Driving the conversation: Journalists, influencers, and journalist-influencers

Most influencers aren't journalists, and not all journalists are influencers. But sometimes their powers are combined in a super-influential hybrid who drives conversations.

When newspapers were the main method of getting news, journalists drove water-cooler discussions. Journalists still start these discussions, but increasingly, as more people get their news via social media, it’s influencers—people you trust enough to follow—who spread them.

Many companies spend a lot of money on PR firms, trying to influence the journalists whose voices matter most. However, some companies have noticed that by working with social media influencers, they can skip the middleman—the reporter—and go straight to the people who are spreading not just factual news, but also opinions, endorsements, and scorn.

Journalists still bring a higher caliber of truth, of course. They work for institutions that maintain standards. Most of those organizations prohibit their reporters from accepting payment of any kind in exchange for positive coverage and fix errors when they’re discovered.

Influencers can have the same effect as journalists…but not if they’re paid to play. To achieve the same level of influence, they must convince their followers or readers that they’re not for sale.

An increasing number of us trust the people we follow on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on to let us know which news really matters and keep us from missing important stories that don’t make the front page.

That’s the function network news anchors once performed. Some still do, but they’re less relevant than they used to be—quick, name the evening news anchors on NBC, CBS, and ABC. If you can, you’re part of a small club. Their role is to tell you which news matters most, and occasionally highlight a fun story.

Sounds like the role played by a well-informed influencer, doesn’t it? Instead of one news anchor, we have many smart influencers. Instead of tuning in at dinnertime for the Voice of God, we tune in to an endless stream of influencer posts whenever we want.

Many of them are working journalists whose influence derives from that identity, and takes on new weight because of their social-media presence. Journalist-influencers like Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, and Axios and Politico cofounder Mike Allen don’t just tweet about their own work, but highlight important news from others, thereby earning trust and playing an important role in letting their followers know about important stories. 

Yet as institutional voices lose their central importance, individual influencers are rising. They’re not speaking to us through a camera, but are quietly giving more and more of us the news we need.

Devon Wijesinghe is CEO of Insightpool.

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