Media outlets are increasingly turning to TikTok to keep younger generations interested in the news – especially as these audiences look to social media platforms for information. Today, one in four adults in the U.S. under 30 regularly get their news from TikTok.
With this in mind, how can media outlets effectively engage young audiences?
To find out, I spoke with two prominent TikTok influencers driving young people to the news. Kelsey Russell is a graduate student from Columbia University who has gone viral for her daily readings of the newspaper, in which she explains articles in an easy-to-understand, passionate way. Vitus Spehar, also known as V Spehar, is the host of Under The Desk News, and also helps run the Washington Post’s TikTok account.
Meet people where they’re at
To engage young people, journalists first need to be on the platforms they’re using. TikTok is one such platform. “Why TikTok? That's where [young people] are. It matters to us. So we should make it matter in a meaningful, educational way,” Russell said. Journalists can use TikTok to follow viral sensations, and connect them to larger trends that resonate with young people, she added.
TikTok’s “For You” page is a particularly valuable tool for engaging audiences with the news. It allows users to connect with others through comments or direct messaging.
Spehar, for example, utilized TikTok comments driven by the “For You” page to enhance Under the Desk News’ coverage of the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021. They gave Spehar a glimpse into how military families with a connection to the issue were being impacted. In response, Spehar focused their coverage on this aspect of the withdrawal.
“I first realized early on [TikTok that] the power that you have to speak to people, and you don't always know who they are. But with TikTok, because of the [direct messaging] feature you really do get a chance to hear right away the feedback of how your news or how your story is affecting other people,” Spehar said.
Engage young audiences beyond TikTok
Journalists can leverage TikTok to direct young people toward more in-depth coverage.
For example, while many viewers enjoy their reporting on TikTok, Spehar also receives requests for readable material or additional sources behind their coverage. “I do six stories a night [...] and you're interested in [one] story. What's the first thing you do? You don't go look for more videos. You go look for more print articles,” Spehar said.
In response, Spehar hired a new editor to begin offering newsletters for their followers. Their two newsletters – one that dives deeper into key issues in the news and another focused on spreading good news and heartwarming stories – are posted twice a month.
Freelance journalists on TikTok could consider collaborating with news organizations that have the on-the-ground reporting production level and the multi-platform reach to provide more in-depth information past what they produce on the app, suggested Spehar.
Promote media literacy
Russell’s TikTok features videos of her reading the paper and discussing top stories and the notes she leaves in the margins as she goes. Her main goal is to establish a media literacy baseline for her viewers, to prepare them to later digest more complex articles.
In one video posted in October, Russell goes through three different newspapers with front page articles about the removal of Congressman Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She guides viewers through a method for writing an essay on the topic. “How am I going to expect you all to be media literate if I don’t teach you how to write an essay?” Russell says in the video.
Russell has felt the impact of her videos especially in classrooms. “I have gained an audience of teachers, professors, and they have [...] incorporated my TikToks into their classes to help their students get excited about media literacy,” she said.
Russell further recommended that journalists and news outlets encourage students to look for news beyond just on social media. “Schools and colleges are such an interesting place that I don't think print media has touched into,” she said. “What does it look like to give all freshmen in college a free subscription? [...] What does it look like for the New York Times business section to reach out to a 10th grade AP U.S. History class?”
Understand that digital and print go hand in hand
Digital platforms, whether a media outlet’s website or its social media, are not substitutes for print; nor should print media see itself entirely distinct from digital media, Russell said. “We need to let go of the ‘which one is going to survive?’ debate and think about, how can the two work with each other to survive?” she said.
As a newsroom, consider how your print newspaper can appeal to a younger audience, especially one that is experiencing digital fatigue and taking steps to avoid too much online consumption. As Russell discussed, print news can be a good way to read the news in a healthy way, allowing readers to control the information they consume rather than have that be determined by an algorithm.
“I knew reading the newspaper would lead me to find information I would not find online because [there’s] no algorithm,” she said.
A print version of a story may contain in-depth information, but without the distractions that often come with digital platforms, like videos, audio clips, advertisement pop-ups or phone notifications. By using the platforms in uniquely strategic ways, news outlets can provide different paths for readers to engage deeper with stories.
“It should be all of the stories being covered in different ways, so readers have an opportunity to say, ‘okay, what do I know that I'm going to get if I read the digital version? And what is the print version going to supplement of that?’” Russell said.
Main image created on Canva.