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“It’s got huge reach. It’s got huge engagement.”: The latest publisher strategies on TikTok, from Reuters Institute

“News publishers have begun to take TikTok seriously.”

More and more publishers are experimenting with TikTok in order to engage young audiences. The platform has added new features which make it more useful for publishers. New report from Reuters Institute shares the latest strategies they are using on the platform.

49% of publishers across 44 markets are regularly updating TikTok accounts with news-related content, according to a new report from the Reuters’ Institute. “News publishers have begun to take TikTok seriously,” writes Nic Newman, author of the report, “How Publishers are Learning to Create and Distribute News on TikTok.” 

“We want to be there”

The platform now has over 1B users and is very popular among youngsters. “Under 25s, in particular, are spending more time scrolling through apps like TikTok – around 57 minutes a day in the UK, according to the media regulator Ofcom8 – and are less likely to go directly to news websites or apps,” notes Newman. Most publishers experimenting with TikTok are doing so as it offers the opportunity to build a relationship with younger audiences who may become paying customers later.

Moreover, the platform which initially allowed the publication of short videos only, now allows live streaming, as well as longer videos, making it more useful for news publishers. British news channel Sky News registered 16M views for a live broadcast of the Queen’s funeral and tens of millions of views for a correspondent video from Ukraine.

It’s got huge reach. It’s got huge engagement. But it’s not just a case of having to be there. We want to be there.

Alan Strange, Editor for On-Demand Content, Sky News

The fastest publisher adoption has been in some larger western European countries, including France, Spain, and the UK, as well as South-East Asia, Australia, the US, and Latin America. 

Many publishers in these regions have built sizeable followings on the platform. NowThis has more than 8.5M followers for its news and politics accounts. Spanish start-up Ac2ality which aims to tell the news in a minute has notched 3.9M followers since 2019. French publisher Brut has more than 2.7M and Vice World News amassed 2.6M followers in less than a year.

Source: How Publishers are Learning to Create and Distribute News on TikTok

A million views without any followers

However, “follower counts on TikTok have less impact on the likely popularity of any particular post when compared with other platforms,” suggests Newman. When the above list is reordered based on engagement i.e., average views per TikTok video, it looks different with NBC News at the top, and ABC News, CBS News, and the Daily Mail slipping down.

Source: How Publishers are Learning to Create and Distribute News on TikTok

A possible reason for lower engagement could be that publishers are using available video clips without much effort to re-version them for the platform. Brands with high engagement like NowThis, Ac2ality, Brut, and Vice World News are “putting considerable effort into the platform-specific content, and this is reflected in much higher engagement scores,” writes Newman.

This means that publishers do not necessarily have to build huge followings on TikTok to be successful. Brazilian publisher Nexo Jornal recorded a million views for its series of videos about Brazil’s democratic elections when it had just started out and had no followers. “On TikTok we had a million views just like that,” says Co-founder and CEO, Paula Miraglia. “So it’s a different sort of engagement. For us to get a million views on YouTube takes a long time.”

It’s important to post regularly though, according to Gabriela Campbell Gomez, Co-founder, Ac2ality. “The more you post, the more your account is going to be shown to other people,” she says. “If you post a lot, in the end it’s going to happen that at least one of your videos is going to go viral.” 

Authenticity is also important. “The algorithm feels very malleable,” says Nikhita Chulani, Social Platforms Editor, Guardian. “It’s not something you get stuck on. The way that the barriers to entry are low has contributed to that. You get rewarded for making a TikTok that looks like a TikTok. And it can be low production as long as it’s authentic and honest in its purpose.”

“The first three seconds on TikTok is literally the most crucial”

This report identifies two main approaches used by publishers for distributing news content on TikTok. There is the ‘creator-first strategy,’ which generally involves a team of younger specialists – or hosts – who are native to the platform. The other one is the ‘newsroom-led approach.’ Here the story takes centerstage and is disseminated by a wider group of journalists.

The Washinton Post, one of the earliest publishers on the platform takes the creator-first approach. Dave Jorgenson who spearheads the publisher’s TikTok strategy regularly slips in serious information through light-hearted videos. 

For example, a sketch about trick-or-treating dealt with ‘shrink inflation’ in the packaging of sweets. In another video, an office conversation about Thanksgiving led to a discussion about the impact of bird flu with the host dressed as a turkey. The team also publishes explainers now that they can make longer videos which such stories require. 

The LA Times has a team of artists, filmmakers, cartoonists, journalists, and even a puppeteer to create experimental content primarily for TikTok and Instagram. It produces mini-documentaries or explainers that are specific to Los Angeles, culture news, trends, and memes. These subjects are tackled with a heavy dose of irony and sarcasm, which appeal naturally to GenZ audiences in particular, says Angie Jaime, the publisher’s Head of Creator Content. 

Grabbing attention is a key challenge on the platform, says Clodagh Griffin, Journalist, and creator, The News Movement. “The first three seconds on TikTok is literally the most crucial,” she explains. “I guess it’s like the modern-day headline. It’s like posing a question or telling them why they should watch my videos.”

“TikTok is another of those screens”

The other approach i.e., the newsroom-led one, is favored by publishers like Sky News which looks at TikTok as yet another platform where it can distribute its content. They publish four types of content on it.

  1. Eyewitness reporting and access journalism 
  2. Breaking news moments 
  3. Explainers
  4. Live broadcasts.

Sky News got millions of views for live streams of government press conferences during the early days of the pandemic. These views were mostly driven by TikTok’s own app notifications. A map-based explainer on the Ukraine war by an expert in the studio has also been very successful. "The purity of the content-focused algorithm seems to match well with the speed and immediacy of news," notes Newman.

I was very keen that we didn’t fall down the trap that a lot of publishers do, which is to try to be something they’re not. We do journalism. And we put our journalism on multiple screens. TikTok is another of those screens.

Alan Strange, Head of On-Demand Content, Sky News

Vice World News’ TikTok channel has also been successful with its reporting of the war on the platform. They had a correspondent on the ground. “He’s just kind of walking through Kyiv with the sound of the sirens in the background,” says Matthew Champion, the publisher’s Editor-in-Chief for EMEA. “He’s experiencing it, but he’s also telling you what’s going on.” The report by journalist Matthew Cassel, gained 21.6M views. 

“You can get news to work on TikTok”

Although it’s not very different from a traditional news broadcast, adapting it to the shorter attention span of TikTok users did take some work, according to Champion. “What we think about a lot of the time is what is the opening shot and what is the opening line,” he says. “Our explainers always start with a question. That’s the curiosity gap. You’ve got someone in straightaway.”

You can get news to work on TikTok, and you can do it in a way where you’re not having to resort to news presenters dancing or having to do bizarre things. You don’t have to wear a suit and jacket to do it, but you can just tell them the news. It’s very encouraging.

Matthew Champion, Editor-in-chief, VICE World News, EMEA

The Economist also believes in keeping the story centerstage. “We had a hunch that you might not need faces as long as the content was engaging enough,” says Liv Moloney, the publisher’s Head of Social Media. “Our brand has its own personality. It is witty and it’s about the way it’s done.” 

Here’s a round-up of the strategies used by publishers on TikTok. 

Source: How Publishers are Learning to Create and Distribute News on TikTok

“These are not hard and fast divisions, and publishers are often mixing these approaches in practice,” writes Newman. 

Although the report explores how publishers are currently adapting to this new platform, it also underlines that “more journalism in the future will be consumed in new formats, using new technology, and within contexts that may seem unthinkable today. In that sense, the processes of experimentation and discovery illustrated in this report will be critical.”

Grabbing attention early, using simple language, having a light touch, and being open to a conversation are key ingredients.

Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute

The full report can be downloaded here:
How Publishers are Learning to Create and Distribute News on TikTok