EletiofeThe Anderson Cooper of Black Twitter Believes Journalism Can...

The Anderson Cooper of Black Twitter Believes Journalism Can Survive Influencers

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Phil Lewis never planned on leaving Michigan. Detroit was home. Still, he wasn’t exactly happy with the life he’d built, he tells me recently over Zoom. After graduating from Michigan State University, where he studied sociology, Lewis cycled through Teach for America and landed a gig as an elementary school educator, teaching seventh-grade history and social studies. But it wasn’t enough. “I was kind of devastated a little bit because I just didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing,” he says.

This was around 2015, a bellwether year in digital media. Everything about the news industry was evolving at a volatile speed, as sites like BuzzFeed and Gawker chased virality, and legacy publications tried to keep stride.

By that point, Twitter was the front page of the internet. Grassroots movements spurred by political and economic corruption—the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter—had recast the platform into ground zero for breaking news. Social media was ushering in a new age of citizen journalism. Lewis, with his 30,000 followers, decided to jump in. “Vine was still a thing. Influencing was a relatively new concept. I was a teacher with a decent following. A friend of mine was like, ‘You should get into social media.’”

That was almost a decade ago. Today, Lewis is behind one of the most popular—and most reliable—news accounts on X. He also landed a more traditional media gig, as a front page editor for HuffPost. Lewis has a sixth sense for news, and has made himself into an indispensable voice on an app that, these days, is drowning in noise (having 409,000 followers doesn’t hurt either). He did so by sticking to a particular formula: platforming overlooked and underrepresented stories with more context, humanness, and understanding.

“I don’t want to bring attention to everything because there’s so much engagement bait online now,” Lewis says. “What I try to avoid doing is lighting something on fire.”

In 2022, following Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and its subsequent rebranding as X, users furiously debated the platform’s demise, and many wondered how apocalyptic its loss would be for independent and nontraditional media. Twitter was the internet’s newspaper—who would fill that void if it was suddenly gone? What wasn’t up for debate was Lewis’s impact. “You know where Black people on here get their news???? This guy,” @solomonmissouri tweeted, referencing his account. Added @AkanButNoJeezyy: “And @Phil_Lewis_ does not miss, okay?! One time for the Black Anderson Cooper.” Their point being: Who tells your story matters. It is a lesson Lewis has never lost sight of.

Jason Parham: Is it still possible—in 2024—to achieve the kind of career and presence you have online?

Phil Lewis: It’d be really hard. I wasn’t competing with so many different voices. I think [journalist] Taylor Lorenz coined this term, but newsfluencers weren’t a thing back then. At least in my mind, it wasn’t. But now there’s all sorts of people who do it or want to do it. My trajectory also coincided with the rise of digital news outlets. I rose with that. HuffPost and BuzzFeed had been around, but people were trying to figure out what it meant to find news and to surface news on social media. Today, it wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be very difficult to go from a middle school teacher to working as a front-page editor at a news outlet where I have created my own lane. We’re competing with so many eyeballs.

Is that how you see yourself—as a newsfluencer?

I’m a journalist first, but there are people who fall under that category. Influencers aren’t a bad thing, necessarily. I know there’s a lot of debate around it. But there are people who have leaned into the news as part of their brand and what they do. People thought that’s what I was. I actually found out that a lot of people didn’t even know that I was a journalist until relatively recently. They thought I was, and this is a quote, “Some dude sharing news stories online.”

For the longest time I thought you were a bot.

A lot of people thought I was a bot. Or that I was just scheduling posts. And now I feel I can’t change my profile picture. People might think I got hacked.

Is the attention economy so fucked now beyond the point of saving that it’s impossible to break through the chatter in a meaningful way?

When you think about it, we’re competing with Instagram aggregators, blogs, social media pages focused solely on news, podcasts—it’s all over the place. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If it wasn’t for social media, I would not have been able to take the path I did. We are in a crisis of attention, but what I find more frightening is the rise of misinformation and disinformation. That’s more chilling to me than the amount of people who want to do the best work that they can, whether that’s on YouTube or TikTok. There’s more than enough happening out there for us all to get a piece or whatever.

True.

I’m more concerned about the bad actors who are going after people who may not be reading the link. They might just be reading the headline, right? They might just be looking at the post with the black font that says, hey, this is what’s happening on Instagram, and that’s it.

Because the state of news media has gotten so splintered, is this why you do what you do?

I want to be able to be a resource for people online as far as getting them the information that they need. I mean, I love when people come up to me and they’re like, “Hey, you know, I found out about this through you.” I love hearing that because I do think there’s so much out there that there’s an equal amount of things that are being missed or underreported or that maybe people aren’t paying attention to.

The reach you have is pretty incredible.

What I like most about whenever I’m sharing a story, I know that it’s not just readers who are at work who, you know, just opened up their phone and were like, “Oh wow, I found out about this story.” It’s also assignment editors who follow me. People at The New York Times, at CNN—

—at BuzzFeed. I bet they regret rejecting you now [laughs].

It’s funny because people will tell me, “Hey, we shared your tweet in our newsroom Slack channel. That’s how we found out about the story, and now we’re going to write about it.” So you don’t have to have millions of followers, but I have a reach that’s a little different. And that’s important to me.

It should be.

That’s not to say I always get everything right. I always tell people, journalists get things wrong. We issue corrections. We try our best to do what we can. But what’s most important to me is making sure that the stories that I think people need to know about or need to read about, I try to get them out there—and apparently my Twitter page is the best way to do it.

There is a reason people call you the Anderson Cooper of Black Twitter.

There are too many nicknames. There was a Twitter thread with a bunch of different nicknames. It’s humbling. It’s nice to see that people care about what you’re doing. But it also reminds me of how important it is—especially for our community, the Black community—to get these stories out and to make sure our stories are told and represented, and that people know about them.

And not just get them out, but get them out correctly.

Exactly.

This week the Pew Research Center released a study stating that many Black Americans are distrustful of US institutions because they believe they are being conspired against. The same is true of news media. But a lot of people online trust you as a news source, which feels increasingly rare these days.

And you know what, they’re not wrong [laughs]. I’ve been reading about media reparations. In the 1960s, the Kansas City Star totally ignored what was going on with the Civil Rights Movement and other things that were happening in the Black community. So they relied on Black newsrooms, the Kansas City Sun being one of them, to get them the news that they cared about.

Obviously when we’re talking about news deserts, Black communities are completely parched. What’s the quote? When white America gets a cold, Black Americans get the flu. That’s doubly true for Black media and Black newsrooms. Whenever I look at layoff numbers, these giant losses that have happened in traditional and local media, Black newsrooms are disappearing at greater rates to their white counterparts.

Sometimes I feel like the state of the industry is like trying to solve a riddle that can’t be solved, or doesn’t want to be solved—because, let’s be real, that’s a different discussion in itself. How can Black people better trust the news when we aren’t being staffed, or saved from layoffs, in newsrooms?

Right.

It creates a fractured news economy where instead of going to MSNBC or The Washington Post for information, people start to source their news from social media accounts that don’t always paint the full picture or even an accurate one.

It is getting harder and harder. But I do know a lot of people who rely on accounts like The Shade Room or The Spiritual World for news.

A friend recently sent me a news clip from TSW. I had never heard of it until then.

And that’s just it! These platforms reach people that HuffPost would never ever be able to reach. They reach people that WIRED would never be able to reach.

Never.

So when you think about it from a media strategy, especially if you work in public relations, to me this makes sense because you want to get your story out to as many people as possible. I know that The Shade Room has put money into reporting. They want to do things outside of just clipping videos. They are trying to hire editors. The important thing is to try to meet people where they are at. That’s what I try to do. Gen Z and younger millennials—they’re online and they’re on TikTok, they’re on Instagram, they’re right where these social media pages are.

What’s your temperature on the state of Black media today?

I’m under no illusion that it’s not rough. It’s definitely rough. What I would like to see are Black-owned, worker-owned outlets in the same vein as Hellgate and Defector. We haven’t really gotten into that space yet. That’s still a very, very white space. I think they would admit that too. They are doing some great work, and I wonder what that would look like for us.

Is that what the future of news looks like?

I think a piece of it looks like that. Journalism isn’t going anywhere. I know people say journalism is dying, but people will always want to know what’s going on.

The industry’s been dying ever since I started out over a decade ago.

People say that, but it’s just evolving. Your mileage may vary on how you feel about it. It’s always changing. It looks different today than it did yesterday. People seem more interested in brands and people now, and they might not be watching network TV as much, but they are on TikTok way more. Or maybe they are getting all their news from Instagram. It’s evolving in different ways. But yeah, what we are seeing now is just a piece of it, I think. And it’ll keep changing.

What’s the hardest part about your job?

[Long pause] The pressure of it. If you get something wrong when there are a lot of people relying on you—

Four-hundred thousand people.

But it’s actually more than that because of the way news spreads. I end up on the For You page a lot—and unfortunately with a lot of other, right-wing, big engagement folk. I think Twitter looks at me as a power user. I’m not afraid of being wrong or getting something wrong, because that comes with the job, but there’s still pressure. The thing is, if I share a story and it’s totally wrong, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t write it, people are gonna be like, OK, well, you shared it, right?

It’s probably good that you don’t check your mentions, then.

Oh, yeah, I don’t check my mentions a lot, because it’s mostly people fighting all day. But that’s just the nature of the beast now.

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