In May 2019, The Washington Post’s Video Producer, Dave Jorgenson, uploaded the news outlet’s first TikTok video
and it instantly attracted attention around the world. The video featured Zelda, who had recently gone viral in a photo tweeted by The Post’s Food Editor, Mary Beth Albright, having had his head become stuck in a hole he had chewed in a blanket. Mary tweeted
the photo of Zelda and although the tweet and TikTok video weren’t exactly breaking news, it attracted thousands of likes and followers, and marked a successful start to The Post’s foray into the TikTok universe. Now, boasting more than 780,000 TikTok followers, and in excess of 30 million collective likes, The Post has become one of the few media outlets successfully using TikTok as a tool to engage with its audience.
The Chinese-owned social media platform is an emerging short-video sharing tool that has built a steady fanbase of young Australians
over the last 12 months.
The platform is mostly used to post short videos, that can include dance sequences, tutorials or comedy sketches. Some videos have become so popular, they have transformed TikTok users into social media celebrities. Teenagers, emerging from relative obscurity, have now become multi-millionaires
, with just as many devoted followers, all because they filmed themselves dancing to a chart-topping pop song. According to an article posted by Forbes earlier this year, US-based teen Addison Rae Easterling earned an estimated AU$6,585,000 last year. The undoubted poster child of TikTok stardom though is 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio from Los Angeles, who has now amassed more than 102 million TikTok followers. Her rise to stardom kicked off after she created an account last year to post dance videos.
But as TikTok continues to carve out a space in youth culture, media organisations are now starting to experiment with the platform as well. Many news outlets have begun testing the waters to see if this tool is a worthwhile resource to break news, or if it is merely a convenient place to engage with the next generation of news consumers.
Are newsrooms experimenting with this platform?
One Aussie newsroom trialling the use of TikTok is Yahoo Australia. Social Media Editor (Tiktok) Alexa Tubertini said TikTok has quickly overtaken others and is now the “platform on everybody’s mind”. “Although it isn’t always easy, the way the trends work within the app means your content is never the same and is always evolving, which is so important for any brand,” she said. For Alexa, is it vital to avoid relying on traditional social media platforms and try new engagement tools. “We can see from our engagement alone that our audiences really love what we’re doing,” she said. Some media outlets are now approaching TikTok as if it were a whole new channel. This month, for example, the ABC’s youth-focused radio station, triple j, announced it was looking for a "Host" for their TikTok account.
However, the purpose for newsrooms getting on TikTok does seem to be engagement, rather than breaking news. Even TikTok advocates, like The Post, tend to only use the platform for brand amplification and engagement, rather than breaking actual news stories.
In the case of The Post, Dave Jorgenson combines humour with what’s happening around the world to create funny, light-hearted videos to engage with a younger audience. His self-quarantine
series, created back in March, involves Dave filming himself doing different TikTok trends, dances, challenges and voiceovers. He would also regularly transform COVID-19 safety videos into a comedic sketch. Certainly not serious journalism, but news and current affairs content all the same.
Australian newsrooms starting to do the TikTok dance
In Australia, there are a number of newsrooms and journalists who are looking to join the trend. Rachel Lang, Social Media Editor at travel publication ESCAPE, said that although the outlet doesn’t currently have a TikTok account, they are definitely considering using it . “TikTok is a fantastic video source, especially for cracking travel content," she said “Instagram reels and TikTok seem to be the way people are devouring content these days, so it is something I'm really eager to implement in the next month or so.”
At TikTok headquarters in Sydney, the brand’s Director of Content Partnerships for Australia and New Zealand, Felicity McVay, said the platform was the perfect place to share content, and even advocated for using it to break news stories. “TikTok provides an amazing opportunity to share with fans your unique take on what's trending, or the ways TikTok users are engaging with the platform,” Felicity said.
Newsrooms are also creating accounts on a show-by-show basis as this “enables the unique personality of those shows and their talent to shine through.”
Felicity said there is often a misconception that media publishers need to start new trends, but with TikTok, the trends come from the user’s everyday lives. “TikTok provides an amazing opportunity to share with fans your unique take on what's trending or the ways TikTok users are engaging with the platform,” she said.
An example of this sort of engagement from 2020 is the Kyle & Jackie O account (@kyleandjackieo). They have “empowered the youngest, most digital savvy members of their team by encouraging them to capture behind the scenes, mobile-first content that's fun and authentic and gives fans a sneak peek into what goes on in and around the studio,” Felicity said.
She added that the Kyle & Jackie O Show's TikTok account is “playing where their fans are, and joining the conversation that is happening on TikTok by using popular hashtags like #tiktoktaughtme, #dogfacechallenge #oceanspray #aussiethings #bottletopchallenge.”
According to Felicity, an increasing number of Australian media publishers are joining TikTok “including ARN, Nova, Southern Cross Austereo, Seven Network, Nine Network, Network 10 and BuzzFeed (@buzzfeedoz), along with major sporting codes like the AFL (@afl) and NRL (@nrl).”
Although TikTok isn’t currently the go-to platform for mainstream news and current affairs enthusiasts, Felicity said that “locally, we're seeing broadcast journalists and TV hosts jump on the platform to make behind-the-scenes style content and build a profile.”
“Lots of news, lifestyle and culture journalists are also using TikTok to keep on top of trends and find human interest stories around local TikTok creators and viral moments,” she said.
What’s happening in newsrooms around the world?
As more and more reporters and newsrooms share content on TikTok, one man has launched a directory to track who is online and active in this burgeoning space. Francesco Zaffarano, a Senior Social Media Editor at the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper, is in the process of curating a live list
of media outlets and journalists around the world who are using TikTok to engage with their audiences. The list spans the globe and includes the likes of celebrity site E! Entertainment (USA), The Guardian newspaper (UK), the Huffington Post and technology website CNET.
Where to from here?
TikTok has not yet emerged as a news breaking platform, but it’s important to remember that was never its original purpose. The platform offers a way for people to connect through self-expression, but offers news outlets an opportunity to genuinely engage with younger, digitally savvy audiences. TikTok has given media newsrooms a place to build a new fan base, engage with their audiences and maintain their brand awareness. As Felicity said, “TikTok is about doing more with less. On TikTok you don't need access to broadcast quality content, an edit suite and editor.”
“We are a mobile first app where organisations can tap into the native expertise of digital producers and younger team members to create compelling content,” she said.