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“Break free from the stuffy, media-trained bubble”: How publishers are using TikTok to connect with a new generation of readers

TikTok, was the second-most downloaded app of 2019. It surpassed both Facebook and Instagram while only losing out to WhatsApp, according to The Drum.

Sensor Tower said last November that the app had topped 1.5B total downloads across iTunes App Store and Google Play. It has achieved these milestones well under 4 years of its launch in September 2016. 

TikTok already rivals the giants of the first era of social media: In 2007, three years after it launched, Facebook had 20M users; around the same point in its life cycle, in 2009, Twitter had 18M.

Matthew De Silva, Reporter, Quartz

According to Business of Apps, TikTok has 800M monthly active users worldwide. It was downloaded 738M times globally in 2019, with 46M of those coming from the US. 

Source: Hootsuite/We Are Social

eMarketer projects TikTok’s US user base to grow 21.9% this year to 45.4M people.  By 2021, it is projected to reach 52.2M.  

Source:eMarketer

“New forms of self-expression”

“Properties like TikTok are supporting and creating new forms of self-expression, and brands want to tap into that. It’s an experiment for many marketers,” says eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson. “In many ways, TikTok is where Facebook was in the late 2000s, and where Snapchat was three or four years ago.”

Although TikTok may not appear to be a natural fit for serious journalism, many publishers have been experimenting with the app. This is because the platform offers them opportunities to connect with the younger generation which form the bulk of TikTok users. 

60% of US TikTok users are aged between 16-24, according to Reuters (November 2019). MarketingCharts’ TikTok data (March 2019) finds over 50% of its users in the US are aged between 18-34 – with a nearly even split between 18-24 year olds, and 25-34 year olds.

Additionally, Business of Apps notes that a quarter of US TikTok users are aged 45-64, indicating that its appeal is not simply limited to kids.

“It’s all about the long game”

Some of the publishers on TikTok include Washington Post, NBC News, USA Today, ESPN, CBS Sports, Florida Times-Union, Germany’s Tagesschau, and 20 Minuten from Switzerland. 

Here’s a running list of publishers on the platform, compiled by Francesco Zaffarano, Senior Social Media Editor for The Daily Telegraph.

The Washington Post is among the earliest news publishers to have an active account on TikTok. Launched in May 2019, it is lead by Dave Jorgenson, the publisher’s Producer/ Writer of Creative Video. 

Rather than emphasize the core news product, Jorgenson uses humor, stunts and sketches to give viewers a peek inside the newsroom. Occasionally, the videos also feature news stories. The account currently has 398K followers and 20M likes.

“It seems the Post’s TikTok has been successful because it’s willing to break free from the stuffy, media-trained bubble,” writes De Silva. 

This effort might not earn it subscriptions today, but in five to 10 years, WaPo could become a go-to source for many of today’s TikTok users. It’s all about the long game. 

Matthew De Silva, Reporter, Quartz

“For an industry vying for the attention of the next news generation, it is clear we cannot overlook the potential TikTok brings. We know that news brand preferences are often formed early on, so it reasons that publishers would benefit from building relationships with young readers,” comments Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe.

“You start to draw people in that way”

The Washington Post sees TikTok as a way to humanize the news industry to a younger audience. Like this post where they look at the growing trend of news avoiders in a humorous way.

“I saw it very early on that people were really excited to see a reporter just at their desk. They’ve just never seen that. They’ve seen, like, the 24-hour [cable-TV] version, where you see someone’s head on the screen. But they haven’t seen [a journalist] working at their desk,” Jorgenson told The Atlantic. 

The process of doing journalism is often opaque; TikTok can demystify it, humanizing the people behind the bylines—particularly important in an era when personal brands dominate and politicians regularly shout about “fake news.”

Scott Nover, Reporter, The Atlantic

“With many young people not remembering a time before #FakeNews was a thing, TikTok’s ability to show the human side of journalism is helping younger audiences rebuild trust in mainstream news outlets,” adds Phillips. She shares how one of The Florida Times-Union’s TikTok post helps dispel some of the common myths around journalists, in a popular meme format.

Jorgenson told The Atlantic that the platform is better suited for quick spotlights on what’s going on in the news, or behind the scenes of journalism. For example, he made TikToks at the Democratic primary debate, co-hosted by the Post and MSNBC. Which gave “a quick tour of the debate stage and the anchor desk in one of the posts,” notes Jeremiah Patterson, a Professor of Journalism at American University. 

And so from there, I could see audiences starting to think, Oh, that debate is going on. Maybe I should tune in. Maybe I should research a little bit more about these candidates. So I think all of that helps. It’s not as immediate as publishing a traditional article, but I think that you start to draw people in that way.

Jeremiah Patterson, Instructor of Journalism at American University

“Meet our young audience where they are”

“We want to meet our young audience where they are, and it’s clear that there’s a huge young audience on this platform. We want to be telling compelling stories for them,” Nico Pitney, Political Director at NowThis, told CNN Business. 

The publisher launched its TikTok account in December 2019, and has found that it’s strategy of syndicating across platforms works on TikTok too, according to Digiday.

The account has already gained 804,000 followers and over 24M million likes by posting less than once per day. The publisher also has a seperate account, NowThis Politics with over 130,000 followers and 1.6M likes currently. 

“NowThis has found that not only does the standard news content from third-party sources perform just as well on TikTok, but getting the content ready for that platform requires a lighter editing lift than for other channels, like YouTube,” comments Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber.

Among the publisher’s TikTok videos is an explainer on President Trump’s impeachment. The video has a hand placing paper cutouts of major players like Hunter Biden and bags of money on a table with a narrator explaining the timeline of events.

Our audience cares about issues, they care about policies. We’re explaining complex issues to news consumers who are just sort of finding their political awareness.

Nico Pitney, Political Director, NowThis

“Just as older generations consume news to be informed, younger generations want to make sure they don’t miss out either: they want to be the first to know about offbeat stories to share with their friends,” writes Phillips.

She gives the example of The Telegraph’s TikTok’s post on how rats are being used to help detect landmines. It was their second post on TikTok and currently has over 103,000 likes.

“Build up an audience”

When asked why The Washington Post is on TikTok, Jorgenson told The Atlantic, “There’s been cartoons in [newspapers] for 300 years.” He added that those cartoons have netted the Post a handful of Pulitzers over the years. 

Michelle Jaconi, Executive Producer, Creative Video at The Washington Post compared it to crossword puzzles. “When crossword puzzles were introduced, a lot of people said, ‘I don’t understand. This is silly. Why does this belong in the news?” she said. Adding, “They were buried—in some newspapers—in the ‘ladies section,’ and a lot of people couldn’t understand it. 

“Now you look at it and it’s a thriving business, a source of not only subscription revenues, but also syndication. And it is looked at as this elite daily habit.”

And that’s how they view TikTok as well, a lighthearted side project that can help them connect with a new generation of readers. Jorgensen said that the average subscriber to the Post is, “well over 40. So this is a really good way to, at the very least, get [younger people] to trust the brand or to know the brand.”

We wanted to be a part of the dance trends and the feel good moments and build up an audience and then start to insert the news more often. That does not mean we’re going to stop also having fun and being funny.

Alex Ptachick, Audience Editor, Emerging Platforms at USA TODAY

“A wise investment”

WAN-IFRA reporter Simone Flueckiger asked Greg Barber, The Washington Post’s Director of Newsroom Product, whether the publisher is experimenting with channels like TikTok and Twitch for the sake of novelty, or they have an engagement and subscription strategy behind the experimentation. 

Barber replied, “I remember fielding similar questions when I ran our experiments on Facebook a decade ago. Turns out, taking time to learn our place in that ecosystem was a wise investment.

“Our work on TikTok and Twitch employs a similar approach: we explore the platform, engage with its audience, and determine how and whether there’s a good fit – and how that fit might evolve as the platform does. We’re always learning and iterating.”

When we experiment on platforms, we ask the same core question as when we experiment on our site or in print: what are the most engaging ways to tell a story in this space?

Greg Barber, Director of Newsroom Product, The Washington Post

“At its best, that question helps us discover new colors on our palette that we can show to readers. That exploration is electric. It’s what gets people like me out of bed in the morning,” concluded Barber.

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