After a meteoric rise to popularity — fueled in large part by the fondness for short-form video — TikTok has come up against a bit of pushback, largely from bureaucratic circles. But government bans or the threat thereof haven’t slowed down media companies who see TikTok as a promising channel for reaching Gen Z.
Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report names TikTok as the fastest-growing social network for news consumption. This is driven largely by people aged 18 to 24, 40% of whom use TikTok, while 15% use it for news. From the BBC to Teen Vogue to the Wall Street Journal, publishers are rushing to the latest social platform to establish a presence, vie for audience attention, and build a relationship with digital natives. As Digiday reports, “Most (78%) of Comscore’s top 50 news publishers — or 39 publishers to be exact — created an account on TikTok over the last two years.”
With each new platform that comes along, the challenges remain the same for publishers. How do they turn a social media platform into a legitimate format for news reporting while also using it to promote — and monetize — their more traditional work?
How to: Journalism and TikTok
Perhaps more than any social media platform before it, TikTok is its own beast. On Facebook and Twitter, publishers could share links to content, interact with audiences, provide real-time coverage, and even establish relationships with sources. But TikTok is a content creation engine as much as it is a social media site, and its users have very specific expectations. To add to the challenge for publishers, newsrooms need to figure out how to maintain journalistic standards while conforming to the expectations of TikTok audiences.
Reuters reports that “half (49%) of top news publishers are now regularly publishing content on TikTok” but those that aren’t “fear that the ‘TikTok-ification of news’ risks trivialising important stories as well as undermining business models that depend on referral traffic from social networks.” However, now that almost half of publishers are on TikTok, other publishers can learn from their successes and mistakes.
The report goes on to detail several approaches to news and TikTok: “a ‘creator-first strategy’, which often involves a team of younger specialists – or hosts – who are native to the platform, and a ‘newsroom-led approach’, where the story is the star and the talents of a wider group of journalists are showcased. Some individual correspondents also run successful accounts, but these are less common.”
Which approach a newsroom takes will largely depend on an organization’s comfort level with TikTok’s comedic nature and the norms of the platform. Either way, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
3 tips for news publishers on TikTok
- Get to know the platform — It’s always important to understand the ins and outs of any platform you’re using to create or distribute content, but it's doubly important when it comes to TikTok, where authenticity is paramount. From the social norms to the peculiarities of the algorithm, spend some time getting to know TikTok, its users, and what performs well before joining the fray.
- Embrace TikTok’s unique sensibilities — TikTok is not the place to try and retrofit your content. A January 2023 article from Digiday reported that since September 2021, CNN released 846 videos, and “those videos helped CNN rack up 1.3 million followers and 11.3 million likes.” Meanwhile, the Daily Wire published 812 videos since October 2021 and amassed 2.8 million followers and 63 million likes. What was the key difference? CNN just reposted long snippets of its existing videos, while The Daily Wire created short videos using filters and other TikTok features to create content that felt more native to the platform.
- Hire Gen Z — If you don’t “get” TikTok, that’s fine because you can hire someone who does. Whether it's a college intern or a full-time TikTok content creator, this is one channel where it pays to ensure the right people are developing strategy and content. Over at the Washington Post, 28-year-old Dave Jorgenson (or Dave the TikTok guy) has helped the newspaper grow its following with content that feels organic. Rather than doing deep reporting, the videos often focus on quick hit digests or short human interest stories.
Talking TikTok and ad revenue
Anytime a new platform comes along, publishers have to weigh the pros and cons of joining. Will sharing your content on a social platform cannibalize your traffic? Do the time and energy spent on cultivating an audience lead to increased revenue? Can we monetize this presence? Those questions are always on the minds of editors and publishers when allocating resources for a new venture. At the same time, TikTok realized that the growing presence of news publishers on the platform created 'safe' areas for advertisers where they could place their ads without risking being streamed next to potentially controversial or offensive content.
In May 2023, TikTok announced “Pulse Premiere,” a brand-safe opportunity for some of the biggest names in publishing to monetize their TikTok content. Initial partners include NBCU, Condé Nast, and BuzzFeed. As TechCrunch describes it, Pulse Premiere is “a new premium ad product that would allow marketers, for the first time, to position their brand ads directly after TikTok’s publisher and media partners’ content in over a dozen categories, including lifestyle, sports, entertainment, education and more.” Advertisers get access to content from premium publishers, while publishers get an unusually generous share in ad revenue. While other TikTok content creators have bemoaned the small share of the proceeds they get from ads placed on their content, in the case of Pulse Premiere, creators will reportedly receive 50% of the ad revenue generated by their videos.
Whether TikTok drives significant ad revenue for publishers remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the platform is an important tool for reaching new, younger audiences. With the right strategy, publishers may well be able to go beyond simple monetization and use TikTok as a funnel to meaningful engagement that results in new subscriptions.