Gen Z takes TikTok seriously – news publishers should too

Gen Z is now using TikTok was a major source of news

TikTok has evolved to become a primary source of news for gen Zers. Here’s what that means for publishers.

In 2021, The Washington Post announced that it had more than 1 million followers on TikTok. At the same time, local Cincinnati news channel WLWT reported that one of its anchors, Megan Mitchell, also hit the 1-million-follower milestone. A global powerhouse brand and a small-city reporter are equally visible on this emerging social platform.

While the numbers are the same, the approaches are very different. The Washington Post produces news videos. Mitchell gets more personal, sharing her new haircut and her experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Blending professional news and influencer-type authenticity is the conundrum that major news publishers are faced with on TikTok as gen Z ages into adulthood. The right approach builds on past successes (and failures) that publishers have experienced on other digital channels. From their years of learning how to balance Google and Facebook to more recent trends in testing out niche and opinion-based content on email newsletters, publishers already have what they need to launch a successful TikTok program.

A new news format

A new report from CM Group shows that 41% of gen Z obtains news and information on TikTok – more than any other generation. Not only that, TikTok is much more popular with gen Z than TV news, news radio or news websites. TikTok is not a fad that publishers can ignore. For gen Z, it’s a primary news destination.

In 2020, the TikTok app overtook Facebook as the most downloaded app of all time, with more than 3bn downloads worldwide. The enormity of TikTok’s footprint alone should be enough to turn publishers on to the platform.

Gen Z is turning to TikTok the way their millennial predecessors turned to Facebook. But TikTok is a bit different. Compared to Facebook, TikTok is faster, noisier and more personality-driven. News content lives within a dynamic video feed that is much less reliant on text and photos than is the case over at Facebook.

From Covid-19 explainer videos to breakdowns about politics, gen Z turns to news reports on TikTok that are often in a round-up or explainer format – but they also crave the authenticity of personal videos.

  • Explainer: explainer videos dive deep on a specific topic. This type of video can be a 101 description of a topic like, “Why are people getting booster vaccines?” or it can go very deep for a more focused crowd such as, “Why Elon Musk likes Dogecoin.”

  • Round-ups: here the video will pull information and facts from a variety of other sources. Someone might share statistics on the increase in wildfires and bring in reports from leading news sources, researchers and even local interviews.

  • Personal videos: these videos add the authenticity factor that gen Z is always looking for. For example, Megan Mitchell shared that she has an ‘undercut’ – a haircut that is shaved underneath – something that’s not obvious from her day job as a news anchor.

To really connect with gen Z, individual personalities reign supreme on TikTok – this generation likes influencers. Finding the right people for the job may require some trial and error. The right person doesn’t need to be the headline anchor or editor (remember when the intern managed Facebook posts?) Small-time reporters, former editors and freelance producers are amassing millions of followers (especially gen Z followers) on TikTok with their videos.

Build on past success (and failure)

TikTok is still the territory of amateurs, and doesn’t provide the same breadth of tools for professional publishers as Google or Facebook. But it may not stay that way. Right now, publishers are just getting comfortable with the idea of putting content on a foreign platform with some less-than-perfect past activity when it comes to free speech and data usage. While the platform is now managed in a way that is much closer to the other big social media apps out there, its past is stopping some publishers from testing the waters.

It’s worth remembering that YouTube and Facebook have had their own bumps in the road, but publishers found that access to such massive audiences – and ultimately the ad revenue that came along with them – was worth the risk. What seemed like underdeveloped platforms became prominent players in the publishing field. Many publishers have had a roller coaster experience with Facebook and Google over the past decade, but that experience has made them more knowledgeable about how to use social media platforms without becoming too reliant on them.

Until TikTok formally releases tools for publishers, it will be a platform that’s driven by individual voices and engaging content, not by massive budgets and professional production. In this way, publishers can think of TikTok as closer to newsletters, in which individuals can let their opinions and personalities shine and the engagement feels more one-to-one than one-to-many.

Publishers such as the Associated Press and The Independent have seen great success creating niche newsletters that go deep on topics that people care about, not unlike TikTok accounts that focus on specific topics and attract like-minded followers – many of whom, again, are gen Zers. Other publishers including The New York Times give major personalities such as Frank Bruni their own newsletters for a more intimate (read: influencer-like) connection with readers.

The success that publishers are seeing as they grow newsletter channels is very relatable to TikTok, save a few obvious differences. For example: the people who are best at penning an 800-word opinion article might not be the same people who can speak to 24-year-olds via a video on social media. These nuances are worth some tests. Perhaps a columnist’s intern provides an explainer of their famous boss’s piece, or a more animated writer gets to take a first crack at a more personal companion video?

Making headway now, when the stakes are low, will help publishers learn more about gen Z – while ensuring that they don’t lose this valuable audience to another publisher that figures out TikTok first.

Kerry Twibell is media industry advisor to CM Group.

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