January 2, 2024

Something funny has happened over the past year or so.

It used to be, when I met a journalist for the first time, we’d chat a bit about what we do. Now, when they hear I work at Poynter, many of them have one burning question.

“Who makes the memes?”

If you don’t follow Poynter on Instagram, let me catch you up. Starting in October 2022, some of the images we began sharing on our Instagram account were less about the stories we published or the events we were hosting and more about the uncanny experience of working as a professional journalist. They have been a massive hit.

All credit goes to Annie Aguiar, our audience engagement producer. I asked Annie a few questions about how the memes come together and why they have caught so much attention.

At the risk of asking you to pick your favorite children, tell me about some of your favorite memes. 

Honestly, one of my favorite memes is still probably the first one, which was off of the “please check your child’s Halloween candy, there is blank inside” format. I did, “There’s arguments about objectivity again.” Inside of the candy bar was just a text box saying, “Actually it’s a really nuanced conversation that touches on a lot of issues within the news industry: trust, identity, the core of what it means to go and report the news.” That’s one I come back to a lot.

What are you ordering from the ice cream truck is one of my greatest hits.

At the risk of ruining the magic … what’s the goal here? 

It’s making Poynter more online. It’s bringing people to our off-platform presences and showing them that Poynter — this established institution since the 1970s — that we’re in on the joke with them. Being in on the joke requires being part of a community. It requires keeping up with what these online conversations look like, in terms of large sweeping topics in journalism and smaller moments that form a bit of a connection between Poynter and our audiences. They show that we’re just people like you and we like to make little jokes about our extremely strange profession.

The response has been massive. They get so many likes, shares, comments. People reach out to ask about them. Why do you think they’ve resonated?

At the beginning, it was really just shock about, “Why is this happening? What’s going on with Poynter?” And then people surprised themselves by really liking it. I’m a deeply online person. I’m always looking for the next format that I can bring a journalism joke to. People appreciate feeling like they’re in a dedicated niche that has a space online. People like being part of a group.

Poynter’s president keeps asking for an invite to the “meme meetings.” But we don’t really do a meeting. Walk me through your process.

I’m always online. I’ve been on the internet since I could read. So throughout the week I will screenshot things I find on mainstream meme accounts. I’ll do archival looks into meme pages to see what formats I haven’t used yet. Of course, if there’s a really topical one — like Barbie memes for a minute, or Selena Gomez wrapped in that blanket …

I have no idea what you’re talking about. 

Oh, that was a spicy one!

I do a constant passive survey and then, on Wednesday or Thursday, I will put aside some time to put them together. And then I check with my team to make sure that they make sense for people who are less computer-poisoned.

Journalism takes itself really seriously. At our worst, we can be extremely self-righteous and internal-facing. Making fun of these tendencies helps to lighten that a bit.

It’s not all memes, obviously. What else about your gig should people check out?

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done on our Instagram in general. In the year that I’ve been here, I’ve taken it from a dormant account that had last seen a post in 2018 to a vibrant and consistently updated home of visual storytelling about the media industry. Yes, the memes are a part of that, but, I know it’s a cliche: A rising tide really does lift all boats. If I can get more people interested in thoughtful discussions on interviewing vulnerable sources or Maui wildfire conspiracy theories via silly little posts, that is a good thing.

A version of this Q&A was first published in the Sept. 8, 2023 edition of Open Tabs, Poynter’s weekly roundup newsletter.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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