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What sort of news travels fastest online? Bad news, you won’t be shocked to hear
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June 18, 2019, 11:10 a.m.
Audience & Social

Meet TikTok: How The Washington Post, NBC News, and The Dallas Morning News are using the of-the-moment platform

“When I was a beat reporter, I used to look at national news and say: How can I localize this? I feel like this is the other way around: What’s going on in our community that people can relate to across all platforms?”

Tired of the trolls and infinite screaming on Twitter? Try the infinite video memes on TikTok — perhaps the most successful new social platform among American young people since Snapchat more than a half-decade ago. And as with Snapchat before it, news organizations are trying to figure out a way in — wading into the duet-laden waters of the newest Next Big Thing, where Generation Z is applying makeup Michael Jackson-style to the tune of Marina and the Diamonds’ “I Am Not a Robot,” recreating their most extreme morning routine to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” dressing up their pets of all sizes with Lizzo’s “Boys,” and more.

TikTok is old enough to have guides and explainers in The New York Times, The Verge, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate, among others — read those if you want the full how-to. But for context, TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a giant Chinese company with 40,000 employees (more than Facebook!) and which is also behind China’s top news app Toutiao and News Republic. In August, it merged TikTok with the app Musical.ly and its tens of millions of users. (Some media outlets, like Teen Vogue and BBC Radio 1, had been active on Musical.ly. And if you’re going to watch any of these embeds, don’t forget to turn the sound on.)

TikTok is young enough to boast two-thirds of its users under age 30, with 60 percent of its U.S. users between 16 and 24. It has half a billion active users worldwide. You can now think of the difference between millennials and Generation Z as the ones who know TikTok as the Kesha song and the ones who use it fluently. [I guess we Gen Xers are the ones who think it’s Bloomberg’s Twitter livestream TicToc? —Ed.]

The company recently had to pay a $5.7 million fine to the FTC for mishandling the data of those young users. Oh, tech companies.

TikTok is like the grandchild of Vine but longer, with most videos under 20 seconds (Vine was 6.5 seconds). It’s built on user-generated content, but especially on participating in the memes that are already there. Users don’t share what they ate for lunch or pose in front of colorful walls, but instead try to post cooler redos of different challenges (like this dance challenge, this duet of the security camera footage). I know I’ve watched countless pets with their “nails did” and wearing a bowtie like Lizzo prefers, but I could watch them all. And since TikTok hides the time on your phone when you’re using the app, it really feels like I could.

Plus, adults, you’re much more existential and depressing on Twitter than the teens and tweens on TikTok are.

So how does journalism and news organizations fit in here? Thus far it’s mostly just for brand-building, with a handful of outlets trying to say “how do you do fellow kids” without, well, doing just that. (There are also individual reporters who have found fun, and a following, with the app too.)

NBC News’ Stay Tuned

The lone recognizable outlet I found actually sharing news stories on TikTok was NBC News’ Stay Tuned. The young-generation-geared multiplatform show first launched on Snapchat two years ago, then spread to Instagram and elsewhere, and now uploads new bits to TikTok four times a week. It’s also the most highly produced of the news outlets currently on the platform, with b-roll splitting the screen with one of Stay Tuned’s three anchors.

“On Snap, we talk to the viewers, not down to them, and on TikTok it’s even more so,” Stay Tuned executive producer Angie Grande said. “In Snapchat, we’ll be able to do a full episode on the presidential debate. On TikTok, we played around with how do you pronounce all the candidates’ names…It’s not as serious, but still touching on a big topic they’re going to listen to.”

Grande said her team tries to pull videos that will start a conversation, making the user say “I actually learned something.” These include hosts pretending to drink hot sauce while telling a story about a guy who lived off hot sauce packets when he was stuck in his car, as well as explaining Taco Bell’s new Palm Springs resort (this one got many commenters excited about a YouTuber with a penchant for living más), how a former softball player grandma slugged a carjacker, and a California woman who tossed a bag of puppies near a dumpster. They also did a series of videos with other NBC talent for Red Nose Day (which came with a filter at the end).

Stay Tuned looks for hashtags trending on TikTok’s search page (or here) and sees if there’s a story they can align with one. “It’s worth saying we’ve only been on TikTok for a few months and only been doing this hashtag thing for the past two months,” Grande said, with those videos I mentioned all hitting tens or hundreds of thousands of views. (It’s really easy to see the total view, like, share, comment, etc. counts: Check out the numbers on the right of all these embeds.)

It takes the team a few hours to put together one video — less really is more. “Creatively, we’re trying to figure out what sticks,” Grande said. “We thought two minutes was short on Snap, but now we have to get to 20 seconds.”

The Washington Post

“TikTok is like someone has invited themselves over for a dinner party,” Dave Jorgenson, a Washington Post video producer, said. “It’s great company. We’ve been invited and we want to get invited back. We’re bringing a bottle of wine” — uh, maybe fruit juice is better here — “or some good stories because we’re a newspaper and we just want to help make it better.”

Jorgenson pitched his bosses with a packet-thick memo about the Post’s potential on TikTok, but the account’s vibe is much more chill. The name next to the @washingtonpost handle is, simply, “We are a newspaper,” and Jorgenson aims for a corny dad/Jim Halpert vibe in his daily posts and replies to commenters. So far, the Post has played with a rhythm off of office supplies, a puppy delivering the newspaper, and a SpongeBob character transformation meme, among others. (Woodstein it ain’t.)

And if commenters clap, he claps back.

“In general, a good TikTok video is one you want to keep watching…If they are reluctantly liking us, that’s the greatest compliment you can get,” Jorgenson said. “What makes TikTok so great is you can say, ‘I’ve never thought of that [meme], but I’m still going to try to do my own version of it.’”

But making your own version takes time: Even though it’s not technically part of his job description, he spends an hour and a half each morning creating and editing the TikTok for that day. (TikTok has a ton of in-app effects and, obviously, the music and sounds are copiously available for free there. Text is a new feature, so you don’t have to go through Snapchat anymore!) He revisits the app for a few minutes every hour during the day to reply to comments.

Jorgenson is trying to ease into news, with one video tiptoeing into that territory so far: “We want to expand on what we do best and include the news and have, not breaking news, but things people are talking about, and ease our way into that,” he said. “I made one stab at it recently with the spelling bee to see how it would work out.” It “wasn’t met with skepticism, but wasn’t quite as successful. I want to let the users know that we get the app first.”

The Post is also the only verified news account that I came across. Jorgenson said TikTok reached out to him via Twitter DM to start the verification process. (I reached out to TikTok for comment on the company’s approach to news and haven’t yet heard back.)

The Dallas Morning News

Leaning on local trends, The Dallas Morning News is following the Post’s footsteps with delightful memes so far. The audience engagement team introduced itself with a Full House embrace:

They’re going for a humanizing approach: “You see police officers and firefighters on there all the time,” Mallorie Sullivan, an audience engagement producer, said. “You think of these people as mean people who want to ticket you, but when you watch videos, it gives them more of a personality, and I hope that’s true for journalists too.”

And as a local outlet, they can make the most of Texan meme content, using the paper’s weather reporter:

“When I was a beat reporter, I used to look at national news and say: How can I localize this? I feel like this is the other way around: What’s going on in our community that people can relate to across all platforms?” Elvia Limon, an engagement reporter, said. “The weather one was something that’s not just a Dallas thing, but very much a southern thing.”

The Morning News is operating on limited resources like, whelp, all local outlets, but they started smart: They decided to grab their @dallasmorningnews handle before anyone else. (The New York Times wasn’t so snappy.) While it takes several days to coordinate the audience team’s schedule and squeeze TikTok-ing — is that what the kids call it? — into a regular day job, Limon and Sullivan said they’re enjoying the experimentation.

“I would love more local news outlets to be on it, because I want to see what everybody else does, but I also don’t want to see people force it,” Sullivan said. “I was initially skeptical of being on it. I don’t think every single news outlet needs to be on every single thing, because it’s too much.”

Right now, TikTok for news is all about brand recognition, respecting a space where teenagers are thriving, and enjoying the trends yourself. That means not just snagging your handle before a 12-year-old does — but maybe, if there’s actually a place for you, starting to grace Generation Z with your presence. Just don’t threaten to write your followers’ names on your dad’s new white Range Rover because you got grounded.

POSTED     June 18, 2019, 11:10 a.m.
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