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Pay me what you owe me

When time is money for Instagram and YouTube sensations, is it time to cough up the cash?

YouTube logo superimposed on Walk of Fame star Art: Mathew Philip

I’ve been in the process of trying to interview a young American Instagram celebrity, who accrued over a million followers after suddenly coming into the spotlight. It’s nothing out of the ordinary: a basic Q&A session, potentially over Skype or mobile. Between the online personality’s multiple management bodies and pseudo-PR teams, there’d been minimal coherence whatsoever, and in one interaction, I was messaged: “how much is your budget?” It was the first time I’ve ever been asked whether or not I’d be paying an interviewee. That opportunity promptly fell through when I replied that the publication’s policy didn’t, in fact, permit such transactions.

A similar exchange was shared online at the end of last year by Taylor Lorenz. Taking to Twitter, the reporter questioned why “YouTubers think they should be paid for doing interviews with news outlets” and said it was “crazy” that nearly half the time she reached out to teenage online stars, they demanded compensation for answering a single question. She later shared an example where she gave a YouTuber the chance to comment on a racist tweet sent out to nearly 500, 000 followers. The YouTuber’s response is short and sweet: they’ll do it, “for $5,000”. The viral thread started a heated discussion that dragged in the opinions of celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, and led to followers of the said YouTube star sending her rape threats and spam.

It’s an interesting development. The established norm in the media world, often locked into editorial standards, is for the interviewee to offer their voice, thoughts and answers up for free. In return, they become a known name to be consumed by audiences around the world. As a blanket rule, not paying for interviews ensures integral reporting and unbiased coverage, while remunerating every source used in articles is a surefire way to drive an outlet into bankruptcy.

There are exceptions, however. A few media bodies sit outside this realm, such as current affairs programs like 60 Minutes and gossip magazines, who fork out large sums for exclusivity: “you saw it here first” bragging rights, traction analytics or a competitive front page. ‘Chequebook journalism’, as its referred to, not only gets people to speak up, but also incentivises interviewees to not blab to other outlets and publications.

This privilege is unreservedly offered for traditional celebrities in high-profile coverage, but can also be extended to the average person in one-off events when they give  insight into well-known scandals and breaking news—from the media reportedly paying Cassandra Sainsbury’s family to talk about her drug smuggling ordeal, to survivors of the Sydney siege being offered six-figure payouts.

It all comes down to a matter of ethics, explains Kate Southam, a freelance writer and communications consultant. “If you pay people then they are going to fabricate their version of the truth so the media company feels it got its money’s worth,” she said.

Similarly, the media outlets who pay interviewees often fail to make these arrangements transparent to their audience, and denies the reader or viewer’s right to know that the “disclosure of the ‘truth’ they are consuming was financially motivated.”

According to Dr Jonathan Hutchinson, a social media researcher at the University, influencers are a hybrid—neither average Joe nor celebrity. They exist within their own fame spectrum, ranging from extremely successful (with millions of followers or subscribers) to low-scale reach.

Dr Hutchinson acknowledges that an influencer’s brand is a cultural product audiences want to consume, but shouldn’t come with a charge. In his eyes, the “exchange in capital comes through exposure to larger and new audiences”. He further explains that comment for normal journalism should be free, but commercial endeavours, such as a product endorsement weaved into an interview, should be recompensed.

Tara Chandra, a fashion blogger on YouTube and Instagram agrees. She considers her ideas and presence a facet of her brand, but can see the “mutual publicity where both the interview source and myself are receiving exposure”. However, Tara maintains that individual influencers have the right to decide their own monetary worth: “you wouldn’t blink an eye if a consultant invoiced you for their time, opinion and voice in a matter—so why do the same for anyone else?”

In response to Taylor Lorenz’s tweet, another reporter, Tom Ward, said that in his experience interviewing YouTube’s biggest names, he’d never been asked by anyone for payment. He suspected that only the “pain in the ass” mid-tier influencers, who sit around the 500,000 follower mark, would make such requests. People below this range are too unconfident to ask for money, and people above receive revenue from ads or big brand collaborations, so don’t necessarily need interview compensation.

Personalities with a larger follower count, according to Taylor and Tom, understand how the media works. Without good management or representation, these mid-tier influencers who are new to the game and lack publicity navigation methods, end up making demands for payment that are unprecedented, yet perhaps warranted.

Social media outlets don’t publicly share user statistics, but putting it in perspective, a third party analytics site suggests that out of the near 2 billion monthly active users, the 5000th top subscribed YouTube account has nearly 1.3 million followers. Similarly, while there are 800 million user accounts worldwide, the 500th most popular Instagram account is well above the 8 million follower mark. There’s a bell curve for mid- and entry-tier influencers, and this numerical differentiator is what likens some personalities to a new class of celebrities and leaves the rest behind.

The debate around paying influencers is about who benefits the most from the arrangement, what both parties receive and and who is more dependent on the other for success. Along with a quantitative measure, a news outlet would be more likely to pay an influencer if they were immediately prominent  and relevant. If the influencer gains more than the outlet, then it is within their right to at least attempt to leverage a payment negotiation. But if they are not a famous figure by normal standards, it is in the influencer’s best interest to do the work for free.

As Tara says, any personality who has recently gone viral would be higher in demand, and more likely to benefit from chequebook journalism because the outlet’s audience would be more inclined to consume content about them. There’s no standard, or precedent, and the arrangements are set by market demand for each individual influencer.

Sure, a vlogger could take to their own channel to express their views without the help of traditional media, and could even be paid by YouTube from adviews. Similarly, an Instagram star could have more followers redirected to them from targeted ‘trending’ algorithms. But there is still a chasm between the insular community the influencer has built around themselves, and the unknown potential audiences that mainstream platforms could expose them to at a faster rate than natural follower growth.

The truth of the matter is that online influencers are slowly becoming more recognised and legitimised as a career choice. They aren’t often paid beyond sponsorship deals and throwaway freebies, if at all, in cases where larger corporations offer the promise of ‘exposure’ only. Yes, old and new media are talking at each other, but neither party are listening. The real focus must be on finding an answer, as Dr Hutchinson points out, to how influencers should now support their livelihoods, if media paying for interviews is out of the question.