Every day, Kelsey Russell wakes up, eats breakfast and scans the day’s top headlines — but not the way you and I do. She props up her phone camera, pulls out a print newspaper or magazine, and hits “record,” spending nearly an hour laying out the deets of an article for her followers. Then, it’s off to class.
Russell, 23, is a pretty unconventional influencer. While her content has landed her at brand events, award ceremonies and even on “The Drew Barrymore Show,” the secret to her success can be found in her daily routine.
After classes — Russell is pursuing a master’s degree in sociology and education at Columbia University — she leaves one educational institution to return to another: her Harlem apartment. She winds down most evenings by scanning news pages, first for her own enjoyment and then for her audience’s clarity-driven consumption. Another hour is spent annotating the pages and researching in preparation for the comprehensive TikTok she’ll film the next morning.
“I got a subscription to the Sunday New York Times — the physical copy — for my birthday, and I think that bad, Gen Z biddies should read the newspaper,” Russell said, in her first media literacy-related piece of content this past summer. “And in order to bring back the newspaper, I’m going to literally document, every day, what I learn.”
This post marked the beginning of her journey to break down articles from various newspapers and magazines on TikTok. In a few months, Russell amassed an audience hooked on her snappy personality and her knack for synthesising information in a palatable and colloquial way.
Sourcing information from both local and national outlets, Russell largely tackles stories abut politics, economics and social justice through the lens of communities of colour. In a time full of uncertainty and a thirst for news and analysis we can rely on, Russell offers a port in the storm of information swirling around us.
Russell credits her father for her penchant for print media. Images of him sitting at the kitchen counter in their Atlanta home, newspaper in hand, are cemented in her mind. During her undergraduate studies at Boston University, he’d often mail her articles that reminded him of her ― most of which Russell kept but ignored. However, in 2020, there was an investigation in her home state that changed her perspective.
When Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was killed by three white men in Georgia, Russell’s father quickly became well-versed in the details of the case ― long before most mainstream publications caught on. He felt empowered to be ahead of the curve on news that affected his community, and this got Russell thinking.
“Being Black ― the fact that we’re just out here getting murdered, like everywhere. I realised, there’s something in print media where there are always going to be journalists trying to cover really small local towns,” she says, emphasising the importance of telling our own stories when we need to.
Russell’s lived experience as a Black woman is not the focal point of her videos; she aims to focus mostly on the subjects and sources involved. However, being a Black person wholly informs her quest for knowledge and her digital career.
“I think about it every day,” Russell says, referring to her racial identity. “Coming from a family of educators and entrepreneurs, we value education so much because we know people can’t completely take it away from us, yet they continuously try to.”
At a time when educational gag orders and the striking down of affirmative action threaten access to education for marginalised groups, the Black community’s history of creatively seeking liberation through knowledge seems prescient.
“The oppression of thought, learning and education has not [happened] solely to the Black American community,” Russell says. “That has been a tool used since the beginning of this earth to oppress. But Black Americans are the best example to look at what happens when you limit people’s access to reading, to writing, to education.”
This oppression is part of both our history and our present situation, Russell tells me. And she wants to be part of disrupting that.
There are dangerous and largely false narratives about Black Americans that mainstream media outlets often perpetuate. Our achievements and our agency are often disregarded or omitted, and it’s time to subvert that. “For me, the importance of being a Black woman is that I will continue to interact with these white supremacist media while I also uplift media that is not a part of that regime,” Russell says.
Russell’s TikTok content is as much for herself as it is for her community. Although she has become a trusted news resource for her audience, reading print media has also become integral to maintaining her mental health.
“I felt the sense of anxiety leave my body,” Russell says, recalling how she felt after making her first newspaper-related video. “It was all because I picked up the paper, which seemingly should be a thing that should make me more anxious, more depressed, and it didn’t. It actually felt like a healing moment.”
Russell says she fell back in love with learning about the world, no matter how grimy it is — because there are also beautiful moments of happiness and empathy to home in on.
Just a few months ago, Russell was in the same boat as many Americans, grappling with anxiety and choosing to avoid the news. But drawing on advice from her therapist, Russell invoked her childhood zest for information and read the newspaper to face her fears without potential distraction from digital devices.
Information overload, increased misinformation online and digital fatigue are fixtures of life for Gen Z. Despite this, Russell believes that we should double down on our engagement with news — not turn away from it. We can be the front line of a media literacy revolution if we continue to have discerning, galvanising scholars like Russell to guide us.
“Just because we have so much information doesn’t mean we know how to process it, and doesn’t mean we know what to do with it,” Russell says. “Do everything you can to not go numb, because your emotions are the coolest thing ever. The way you feel about things, that’s what gives you passion. It’s up to us to interact with the news institutions that already exist, to either change or demolish [them], whichever one we want to do.”