What really is the difference between journalists and “content creators?”

Editor’s note: This is one of the occasional posts we do speaking to someone with something to say on topics that we find interesting. If you are seeing this and are not yet signed up to Deepnews, click the button below to start receiving our blog posts every week, and a Digest of quality news on an important subject every Friday

By Christopher Brennan

What makes a journalist for a major daily newspaper different from a prominent one on Substack? What makes someone famous on Substack different from any other blogger? From Instagram influencers?

After a few weeks thinking about the differences between robots and people, this blog post looks at the differences in the vast group of humans writing on the internet: the most renowned, those doing good work without the warmth of the social media spotlight and those just posting nonsense.

It’s a conversation that’s very much alive among writers as far flung as Vanity Fair and Stratechery as several high profile names have departed from the comfort of steady gigs at big publications to strike out on their own on Substack.

This CJR piece from Clio Chang lays out a lot of the issues, including some that relate to Deepnews, like the fact that the most successful writers on the newer platforms such as Substack and Medium already had large followings elsewhere. The Deepnews Scoring Model pulls in articles from everyone the from biggest newspaper columnists with hefty salaries to the smaller bloggers writing for free, with the only focus being quality, rather than how popular someone is on Twitter. In surveys we have done, our readers appreciate the fact that we surface smaller outlets they may not have heard of, while of course ensuring that the article itself isn’t garbage.

That is one thing that is missing in a lot of talk among writers about who is writing where, the question about how readers feel about different sorts of “content creators.”

One exception is a new paper from Sandra Banjac, a researcher at the University of Vienna who I had the privilege of speaking to this week after first seeing her paper in the useful Substack newsletter RQ1. Though the work doesn’t single out Substack and Medium specifically, Banjac and her co-author Folker Hanusch’s research relied on focus groups of young people and studied the way that they felt about the practices and responsibilities of the largely defined group “content creators,” which includes journalists, Instagram influencers, YouTubers and bloggers.

The upshot is that most respondents thought of journalists as the “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” versions, independent and acting in the public interest, with strong associations to the written word and long in-depth texts. The idea of other content creators such as YouTubers was more focused on the personal, transparency and authenticity. But when the researchers started hearing about concerns over what makes good and bad content creators, such as low quality content, they found that the perceptions of content creators were “far closer to journalism than first thought.”

“It was only once we started comparing these [two different groups] that we realized that they may have labels in different words …  We thought well, actually [the concern about content creators] relates very closely to discussions in journalism so it might be under a different label, but it’s talking about the very same thing,” Banjac said.

Beyond the focus on quality, Banjac also makes the claim that the standards for content creators are “implicitly journalistic” because of reaction when they become increasingly commercial. For both journalists and the creators on YouTube, Instagram and blogs, the more they were seen as being oriented solely towards the market and making money, the less audiences wanted to engage.

The blurring of journalism and “content creation” brings up heady questions like whether we are heading to a point where everything on the internet is somewhere on the spectrum of journalism and somewhere on the spectrum of being commercial. Banjac doesn’t feel ready to answer those questions, though her paper does have suggestions for journalists that might apply to those in newsrooms as well as those Substack pioneers heading out across the internet prairie looking for a better way of working.

Slower, quality content is one suggestion, though another is transparency, and Banjac suggests that journalists may learn about how to confront the problem from the content creator crowd.

“It’s generally the view that journalism is this closed off fortress, this whole idea that journalism is separated by a wall from the advertorial and advertising pressures and influences. I think what audiences may appreciate is just journalists acknowledging, ‘Yeah, we are dependent on these guys. They do shape our work, we are influenced by them,. It’s the same way in which you find that lifestyle journalists are quite open about the pressures that they face from commercial pressures and advertising and public relations and so on.”

Another insight is that as the world of journalism is spread out more horizontally across the globe there will always be big “general news” channels, but something audiences appreciate is when they are part of a smaller community around an author. This of course means that a writer has more of a chance to check out an individual reader’s comment, but also that the readers enjoy having discovered something quality in the Wild West of the internet.

“There were some people who said, ‘Oh, I was one of the first to follow them back when they were nothing and nobody and now look at them, they have a million followers.’” Banjac said. “There was this idea of ‘I contributed to their fame or to them becoming famous.’”