Viral video platform TikTok has more than 100m monthly users in the US, and another 100m across Europe. And it appears to be growing fast.
In January, BBC journalist Sophia Smith Galer said she was “flummoxed” that more news organisations haven’t launched on the platform and followed the example of Dave Jorgenson, the “Washington Post TikTok guy”.
In the latest edition of Press Gazette’s Platform Profile series, we seek to explain why some large news groups remain absent from TikTok. We examine the pros and cons of the platform for publishers and share some tips from the Washington Post’s Jorgenson (video below).
What is TikTok?
In a couple of years, TikTok has grown from being an unknown entity outside of China into one of the world’s biggest social media platforms.
Originally known as Musical.ly, the app was rebranded as TikTok in 2018 after it was acquired by Beijing tech giant ByteDance. In China, the platform is known as Douyin and reportedly has 600m daily active users.
Last year, as TikTok started to enter the consciousness of older internet users thanks to viral comedy posts relating to Covid-19 and lockdown, the company became embroiled in geopolitical tensions. Then-US president Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok in his country, citing concerns about its Chinese ownership. His successor, President Joe Biden, has paused this action.
‘To get people interested in politics, sometimes you have to get them to laugh a little bit’ – Washington Post TikTok guy
High-level political tensions haven’t stopped several large Western news organisations from launching on TikTok.
The Washington Post was an early advocate of the platform, and its page – run by video journalist Dave Jorgenson – has attracted nearly 900,000 followers and more than 35m likes.
Jorgenson, known on Twitter as “Washington Post TikTok guy”, works full-time on creating content (usually two videos per day) for the platform.
His posts are typically satirical and focus on large news events. He tells Press Gazette: “My personal mantra is: to get people interested in politics, sometimes you have to get them to laugh a little bit.”
Many of Jorgenson’s posts do not directly refer to Washington Post journalism, and he is only able to link through to content on the account’s biography.
So what is in it for the Post? Why does it employ a full-time TikTok guy?
Jorgenson says: “We’ve pretty clearly driven traffic to newsletter subscriptions, and actual subscriptions to our newspaper, by having these different links… in the bio.”
He adds that the channel is good for promoting the Post’s brand, especially among younger, Gen Z users who might otherwise be unreachable.
Jorgenson says that working with TikTok is similar to working with older social media firms like Facebook and Twitter. As a ‘verified’ news outlet on the platform, TikTok is always contactable and happy to answer questions relating to algorithms or functionality, he says.
How does Jorgenson deal with political controversy surrounding TikTok?
“We do have a lot of reporters that are writing about that constantly,” he says. “They work on that, and I’m working on production of TikToks.”
When the platform is in the news, Jorgenson says he is open to – and has previously – TikTok-ed about TikTok. “Sort of like if you posted an article about Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook – it’s the same kind of thing.”
@washingtonpost🚨Update🚨 on the Senate floor from my magical portrait. ##impeachment ##presidenttrump♬ original sound – We are a newspaper.
Why other large publishers aren’t active on TikTok
The Washington Post currently stands as one of TikTok’s marquee news partners – apparent proof that serious journalism and viral, humour-led social media can mix.
But many other big newsgroups are not currently active on the platform. The Post’s traditional rivals, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, are not on TikTok, while UK firms such as the Financial Times and the Times/ Sunday Times are also absent.
A senior source at one major publisher said that while the platform is appealing in many ways, their company has so far decided against signing up.
A fundamental issue, they said, is that the platform does not currently offer enough opportunities to drive traffic to publisher websites.
Another problem is that there is a feeling TikTok works well for celebrities and individual personalities, but less well for brands. Partly as a result of this, the source said that it has been difficult to persuade their newsroom of the virtues of TikTok.
The other major issue identified by the publishing source is that TikTok success requires a significant investment of time and resources. Good TikTok posts take production work and are made directly for the platform. (Although the good news is that TikTok posts can be shared on other platforms like Twitter, as proven by Jorgenson.)
The source said: “Their argument is that this raises awareness of your brand among younger people. True. But that doesn’t justify the investment currently.”
A TikTok source disagreed with the assessment that individual brands are needed for success. They pointed towards USA Today’s TikTok account, which features posts from numerous journalists.
They added that, while TikTok can be a steep learning curve – and does require time and effort – publishers can thrive once they have mastered the short-form style that works on the platform.
Show me the money
The publishing source above did not rule out signing up to TikTok in the future. And something that would likely attract more publishers is the opportunity to make direct revenues through the platform.
The most obvious route to TikTok revenues for publishers at the moment is through sponsored posts.
As an example, in the UK, Capital FM – which has amassed more than one million followers on TikTok – worked with the platform to run branded content on behalf of Ebay (see below).
@capitalofficialThe fast way to shop… maybe too fast ##eBayBrandOutlet ##ad♬ original sound – Capital
While individual TikTok users can be eligible for grants from the platform’s creator fund, branded content remains the main direct monetisation option for publishers currently.
The alternative, less direct route, to TikTok revenues is through a page’s ‘link in bio’, which can be directed towards a home website and possibly drive subscriptions.
TikTok can undoubtedly be a useful tool for publishers to reach elusive Gen Z-ers who might not be active on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
The drawback is that, to be successful, publishers have to invest time and resources into the platform.
Is it worth the investment? Publishers are clearly divided on this issue currently, and some – currently unconvinced by monetisation options and the platform’s suitability for hard news – are holding back.
But if TikTok carries on at its current rate of growth – and emerges as a social media mainstay like Facebook – it could soon be a must-be-on platform.
Photo credit: Reuters/ Mike Blake