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Creator economy vs. newsroom leadership: A fight for talent

More and more journalists will be tempted by easy options to monetize their fans

The last few years have seen an interesting trend: creators of various content going directly to their fans, followers, and getting paid. Nowadays it’s often referred to as the creator economy – and its a huge headache for newsroom managers struggling to retain top talent.

The temptation for journalists to leave newsrooms and do their own thing has always been there. But the set of tools now available make that easier than ever. This means media outlets need to find new and better incentives, making it more interesting for stars to say “at home.”

The rise of the “Creator Economy”

There are many ways to explain the term of “creator economy”. One of the better ones comes from Mark Stenberg’s recent characterization in his Medialyte newsletter. He put it like this: “The creator economy consists of individuals with unique skill sets using platforms to monetize their craft.” 

The term also tracks back to YouTube ten years ago. Back then we saw the rise agencies with programs to help YouTubers to monetize their audiences.

Stenberg also provides a good differentiation between creators and influencers based on who pays them. If advertisers – you’re dealing with an influencer. If it is fans, then its a creator.

The line does easily get blurry. Some people who feel very much in the creator camp monetize first and foremost via ads. 

A good example is the tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee aka MKBHD, who recently explained his business model on the Decoder podcast

You would call Brownlee a creator, but the way he earns his living suggests he is an influencer. Nonetheless, it remains relatively rare to see big names generate enough advertising that they don’t need a Patreon, or to go for Cameo, or OnlyFans.

Now that we established what is and what is not part of the creator economy, how does it impact newsroom talent?

A changing environment for content creators

Ten years ago if you were a journalist fed up with your newsroom, you would probably quit and go to another newsroom (and be unhappy there). 

Journalists did not have many options. In theory, you could do almost anything that is possible today. But it usually meant bootstraping all the monetization tools yourself (as some did).

YouTube was the easiest choice. But not everyone was ready to show their face on a channel.

By contrast today there is an army of ready services that allow a journalist to easily jump in, connect their credit card and start earning from their followers.

Just look at the rise of Substack, the paid newsletter tool similar to the popular paid tech newsletter Startechery. It makes it easy to start a blog, launch a podcast and send newsletters. You just set up a paywall and decide which part of your content you put behind it.

I have worked in media from the moment we started taking paywalls seriously. It was around the time when the creator economy started to grow. But setting up a paywall for smaller publications was still an issue. It took money, technology, time, strategy and solid execution.

Today we are much smarter when it comes to setting up paywalls. You can tell a publication knows what it is doing about when talk of paywalls is immediately followed by talk of newsletter strategy.

Creator economy makes life easy for newsroom talent

With Substack you can set up a paywalled publication within minutes. Sure, WordPress has had this option for years – the aforementioned Stratechery runs on WordPress. But you need plugins for monetization and newsletter sending. Substack, or Revue for that matter, offer the same just by signing up.

The popular Clubhouse audio drop-in app is also considering various monetization options – selling tickets, tipping, even subscriptions to listen to someone.

UK-based OnlyFans first used by the adult industry – but spreading among other creators – offers convenient tools to get paid by fans. 

I have to mention Patreon, which has been on the forefront of the creator economy effort for years.

Now Twitter is the latest to announce such features with Super Follows (I wrote about in the last week’s column). It will allow users to set up a subscription and display content created on the platform just for paying followers.

All of these platforms and many more I did not mention are widely available for anyone in almost any country. That also means for journalists – and it is starting to create problems.

Journalists and business

One of my first columns for The Fix looked at the need for good business managers in media. Or for journalists turned media managers to learn about the business of media.

And not just them. Some argue journalists should be part of the business as well, get involved, understand and act on it. Of course, they have to balance the incentives for doing good journalism and helping to grow the business. Sometimes those do not coincide.

But I would argue the two have a more symbiotic relationship than less. Good journalism makes for good business, and good business allows good journalism to be produced.

The creator economy brings with it an issue that concerns some journalists (with time it will be more and more). I am not the first to point this out. Ben Smith at The New York Times wrote about star reporters and their following, and the power that gives them.

Casey Newton asked how will Twitter’s Super Follows shake up the media industry? Many tweets already warn of this coming clash between journalists and their bosses when it comes to earning extra on other platforms.

One thing to understand is that savvy journalists are eager to use available tools to drive more value. Of course, when you are thinking about the big newsrooms, as many primarily do, they provide mostly good salaries and many also create good tools for their reporters.

The right incentives for creative newsroom talent

This is how Newton think about the problem and possible solutions:

Quote: The long-term solution for this is for publishers to create incentive models for their employees that have uncapped upside, allowing journalists to capture more of the value they are creating while also giving them the benefits that solo hustlers like me are now living without. That arrangement could involve shared revenue on a newsletter, or YouTube sponsorships, or podcast ads. But the upside has to be unlimited, and it has to reflect some portion of the value that the journalist creates.

The issue being that some of your newsroom staff can pull off more. They create more value (having built large followings of fans over the years) and can bring in more revenue just by themselves.

If you ignore the facts, sooner or later the idea of going solo (which, trust me, is already on all of their minds) will grow into reality. They will leave and you will lose the added value they were bringing.

The obvious answer, as Newton put it, is to come up with models to engage such journalists. This can be shared revenue or other options like tipping when signing up for a subscription. It can be spinning up a standalone vertical with your own subscription. Or letting star reporters run events where you take a fee and leave the rest for the journalist in charge, sharing the profits.

But the creator economy vs. newsroom battle for talent comes down to one thing. Management has to recognize those individuals, nurture them and give them tools to translate their added value into added benefit.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.