Tell me you’re a journalist without telling me you’re a journalist.
“So what happened with the Breonna Taylor decision?” asks Dave Jorgenson, a video editor and producer for The Washington Post, in one of the news outlet’s TikTok videos from September 2020.
The video cuts to Jorgenson’s laptop. He’s video-chatting with Robert Samuels, a Post political reporter. Samuels explains how the police officers involved in Taylor’s case would not be charged for anything related to her killing, although one was charged with wanton endangerment for shooting into a nearby apartment.
Robert Samuels discusses the Breonna Taylor decision and the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter protests that followed♬ Breonna Taylor – We are a newspaper.
“What has the reaction been?” Jorgenson asks, the TikTok shifting back to him.
“This decision provoked even more anger, sadness, and disappointment in the American justice system,” says Samuels, adding that it seemed like a particularly “brazen” example of a lack of legal consequences at a time when people are used to seeing police officers not being charged after killing Black citizens.
Jorgenson included Samuels in this TikTok because he wanted the perspective of someone more familiar with the case. As a Black person living in America, Samuels also brought an added layer of lived experience to the discussion that Jorgenson lacked. “If I’m telling you that news story, it might not have the same impact, or it might just not feel as honest as I think it should,” says Jorgenson.
While that specific TikTok had 64,000 views and over 13,000 likes as of March 2021, it’s not an outlier. The Post’s TikTok account boasts over 900,000 followers and each video gets tens of thousands of views. Most star Jorgenson, who speaks on topics ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic and the American election to current social issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the corporate prison system. Thrown into the mix are more entertaining videos that cater to Gen Z and younger millennials. One series, called “Summer Intern Olympics,” features the paper’s interns competing in tasks like extreme speed reading. Others have humorous titles like “If TikTok were your roommate” and “Practicing small talk for when the pandemic is over.”
Jorgenson believes that the average Washington Post subscriber is well over 40. The TikTok account is an effort to reach Gen Z and younger millennials who might not be familiar with the paper.
When TikTok started getting popular, Jorgenson had already been working at the Post for almost two years, writing for one of the paper’s YouTube pages called the “Department of Satire.” He decided to pitch the idea of a TikTok account in early 2019. Armed with about seven pages of notes, he met with members of the paper’s video team and an audience editor. The meeting ended with support, and Micah Gelman, the Post’s director of video, gave Jorgenson the green light to create the account a couple months later.
After posting his first TikTok in May 2019, Jorgenson devoted the next 10 months to introducing the paper to the platform’s younger audience by playfully featuring his colleagues working in the newsroom. He established a sense of humour early on: to this day, the account description reads, “We are a newspaper.”
“We’re aware that we’re, like, a 140-year-old institution,” says Jorgenson. “We were very self-deprecating in that way.”
While he still does humorous TikToks with the Post’s journalists every once in a while, he says his approach has evolved: these days, Jorgenson will post a funny video, usually one that plays off a current trend or meme, then follow up with a TikTok that deals with a more serious, news-related topic. He hopes viewers are learning something from the weightier fare, and that they’ll follow the link in the bio that leads to its website, possibly translating to more subscribers for the paper.
TikTok, a short-form‑video social media platform, has slowly been making its way into Canadian and international newsrooms. Canadian outlets like APTN News, CP24 Breakfast, Global News, the National Post, and the Toronto Star have taken the lead on embracing the app and creating video content. Some newsrooms have barely used accounts, like The Walrus, while others, like The Globe and Mail, have never posted at all. Internationally, in addition to The Washington Post, many media outlets have gained large followings on the app, including Vice (U.S., Spain, and Indonesia), Yahoo! News, and the BBC.
The platform is used by both media organizations and individual journalists to connect with a new—and generally younger—audience. But the app has posed a challenge to many Canadian newsrooms: how to balance fun and trendy TikToks with news-related content that still appeals to younger users. In comparison, international newsrooms, especially the Post, seem to have achieved a better balance.
Some Canadian newsrooms, like CP24—especially with its morning show CP24 Breakfast—have focused on replicating existing TikTok trends rather than covering harder-hitting news subjects. Others have focussed on building up large TikTok followings, in the hopes that this will translate to a viewership among a younger audience.
But Shauna Rempel, a social media strategist and former managing editor of Global News’ social media and distribution, sees the app more as a branding tool than a traffic source. “If your goal is to drive a bunch of traffic to your site through TikTok, you’re probably going to be disappointed,” she says. “You have to realize that people will probably be staying in that environment.”
Gen Z users look to social media platforms “like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to find new content easily and to form relationships with the creators themselves,” according to a survey conducted by Vice of 650 members of its audience. The study also found that “Gen Z is especially interested in internet culture/memes, humour, and gaming.”
Mastering social media is key to reaching Gen Z members, because they overwhelmingly get their news outside of traditional media. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, 38 percent of respondents from Gen Z recorded social media as their main source of news in contrast to just 16 percent responding that they consume news directly through publishers. Rempel says the strategy that seems to be working for a lot of news organizations is to employ a mix of video that is created for TikTok, such as putting a news spin on a trending meme or song, and then video that’s been created elsewhere within the newsroom, such as bloopers or repurposed interviews.
She’s noticed that the app tends to feature light-hearted, fun, and humorous content and that Canadian news organizations may be trying to “stay on the safe side” and avoid alienating their viewers with heavier content. But Rempel believes hard news content is going to become more popular and publishers like APTN and the Toronto Star should continue to expand beyond humorous videos. “TikTok has evolved to the point where it can handle that,” she says; the app has a niche for pretty much every subject area, including politics and social issues, making it a good fit for news publishers that produce content on a range of topics. “Every social media app goes through an evolution and hits the tipping point when it comes to news.”
TikTok has been growing in popularity since before 2019, and as of December 2020, the app had been downloaded over 2.6 billion times. In 2019, it was also the app with the most download growth in Canada. As of February 2021, it was estimated to have over one billion monthly active users. In terms of audience and engagement, the short-form video app grew 210 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year. Forty-one percent of the app’s users are between 16 and 24 years old, making it one of the most popular social media apps among the Gen Z demographic.
TikTok was originally called Musical.ly, which was launched in 2014. This early iteration was similar to TikTok, but focused on lip-sync videos. Chinese tech company ByteDance bought the app in November of 2017 and merged it with its existing version of TikTok, Douyin, to release TikTok internationally in August of 2018. Douyin still exists as a separate app in China.
TikTok allows users to create videos that are between 15 and 60 seconds, along with basic video-editing tools and options to add on music and filters. Users can like, comment on, and share content on the app and to other social media platforms. TikTok also gives users the option to see content on their homepage from those they’re following and those they’re not.
Some of the more popular Canadian news organizations on the app as of March 2021 include CP24 Breakfast (over 19,000 followers), Global News (over 11,600 followers), and the National Post (nearly 7,000 followers)—whose numbers of followers and view counts are substantially lower than many of their international counterparts.
While the app’s popularity, set-up, and level of user engagement make it a powerful potential tool for media, some journalists may be hesitant to use the app because of its focus on trends and memes.
Jorgenson understands this unease. “You don’t want to fully just become a meme,” he says. “But I also know that there’s this massive audience on TikTok and you’re not going to find them in other places.” He sees TikTok as another medium that newsrooms and journalists can adapt for the news, just the same as radio, television, and other social media platforms. TikTok is such an important platform for Jorgenson that he’ll find ways to rework significant stories to fit on the Washington Post’s account because of the platform’s wide and young audience, even if more serious news tends to garner fewer views than quick, light-hearted content.
“If Canada did nothing on COVID-19, there’s reason to believe we could see 70 percent rates of infection,” says Tristin Hopper, a National Post journalist, in one of the news organization’s TikToks from March 2020. Citing data from the World Health Organization, he says 3.4 percent of those infected by COVID-19 died by March 2020, which he said would make up over a million Canadians.
The TikTok continues with better news: citing other pandemics such as smallpox and the Black Death, Hopper says people at those times didn’t know what was killing them. “Our most powerful weapon against this outbreak is that we know what it is, we know where it comes from, and we can learn from people who have already suffered through it.”
While the majority of its TikTok content is made specifically for the app, some videos are pulled from elsewhere on the National Post site. The TikTok, along with four others posted on the account in March and April, originated from the paper’s “Everything Should Be Better” series, starring Hopper, which is posted on the National Post’s website. The series, made up of video and text pieces, explored an array of topics ranging from “How to Properly Slam into Wildlife with Your Car—to Save Your Life” to “Why Millennials Aren’t Having Sex.” Aileen Donnelly, the National Post’s deputy news editor for digital, says they decided to cut Hopper’s four- to six-minute-long videos down into shorter segments for TikTok in order to act as teasers for the website content.
Donnelly is the web team’s point-person for social initiatives. By the end of 2019, TikTok had become more popular in discussions among their team, and so Donnelly decided to pitch the idea to their editor-in-chief, Rob Roberts. She selected a range of examples, from memes to TikToks from The Washington Post and USA Today, to show Roberts that the platform had more to it than dance challenges. While she says it didn’t take much convincing to get the go-ahead, she was a little skeptical herself about trying out the app. But she believes it’s important to try whatever new tools are available in today’s media climate—you never know where readers are going.
The account was initially launched in December 2019—a good time to experiment, says Donnelly, because it’s usually quiet in the newsroom. Their strategy for entering the TikTok world was to put a journalistic spin on trends that were already popular on the app. An early TikTok pokes fun at a conversation between a business journalist and a news reporter. The business journalist explains how to use the Bloomberg data terminal, using terms like tickers, dealz, and EBITDA, while the news reporter gets hilariously overwhelmed.
Donnelly says the initial goal was to introduce the Post to a younger audience. “Sometimes when people say ‘the National Post’ they’re only thinking of the fact that we’re a conservative paper,” she says. “But the National Post has also got a legacy of being whimsical, fun, and caring more about an interesting story than about whether or not it’s [newsworthy]. I think some of that gets lost on people.”
She adds that data show that you’re not necessarily going to get Gen Z to subscribe to publications, a trend that’s likely exacerbated by the pandemic. While young people will pay for entertainment such as Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu, the overwhelming majority won’t pay for news, according to a 2019 Reuters Institute study. Another Reuters Institute study from the same year found that only seven percent of those under 45 would pick a news subscription over any other type of media subscription. The study says one reason for this could be that young people may think access to free news is a fundamental right. They may also be used to getting their news for free, or might have tight budgets and prefer to get news from multiple sources rather than investing in a single source. Even if the National Post’s TikTok content doesn’t convince younger users to purchase subscriptions, Donnelly hopes to at least show them “another side” of the publication on the app.
A challenge Donnelly sees with using TikTok for news is getting—and keeping—Gen Z’s attention. She says videos should grab viewers in the first two seconds or they’ll be on to the next clip. But she maintains the app is great for quick growth: content frequently shows up on the home pages of users who don’t follow the National Post, which helps promote their brand.
Kashmala Fida, digital associate producer at CBC’s Edmonton AM, says Canadian journalists and news organizations are generally a little late to internet culture and aren’t catering as well to Gen Zs as to millennials.
Fida made her own TikTok account after being laid off from the Toronto Star when it shut down StarMetro newspapers across Canada, including in Edmonton, at the end of 2019. Her first few posts were about how hard the industry was. As she continued to use the app, she drew inspiration from the Washington Post’s TikTok and realized the app had journalistic potential. “Gen Z are very smart kids,” she says. “They talk about [social] issues all the time and are involved in the news. They‘re very much in the know and they definitely have an opinion. The best way to reach out to them and show them what we’re talking and writing about is to meet them right where they are, which is TikTok.”
Francine Compton, former executive producer at APTN News and currently an assignment producer at CBC Indigenous, says she’s hoping the network’s account can do just that.
APTN News created its TikTok account at the beginning of November 2020. The first video addressed CNN’s U.S. presidential election exit poll’s labelling of Indigenous voters as “something else” in its live coverage results. The TikTok features memes created about the incident—“When you ask her what tribe she is and she says something else!” one reads. “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% something else,” reads another.
But the voiceover goes on to say that the reaction wasn’t all satirical. “Many took serious issue with the coverage, pointing out the colonial implications of the ‘something else’ label,” the voiceover says, explaining that the lack of specificity erases and minimizes Indigenous peoples’ impact on the political landscape of the United States. The TikTok ends with CNN’s response to APTN News, saying the label was a “poor choice of words” and they did not “intend to minimize the importance of Indigenous communities and the Native American vote.”
Compton says that because the incident was trending on social media, APTN’s team thought it was a good opportunity to start a TikTok account. For future content, she says she’d like to cover topics that are uniquely interesting, but don’t necessarily require a lot of context for someone to understand. For example, APTN made a TikTok in November 2020 about traditional Indigenous weddings now being recognized in Ontario after changes to the Marriage Act. Comprising footage from an Anishinaabe wedding ceremony, the TikTok describes how the couple incorporated as much of the Anishinaabe language into the ceremony as they could, including having the word “gzaagin,” meaning “love,” in large, lit-up letters.
While Compton says the goal of all APTN’s social media accounts is to attract readers to its website, with TikTok specifically she hopes to engage Indigenous youth. She says APTN has two young Indigenous social media editors producing videos. They help the outlet connect to what’s trending with a younger audience.
While some newsrooms, like APTN’s, have adapted to TikTok, others are having trouble figuring out where the platform fits in with their brand. Angela Misri, digital director at The Walrus, created an account for the magazine and has posted two videos so far: one of its team putting together the April 2020 issue and another of a DIY puzzle of a Walrus cover. Misri is always thinking about ways to interpret stories for social media, but says she’s not planning to create videos specifically for TikTok right now.
She initially created the account to grab the @thewalrusca handle. After that was secured, she thought about how The Walrus’s goal of “creating and convening the Canadian conversation” could translate to the social platform. But she says she hasn’t seen a lot of conversation happening on the app. So far, she sees TikTok as a place to post funny videos and dances, and feels that other news organizations on the app aren’t using it in a way that values their content. “I feel like many are trying too hard to fit into what is already viral on TikTok and ignoring their own brand and content,” says Misri.
The camera pans across an empty student residence room at Queen’s University. First the bedroom, then a seating and kitchen area. “Good Day” by Nappy Roots plays in the background. “The Journal got an early look at what residence looks like!” reads the text on the screen. The caption says, “A double bedroom becomes a single in Victoria Hall. Read more coverage at queensjournal.ca!” The video from August 2020 is the Queen’s Journal’s most-watched TikTok, with 24,500 views as of March 2021.
The student newspaper created an account in February 2020 and has been posting since March of that year. The videos range from documenting what Queen’s campus looks like during the pandemic, to funny masthead videos, to showing some of the stories on its website. Matt Scace, the paper’s 2020-21 managing editor, says visual components of journalism have been forced to grow in recent years and the paper started making TikToks because one of its goals is to create more digital content. The paper embedded the student residence video into a written story on its site about COVID-19 changes to residence and dining operations, which Scace says drove a fair bit of traffic to the TikTok. “We were hoping to build [the TikTok] in terms of not just having fun content, but to pair our stories with TikToks and to get people interested in our journalism,” says Scace.
The Eyeopener, Ryerson University’s independent student newspaper, has also taken to TikTok. Editor-in-chief Catherine Abes met with the student paper’s online team in summer 2020 to discuss social media strategies. She saw TikTok as a fun platform to connect with Ryerson students, especially because the app’s personality was already in line with the paper’s branding. “The Eyeopener is well known for being a bit silly and funny,” she says. “I think we could do some campus news TikToks, but they would definitely still be in a comedic format.”
Sarah Everts, a journalism professor at Carleton University, has been looking into the use of TikTok by journalism organizations, as many of the students she teaches are Gen Z. She wants to meet these students where they’re at and try to figure out what kind of social media makes them tick. “You ask a Gen Z about whether they look to Facebook and they roll their eyes at you,” she says.
She thinks that media organizations showing bloopers or behind-the-scenes clips on TikTok can improve those organizations’ brands and humanize them. “The transparency serves us all well,” says Everts. “If journalists are going to be asking for transparency from our sources, showing the bloopers not only offers transparency back but also gives that fun, behind-the-scenes feel that might help get more Gen Zs interested in the media,” she says.
But Everts still has some concerns over the app and its relationship with Gen Z. Attracting a whole generation of consumers with listicles, bloopers, and media criticism is better than nothing, but she says it’s certainly not the only thing that newsrooms should strive for.
In terms of more serious news presented on TikTok, Everts looks to the Washington Post, which is a good example of covering hard-hitting news on the platform.
“It is just so weird to see serious news on your [TikTok] feed,” says Everts, “but maybe it’s the kind of thing that—as we’re scrolling, looking half at TikToks and half at our cats—will make people pause and really pay attention. I think it’s a good thing.”
The Washington Post’s Dave Jorgenson is optimistic about the future of TikTok journalism, despite previous examples of social media platforms either fading away or being taken down. He says he’s worked in digital video for about six or seven years. Over that time, organizations have invested in some social platforms, like Facebook Live and Vine, that didn’t work out (Vine, a video hosting service, went under in January 2017). He has long-term goals for the Post’s TikTok account and is confident that it will continue to do well, but he’s still taking it day by day.
“I’m so cautiously optimistic, but I feel so much better about TikTok than I’ve felt about any other app, because what TikTok does is they’re constantly trying to make the app better,” he says. “It’s been really fun and interesting to evolve the account as TikTok itself also evolves.”