How does former U.S. congressman and recent presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke, wind up giving an impassioned speech on top of a cabinet?
He does it for the TikTok.
The social media site has more than 500 million active monthly users, 66% of whom are under the age of 30. TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the platform. However, very few journalists or newsrooms are on the app.
Mobile journalism (mojo) has long been a focus in the field. Mojo trainer Corinne Podger has worked with about 400 journalists in the past six months — only four were on TikTok, mostly out of personal interest.
This may be because TikTok’s structure doesn’t lend itself to profitability the way traditional social platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, do. Users cannot add hyperlinks to captions or their bios, so there is no way to direct viewers back to a specific story or website. This makes tracking TikTok’s effect on readership impossible. However, the platform, which is owned by the China-based company ByteDance, recently added a link function for paid ads and sponsored videos.
TikTok’s connection to Beijing has recently come into controversy. In September, The Guardian published a report of leaked documents detailing policy to censor content that is unflattering for Beijing. This week, The New York Times reported TikTok is under a U.S. national security review. In response, TikTok issued a statement denying any China-related censorship and addressing data privacy concerns.
When you open the app, you immediately see the “For You” page, which is filled with videos selected by an algorithm that is constantly learning what you like to watch. Because the feed isn’t chronological, it isn’t a place for breaking news, according to Podger. Instead, she suggests using the platform to highlight evergreen content viral potential and build brand awareness.
The Washington Post is enjoying huge success doing just that. As of October, the newspaper had nearly 211 thousand fans, 7 million likes and more than 100 videos on the platform.
“On a pure business level, it would be completely crazy if you didn't try to appeal to an app that 1 billion people have downloaded — many of them under 20,” said Dave Jorgenson, “the TikTok guy” for The Post. “That's so many potential subscribers to your newspaper, so why wouldn't you take them seriously?”
The Post hired him as a creative video producer in June 2017 to join a team dedicated to building the paper’s brand through personality-driven videos. He saw an opportunity in TikTok. In March 2019, Jorgenson presented a seven-page pitch to convince his bosses the publication needed a presence on the platform.
According to Jorgenson, Generation Z — those born between 1996 and 2010 — already cares about so many issues, he believes it's likely they’ll also care about where they get their news.
Jorgenson makes an appearance in nearly every video The Post has published since it launched in May. The videos feature him and others in the newsroom using a corny, dad joke persona and the video format of “The Office,” complete with direct stares into the camera and a “bunch of zooms,” Jorgenson said. He frames every idea with that structure in mind.
While some videos tie into U.S. news — like a series featuring presidential candidates, or one showing a frenzied economics reporter react to the ongoing trade war with China — most videos are just silly. They focus more on memes and office antics than serious news.
In a recent video, Jorgenson walks around the newsroom with a carved pumpkin on his head. In another, he pretends to interview a dog for a job at The Post. He often includes newsroom colleagues, including Bob Woodward, part of the famous investigative reporting duo whose coverage of the Watergate scandal ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
The quirky videos are paying off with young viewers. Hannah Maybo is a 16-year-old TikTok user who comments on The Post’s videos. She was surprised by how funny she found the paper’s videos. She said when news agencies show journalists’ more relatable side, it makes it easier to listen to the news.
Jorgenson’s success is no surprise to Adriana Lacy, an audience engagement editor at The Los Angeles Times and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg. According to Lacy, being the first generation of digital natives has made Gen Z more invested in people and relationships than companies and institutions.
“For example, someone like Michael Barbaro and “The Daily” may be more interesting to someone who's Gen Z because they feel like they know him,” Lacy said.
This is exactly why Jorgenson purposely branded himself as “the TikTok guy.” As long as you put your publication first, he said, showing one consistent personality can be the best way to establish a connection with your audience.
“People need to connect to something when they're watching a video,” Jorgenson said. “They need a throughline that keeps it interesting for them, and the easiest way to do that is with a person — that's just how human beings are.”
Lacy notes it’s easy for an organization like The Washington Post to take on TikTok because they have the resources to dedicate to audiences that may not engage with the paper for another five to 10 years.
“If you're a local paper, a mid-sized publication, you're really focusing on ‘How many subscribers can we get right now?’” Lacy said. It can be difficult to strategize for future audiences if there are no numbers to show an immediate payoff.
“I don't think there has to be a super huge plan on how to attract audiences, but I think even just being on the platforms is important,” she said.
Even if you aren’t able to devote the time and effort to have your own Jorgenson, you can still adapt his strategy to work within the resources you do have.
Below are some tips from Jorgenson for news organizations looking to break into the platform:
Decide on a tone. The Post decided on a corny, dad-joke style. Find the tone that works best for you and your audience, and stick to it through all your videos. “Figuring that personality is the biggest thing that we've done,” Jorgenson said.
Don’t go down the rabbit hole. Jorgenson said he spends about two hours total on the app every day. Of that, he only spends 15 minutes actually watching videos. “Once I see one I like that day, I fixate on it,” he said. “If I don't, I'm going to find 10 more ideas that I like, and then all of a sudden it's 1 p.m.”
Rely on others. Jorgenson relies on a Slack channel devoted to TikTok with people from across the newsroom. Because every TikTok is made specific to each person, the members of the channel all see very different videos. They all drop their favorites into the channel, which allows Jorgenson to use ideas he may have never otherwise seen. He also leans on other members of the newsroom to help him film and add different personalities to the videos.
Engage the fans. “They love seeing when you reply back, especially for videos doing well,” Jorgenson said. Without a link function, the comment section is where Jorgenson can see the most encouraging evidence of how The Post’s TikTok is changing young people’s perceptions.
Use your mobile phone. Jorgenson films all the videos on his phone and edits them on his computer using Adobe Premiere Pro. Although he’s trained to film on professional cameras, he said it feels much more authentic to the app to film on his phone.
Jorgenson said he hopes in five or 10 years, when his audience has credit cards and disposable income, they might remember the funny TikTok videos.
“As silly as that sounds,” he said, “I think it's a pretty sound strategy to say, ‘We're telling you who we are now, so maybe later on, you'll use us for news.’"
Image credit: Jason Wong of The Washington Post.
Editor's note: This story has been amended to include the controversy around TikTok's connection to China through its parent company ByteDance, which is based in Beijing.