Journalists are becoming YouTubers, as creators say the platform holds the future for the industry
YouTube is an increasingly popular platform for both traditional journalists and influencers to publish investigations.
Some believe YouTube represents the future of journalism, where creators have more freedom beyond the confines of traditional media.
However, issues with reliability and algorithmic biases pose a major challenge.
In May 2021, journalist Adam Robb spent an estimated 1,500 hours digging deep into the lies of Eddie Ibanez, a Philadelphia tech founder who was about to launch a new NFT project with YouTuber Logan Paul called CryptoZoo. Through his reporting, Robb discovered that Ibanez and Paul were about to scam countless victims.
But as a freelancer, it took Robb months to find a publication willing to edit and publish the investigation. It only reached the public in January 2022 — six months after CryptoZoo was launched and scammed numerous users out of potentially millions of dollars.
Robb was paid $300 for his work. And, more despondently for a journalist, the story did not make much of an impact.
"That should have felt more cathartic, except no one read the story," Robb said.
That's when he connected with Stephen Findeisen, a YouTuber who exposes crypto scams on his massively popular channel CoffeeZilla. They collaborated on a three-part video series in December that has since accumulated more than 19 million views in total and led to lawsuits against Ibanez and Paul.
Seeing the popularity of his work on YouTube was a wake-up call for Robb, who until then had not explored the educational and journalistic side of the platform. "It was also like, oh, wow, this is true. YouTube journalism is its own thing that operates in its own ecosystem."
Robb's foray into YouTube represents a growing trend on the platform toward greater journalistic rigor — both from independent journalists who come from traditional journalism backgrounds as well as independent influencers. Some traditional journalists are leaving established newsrooms to become YouTubers.
YouTube, these creators say, gives them the freedom to do good journalistic work without the red tape of the industry — work that reaches audiences more directly, allows more creative freedom, and more accurately represents the world around them.
But as many new bounds as the platform allows, YouTube journalists are also facing new challenges.
Creators say YouTube is 'the next frontier' for powerful journalism that media companies are struggling to sustain
Kevin Perjurer is the creator behind Defunctland, a YouTube channel documenting the history of theme parks and defunct park rides. With a background in filmmaking, Perjurer has been able to make a living on YouTube alone, although he declined to share his revenue. He calls the platform "the next frontier" of filmmaking and documentaries, and believes the wider media industry should take it more seriously.
But Perjurer is aware, if not a bit self-conscious, about the stigma of being called a "YouTuber."
"I'd be lying if there wasn't a small part of me that hates that this is called a video, and not a documentary or a film, and that I am referred to as a YouTuber or a content creator, and not a filmmaker, or a documentarian, or an artist," says Perjurer in a recent 90-minute investigation into the origins of the Disney Channel theme song.
"The stigma is that it's this lawless place and anyone can just say anything, and that is true. But I don't see how that's so much different than what some of traditional media is doing," he told Insider.
Pivoting to YouTube is a big career risk, but one journalists are willing to take: The payoff to tell impactful stories outweighs some of this stigma.
Rohit Upadhyay is a journalist based in Delhi, India, who was selected for the independent journalist creators program that YouTube and Google News Lab launched in 2021. He worked for some of India's biggest national news organizations for four years but moved to YouTube after feeling disillusioned by the overwhelming political bias in India's mainstream media.
YouTube, he told Insider, gives him more freedom to tell stories that he believes are disappearing from India's media landscape. Recently, he released a series debunking myths about India's Muslims — a group facing increasing marginalization under the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi administration — that received thousands of views on the platform.
"I was not allowed to do the kind of stories I wanted to do," he said about working for traditional outlets in India. "I could not raise the voice of the common people, which is our main job. That's the big issue of media: as an institution, it is not free," he said.
The platform has also become one of the few places that hold space for underrepresented voices. Neil Farrell and Sarah Oeffler are the creators behind The Leftist Cooks, a channel publishing deeply researched video essays about philosophy, social science and modern society.
They say YouTube is a vessel for a more honest form of journalism that allows people like Farrell, who is nonbinary, to tell their stories on their own terms.
"Being surrounded by great content creators — like Mexi doing Positive Leftist News or Caelan Conrad doing undercover reporting on the gender critical movement — and seeing that and having it contrasted with the normal world of journalism in the mainstream … it felt so far removed from like, a kind of basic level of honesty," Farrell told Insider.
Meg Heckman, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, explains that marginalized groups, including people of color, women, and LGBTQ people, have long been left out of traditional newsrooms, and, in response, they've created their own independent publications. The practice dates as far back as the analog days and stretches into the early aughts when the journalism world struggled with the question of whether independent bloggers were "real journalists."
"Now that we're in this more fragmented digital media ecosystem, it's possible for an independent journalist to speak directly to her audience via a platform like YouTube or Substack or Twitter," Heckman says.
Trust in the media is plummeting across the political spectrum, and research is finding that more users are seeking out information on platforms like YouTube.
According to a study by the Media Insight Project, 36% of Gen Z and Millennials are getting "news you can use" from YouTube, compared to only 24% who went to a local TV news station or 12% who went to a local newspaper or its website. Pew found in 2020 that a quarter of American adults get their news from YouTube "in which established news organizations and independent news creators thrive side by side."
Heckman said the success of independent YouTube creators likely stems from the fact that creators meet audiences at their level.
"Good, high-quality journalism shouldn't be limited to prestige publications. Different audiences should have lots of options for high-quality information," she said.
YouTube challenges journalistic 'objectivity' but also may pose new challenges with fact-checking and the algorithm
In a video essay published last year, Farrell and Oeffler call for journalism that acknowledges reporters' biases rather than pretending to be objective. Most progressive journalists today believe that perfect "objectivity" is a myth in the industry.
"You're always still gonna have your cultural biases. And because of that, you are necessarily going to be shaping the work you put out," Oeffler said. "So the way we propose people should get around it is to just start by owning who they are owning where they're coming from, and be honest about the frames that they're using to analyze information and present it that way."
Conversations about journalistic "objectivity" occur frequently in Heckman's classroom. The original idea of objectivity in journalism, said Heckman, was that the process should be transparent and repeatable. But today, the term has been wielded against journalists who dare to question the status quo. Acknowledging one's objectivity is one way to combat this issue.
"If you were blogging, or in this case, if you are a journalist on YouTube, I think the most important thing you can do is be as transparent as possible with your audience," Heckman said.
Throughout the history of American journalism, an "objective" perspective has meant a white male one. In recent years, journalists have been challenging the importance of "objectivity" in journalism more publicly than ever before — especially amid poor coverage of racist police killings and, most recently, transgender healthcare. Critics say the "both sides-ism" standard in journalism platforms dangerous voices and false information in the name of journalistic objectivity.
Journalists who have free agency to pursue and report out big stories also face a new challenge: Who is editing and fact-checking them? Some journalist-creators are now having to wear both hats.
As a traditional journalist, these are the questions that gave Robb the most pause. "I don't know that I would have worked with [Findeisen] if he wasn't already profiled in the New Yorker," Robb said. "I don't know that I would have partnered with some random YouTuber I could not have vetted."
Robb said once he read Feindeisen's New Yorker profile he felt comfortable working with him. "So I just thank God for traditional print journalists being there to kind of vet him for me."
Oeffler, who briefly dabbled in journalism but went on to pursue degrees in anthropology, psychology, and global mental health, said every fact in a Leftist Cooks video is backed up by a vetted source.
"We have to earn people's respect … constantly because our videos get shown to new people all the time. So I quite like that bit, that somebody isn't necessarily going to believe me because I said something and it's on the internet," she said.
Perjurer says for educational content like his, the audience also serves as a sort of democratic fact-checking mechanism.
"I do a video and I really make sure that everything I'm saying is right, and I'm doing all the things that a good journalist should do because I don't answer to a boss," he says. "But I answer to the thousands of people watching this, many of whom might know more than me about the subject I'm talking about."
Lack of editorial oversight is one of the major risks of YouTube, Heckman said, but it's no different from previous iterations of independent media that have drawn audience attention to overlooked issues in the past. Still, better media literacy education is needed as new forms of media gain popularity.
The YouTube algorithm is another major inhibition to those trying to deliver reliable, informative content to their audiences, subjects said.
Their videos often struggle to reach audiences compared with more clickbait-y and blatant disinformation content, and the algorithm replicates social biases common in traditional media. Google has also been accused of racial discrimination within its algorithm from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators who say their videos were removed without explanation.
It's an issue that journalists like Upadhyay are increasingly frustrated with as it continues to go unaddressed.
"I keep asking [YouTube] 'Please change this, at least give us the boost because we are bringing new issues and I'm not following the trend, I am trying to create a trend'," said Upadhyay. "It's a problem with the YouTube algorithm that we have to follow the trend in order to get views."
Amid new challenges, journalists say they still prefer to work in a less regulated environment
Creators interviewed said YouTube is far from sustainable; Robb admitted that he wouldn't invest in the platform long-term unless he was able to have the reach and backing of a creator like Findisen again (Coffeezilla has 2.6 million subscribers).
Perjurer of Defunctland was the only creator interviewed for this feature who has been able to survive financially on YouTube alone. He strongly believes the ability to publish important investigative stories without the bureaucracies of news media companies makes it a worthwhile pursuit.
"It's overwhelming," Robb said. "There's a hyper-engaged but also hyper-critical audience, and it only works if you're incredibly transparent. Stories rarely escape YouTube no matter how big they get, and it only becomes profitable if you partner with an established channel that has reach. And then you are on your own, needing liability insurance, a lawyer, etc., because you're working without a net."
Still, Robb acknowledged that without YouTube his story would not have been seen. His partnership with a big name like CoffeeZilla has scored him deals for further investigations and a true crime series adaptation of the story.
Media organizations could learn something from YouTube creators, he said.
"People do make a good living from it. And so it's hard to understand how they can do that in a production studio from, like, a tool shed in their backyard when a bigger outlet can't do that."
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