News publishers are flocking to TikTok as they continue to search for new audiences

News flash: it’s not just advertisers that are enamored with TikTok. News publishers want in on it too.

The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Sky News to name a few. These are just some of the names on an ever-growing list of news publishers producing content on TikTok. Most (78%) of Comscore’s top 50 news publishers — or 39 publishers to be exact — created an account on TikTok over the last two years. 

Just don’t call it a pivot to video — this is one with much lower stakes. Yes, publishers are producing more video for a platform they don’t control. No, they’re not doing so in search of ad dollars. Instead, they’re doing it in search of new audiences.

What little stakes there are around these investments revolve around experimentation and marketing. 

That’s clear in the wide-ranging content strategies employed by the news publishers on TikTok.

Take CNN for example. Since September 2021, the news publisher released 846 videos — or an average of 14 videos per week. So far, those videos helped CNN rack up 1.3 million followers and 11.3 million likes.

Then there’s The Daily Wire. Similarly to CNN, it has produced a total of 812 videos since October 2021. However, its presence on TikTok has already far exceeded CNN despite having started on the app a month later. So far the American news site has accumulated 2.8 million followers and 63 million likes.

Focusing on TikTok content

The difference between the two: the type of content published and length of each post. 

While CNN focuses on snippets of actual daily news stories as they unfold using videos that are anywhere up to almost 10 minutes long, The Daily Wire concentrates on entertaining news and uses TikTok trends and filters in posts that only last about a minute.

Being a prolific on TikTok will only get a publisher so far. It’s the actual content of the video themselves that will set apart the ones with real staying power.

But figuring this out will take time. Not least because news isn’t necessarily something that’s intuitive to the platform. Entertaining content is. This puts more emphasis on users liking or engaging (i.e commenting or sharing) with each video post, which subsequently influences what’s on their For You page.

“Publishers must be prepared to lose editorial control on TikTok, even more than on other platforms,” commented Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders. “You can’t guarantee your video will be widely shared on the day it’s uploaded.”

The Washington Post’s foray

It’s why those behind The Washington Post’s videos on TikTok are always talking about meeting people where they are and creating content for the platform.

The publication posts a mix of long and short form TikToks, mixing original series, comedy posts, and more serious ones. For example, The Post has joined in on a trend dubbed Misinformation Mondays — as a way to combat inaccurate stories.

The news publisher, which started its account back in May 2019, was indeed one of the first to invest in TikTok, as noted by the 15-second staged sketch comedy featuring Senator Cory Booker and The Post’s own Dave Jorgenson (senior video reporter), which went viral and was subsequently picked up by The Atlantic. Since then, Jorgenson and his team posted 1,918 videos (which works out at about 11 videos each week) and accumulated around 1.5 million followers and 69.9 million likes.

Jorgenson explained that his team at The Washington Post tend to upload two TikToks per day, generally between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET, in a bid to catch the early risers from the West coast, those throughout the day on the East coast, as well as people winding down in the evenings in the U.K. — its second biggest market. 

“You’ll notice that we very rarely even take other footage, horizontal footage that even The Post has shot and repurposed for TikTok because we want to make it look like it was shot on an iPhone for TikTok,” said Jorgenson.

Comments like this are to be expected. This isn’t the first rodeo for a lot of these publishers. So it stands to reason that the execs at these companies are going to wheel out the usual platitudes that get dished out whenever a new platform emerges. Even so, TikTok is anything but par for the course. Unlike other platforms, TikTok has a content driven algorithm which means each video has to resonate with its viewers for the algorithm to actually pick it up as something worth promoting to the masses.

LADbible, a British publisher, posts around five to 10 times a day using a mix of user-generated and original content on TikTok. “It’s critical to get the tone right so we often test global creative on TikTok with our LADnation research panel, to ensure the messages are as effective as possible with our audience,” said Rebecca Tyrell, TikTok lead at LADbible Group.

The team is always refining what works through constant testing, learning and iterating to ensure the development of its work is de-risked and will be a success with LADbible’s global audience, she added.

“However it isn’t enough to republish creator content, our audiences want to discover more about what’s viral, uncover new stories, and be part of the conversation,” she continued.

What works on TikTok

Investing in the concept of native, authentic content is key to creating content that pops on TikTok, as is staying true to the publisher’s brand. No mean feat for even the most seasoned of publishing execs. That said, they’re clearly seeing some early signs of success, as evidenced by the BBC’s plans.

Big, important news stories, context and explanation around those works well as TikToks for the news organization, for instance. That’s according to Naja Nielsen, digital director for BBC News.

She pointed to the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 9 as proof. 

While the main event unfolded on linear TV, the BBC took to TikTok to record everything that took place in and around the U.K. in the lead up to the day. “We’ve had a big uptick in followers around those more raw live streams,” said Nielsen.

Similar to the majority of publishers, the BBC still considers itself to be in learning mode on the platform as the digital team is currently in the midst of deciding the details of its TikTok strategy. Chances are it won’t stay this way for long. The BBC posted job advertisements last week for four journalists, to create a TikTok team within the corporation’s social news unit.

“We are expanding our team because we want to take some of the first lessons from our first year on the platform and put them into our business as usual,” added Nielsen.

In fact, it’s a thought not lost on other publishers. LADbible already has around 30 execs, spanning original products and branded content produces, making content for TikTok.

The Washington Post also launched what they deem to be a cross-company task force called Next Generation, back in 2021, which feeds into its overall TikTok strategy. Certain reporters intentionally create content to live on TikTok first — then it’s a matter of working out which of those pieces will make it into the paper.

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