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When Citizens Become the Press

March 13, 2024

Written by Jeko Iqbal Reza & Andre Howson | Graphics by Jonathan Joseph

For the longest time, the path to becoming an influential journalist hinged on working for an influential publication or media outlet. No more. Many are going straight-to-social as creator journalists. 

“News by the people, for the people” encapsulates the ethos of this emerging tribe of creator journalists. 

No longer tethered to establishment publications, these independent voices are harnessing social platforms to share stories that strike a chord with niche crowds.

Take Azizah Hanum, a Jakarta-based journalist turned YouTube luminary behind the popular channel “Jadi Gini” (translated as “Here’s the Thing”). With over 15,000 subscribers hooked on her conversational interview style, Azizah spotlights ordinary folks and public figures from diverse walks of life.

“My goal was to break down the barriers between interviewer and interviewee. I wanted to show the human side of my guests, the stories behind the headlines, and make it way more accessible,” says Azizah.

This intimate approach succeeds in building bonds of trust and community.

Navigating the New News Frontier

For a while now digital surveys have been showing that increasing numbers of people were getting their news from social platforms like Instagram and TikTok. A report from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism last year found that younger audiences are now turning to social media, especially TikTok, for news rather than visiting a news website or mobile app. 

On social, creators follow the algorithm and the algorithm follows the user. If news works, news creators aka creator journalists work. 

These indie voices provide much-needed nuance. Whether covering Gaza or Ukraine, their on-the-ground views inject humanity into the news feed. Consider TikTok – an unlikely hub for Gen Z to catch up on current affairs. Yet the platform has birthed a new wave of creator-hosted news shows, reporting live from protest grounds and war zones.

As Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh, founder of @Muslim says: “These creators have more impact and reach than traditional media.” His own platform, launched in February 2019 and boasting over five million followers, provides news to Muslim Americans ignored by mainstream outlets.

Indeed, the personal storytelling of creator journalism reels in younger crowds on their home turf. Okki Sutanto gravitates towards Instagram because, “That’s where the people are.”  

Though the platform prioritises visuals, his essay-style posts on trending affairs, focusing on social commentary, have hooked 26,000 followers. According to Okki, he views his role as a concerned citizen navigating the open frontier of social media news.

The Challenges Ahead

While opportunities abound, uncertainty looms large. Some traditional journalists leveraging social media to amplify their work point to editorial challenges like upholding integrity and remaining unbiased, while adapting content to audience demands for entertainment.

Seasoned journalist Antonia Timmerman observes that the rise of social media as a news source challenges the journalists to rethink their roles.

“It’s about striking a balance between maintaining journalistic integrity and adapting to the digital age’s demands. Social media has not only changed how we disseminate news but also how we engage with our audience,” she says.

Sri Lanka-based news editor Marlon Ariyasinghe adds that social media platforms have become battlegrounds for political narratives, especially in regions with polarised media landscapes. 

They offer an alternative space for journalists to explore stories with a level of freedom and immediacy that is often constrained in traditional media. “This shift is not without its challenges, but it also presents an opportunity to redefine journalism in a more democratic and inclusive way,” he says.

Viewed from the lens of traditional media, creator journalists must master a complex balancing act. From issues of bias to misinformation and upholding, or even defining ethical standards, across decentralised platforms. And monetisation continues to be a moving target.

Okki elaborates on his struggles when it comes to potential revenue streams. Algorithms keep changing, policies evolving, and the ways writers and creators make money are always developing. “Is it through brand partnerships? Creator support? Ad revenue sharing with platforms? Building your own digital products? Endless options yet I still don’t know which one I should prioritise. It’s completely a paradox of choice.” he says.

The rise of creator journalists marks a seismic shift in the news biz. This movement isn’t just about changing the messengers; it’s about transforming the news itself into a more interactive, engaging experience. 

Recently, Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, has begun to open revenue flows to creators, as it shuts the door to payments for traditional media companies. The two signals point to one future for news. Not the only future it should be added, but a whole new part. 

Despite the open questions, the creator journalism movement shows no signs of losing steam. As ad dollars chase eyeballs, the market signal is clear – the future of news lies in crafting stories that inform, inspire, and touch hearts.

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  4. What makes a case study truly compelling

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