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“TikTok is journalism in every sense”: How The Washington Post raked in 647,700 followers since its launch last year

When you say the name The Washington Post you don’t automatically think of 15-second viral dance videos and haiku challenges. Yet, thanks to the passion and vision of one man the venerable newspaper now has a hugely popular TikTok account, which has raked in 647,700 followers since its launch last year.

At FIPP’s World Media Congress 2020, Dave Jorgenson, Producer and Writer, Creative Video at The Washington Post, revealed how publishers can use the video-sharing social networking service with its 800 million, mostly young, active users to leverage their brands and bring news content to a whole new generation.

“One of the benefits of TikTok is that it’s increased the trust between The Washington Post and our followers,” explained Jorgenson, who is the face and driving force behind The Post’s account. “I would get comments early on from people who would say – ‘I don’t like The Washington Post but I like your TikTok account’. It’s great that we’ve made inroads with users who now view us in a different light.

“The other great thing about being on TikTok is that when people have no idea who the Washington Post is, you can set them straight. Some people think we are in Washington State and that’s great, because then I can correct them and tell them we are a 143-year-old newspaper. It’s a fun and humbling way to realise our existence among Gen Z.”

Striking the right tone

Key to the account’s success has been the tone Jorgenson has struck. With digital natives very quick to pick up and dismiss something that’s not authentic, he’s adopted a self-deprecating approach when appearing on TikTok.

“I don’t want to appear cooler than I am because followers would instantly see through that,” he explained. “I have adopted a ‘dad-joke’ persona because that’s who I am – I make terrible jokes often. TikTok for the most part rewards genuine people.”

The Post adopted a modest approach from the start with its first TikToks  hilariously showing staff not knowing exactly how the app works. The self-deprecation extended to politicians appearing on the account with presidential candidate Andrew Yang agreeing to dance in one video at the fact that he was polling at just three per cent. Another TikTik pokes fun at the media for continually mixing up presidential candidate Julián Castro with his brother Joaquin.

Getting the word out

When asked whether TikTok offers anything more than just brand building, Jorgenson was unequivocal in his answer. “TikTok is journalism in every sense,” he said. “Pretty much every other TikTok has something news related in it and with that we are delivering news to the users. That’s what journalism is – delivering news however you are able to in a responsible way.”

As an example, Jorgenson pointed out TikToks he’s done to educate people about Covid and the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement “We explained all these different aspects of Covid like not shaking hands, social distancing and mask wearing,” he said. “It’s a great gateway because we would then link to an article in the caption or the comments. We also did dozens of TikToks featuring reporters speaking about Black Lives Matter, systemic racism, and what the work environment was like for a black reporter.”

I don’t expect a 14-year-old to get a newspaper subscription but I do hope they are starting to inform themselves and become literate in media.

Getting viewers to go deeper

While The Washington Post has concrete evidence its TikTok account is popular, what’s less clear is exactly how many followers come for the video-sharing and stay for everything else the publisher offers. According to Jorgenson, comments on the platform suggest people are starting to look at The Post on TikTok as a valued news source and are following up by going to the website.

 “That’s rewarding,” he said. “But we see it as a long play and our managing editors recognise that you don’t immediately get the numbers off something. I don’t expect a 14-year-old to get a newspaper subscription but I do hope they are starting to inform themselves and become literate in media. I feel that we will eventually start to see people who were introduced to The Post through TikTok.”

A wrong turn

As the Washington Post felt is way through the social media platform it soon learnt what not to do. While asking people to submit their own haikus, which would then be read on TikTok, turned out to be a decent idea, the pacing turned out to be all wrong.

“The contest itself was a success in that we got 5,000 emails with haikus and I really love the community part of it,” Jorgenson explained. “The problem was there’s something about TikTok and the algorithm that when something is too similar, or people recognise it’s a bit like the last thing they saw, they flip through it really fast and you get a really poor completion rate.

“Because this was a long-term, week-long thing with two haikus a day, we lost a lot of momentum. I wouldn’t say the contest was bad in itself but I think I would have spread it out more. I would have done one haiku a week. You have to sprinkle things in without completely overwhelming your followers.”

Any sort of privacy invasion is concerning but another point of thinking that’s emerged from this is that if we’re going to hold TikTok accountable, as we should, other companies should be held accountable too.

Privacy concerns

Of course, no conversation about TikTok is complete without addressing the privacy concerns swirling around the platform, President Trump’s executive order prohibiting transactions with owner ByteDance and its sale to Oracle. Despite being in the news for the wrong reasons of late, Jorgenson is not concerned about TikTok’s future.

“TikTok has been trying actively to find a US buyer for almost a year so, with that in mind, I’m not really worried about it because they’ve been in the process,” he said before turning to concerns around China taking data from the app. “I would say that any sort of privacy invasion is concerning but another point of thinking that’s emerged from this is that if we’re going to hold TikTok accountable, as we should, other companies should be held accountable too. My main focus is creating TikToks and if it ever became something that we were seriously concerned about we would no longer be on TikTok.”

Pierre de Villiers

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