inauthentic”
  • Deciding what personal information is shared publicly to create a sense of “authenticity” and “realness”
  • Teams behind the influencers are not disclosed, so everything seems to be coming from the influencer
  • Disclosing perceived expertise on the topic and/or their work the influencer has put into certain things “personally” to create an authentic and invested feeling
  • Even though the influencer has put a lot of effort into something, how it’s presented to followers should feel “unplanned” to feel more “real”
  • Disclose negative aspects and criticise products or services that are sponsored
  • Trying to seem less commercial than they really are to be more “real”
  • Trying to stay on brand pursuing a certain promised lifestyle to keep followers happy
  • Trying not to be too repetitive
  • Trying to stand out from other competitors in the influencer scene without losing the interest of advertisers (not being too niche)

What makes journalists different from influencers in the end?

Looking more closely at definitions of journalists and influencers, the lines get more blurred. Both create content, both aim to build an audience, both strive to be credible.

As BBC News senior reporter Olivia Le Poidevin noted in an interview for the report, up to now there has been a clear division between “content” and “news” in many media organisations, as if they were two separate worlds, but from the audience point of view, they are not separate, they are the same.

Yes, a somewhat cruel, but helpful observation – for audiences the distinction between content and news might be just by the source of the information and even that comes more and more from social media (as the 2022 Digital News Report found).

To go a little deeper, Leinonen categorised the different types of social media content creators (or as we call them today: journalists, journalist-influencers and influencers):

  • Social media influencer
  • Social media activist
  • Journo-influencer “freelancer”
  • Journo-influencer “private media”
  • Journo-influencer “public service”
  • Traditional journalist “private media”
  • Traditional journalist “public media”

She based the types on looking at five factors: employment/income source; the aims of content creation; rules and guidelines they follow; how well content creation is planned; and who benefits from content creation.

Some might find it confusing to distinguish between a “journo-influencer” and an “influential journalist”, the report tries to explain: If you build audience on social media and can become famous without the need to work in the “legacy media”, you are a “journo-influencer”.

An “influential journalist” is a journalist who has gained their awareness or fame through more traditional modes of journalism (newspaper, radio or TV) and uses social media to build their personal following.

Leinonen writes the biggest difference can be found in how the content is created. An “influential journalist” isn’t publishing journalistic content on social platforms “natively”.

Things aren’t black and white. Among the “journo-influencers” there are journalists who work like influencers and influencers who “present” journalistic content.

The report highlights some journo-influencers like Sophia Smith Galer, an ex-BBC reporter working for Vice News, and Max Foster, a London anchor and correspondent for CNN, and how they experimented and built a large audience on TikTok. 

Both of them are clearly defined as journalists on the platform, but the content format is usually experimental and follows trends and challenges on the platform, Leinonen observed.

Who benefits from the content creation of “journo-influencers”?

Axios was built on creating a newsroom from senior journalists that already had a following and, as Jin VandeHei told in 2016 Kara Swisher in an interview, he could “monetize the hell out of them,” which turns out Axios did and continues doing.

And not only Axios, Puck News and other similar new media entrants that recently emerged seem to have understood what could “journo-influencers” bring to the table. If treated right and given enough freedom and ownership stake, these high-profile journalists can fuel growth of the news brand.

I don’t think the question “Who benefits from the content creation of ‘journo-influencers’?” posed in the report is right and it is something media executives and managers should be asking. How can we work together is a much better approach.

There are several examples of how “journo-influencers” worked with newsrooms to create something special; let me give you at least one.

In Czechia, Seznam Zprávy has partnered in 2020 with YouTuber StaySteak, who specialised in producing videos about organised crime, to create České podsvětí, the award-winning true-crime and one of the most listened to podcast in the country.

It was the perfect blend of giving editorial support to a passionate creator who was teamed up with a seasoned crime reporter. The youtuber got to do something special and broaden his audience (Seznam Zprávy is one of the biggest online news outlets in the country). The news org gained a niche audience it could build the success of their podcast on.

Another example that comes to my mind is that of my colleague Zuzana Kovačič Hanzelová of SME.sk, who is a proper “journo-influencer” with almost 100,000 followers on her Instagram. A few months ago, she started a weekly newsletter with tips and an overview of the most important news she wanted to address.

Most of her newsletter subscribers didn’t have an account or registration at SME.sk, but by signing up to her newsletter, the news org could start an onboarding journey for them and eventually turn them into paying subscribers of the online subscription.

Throughout the years I have had the chance to talk to a few “journo-influencers”. When asked why they are staying at their newsrooms even though things weren’t perfect, they all stressed editorial freedom as one of the reasons for staying.

They understood they might be tempted to make commercial deals (like the influencers from Sweden mentioned above) they wouldn’t be 100% behind in order to make a living and they didn’t want to compromise.

Of course, I know of many “journo-influencers” who didn’t have to compromise and build a nice living while staying independent of a newsroom. Usually, that’s the case of bigger western countries.

There are many other topics the report deals with: regulation, ethical issues, media literacy, and lots more. If you are a newsroom executive and struggle to understand this new class of journalists, you should definitely read the whole report.

Photo by Sam McGhee  from Unsplash