4 min read

TikTok and News Publishing

TikTok and News Publishing

Real talk: are people actually using TikTok to stay informed, or is it just a never-ending stream of dance challenges and lip-syncing teens? 

This is a valid question. Many people out there view TikTok as nothing more than a bunch of dancing influencers who are killing it with marketing their stuff. 

But that’s not the whole story. 

Back in October, Nick Hagar from the New York Times and Nicholas Diakopoulos of Northwestern University put on their detective hats and dug deep into the TikTok algorithm to determine how often news content gets recommended to users. 

And let's just say the results aren't pretty.

Let’s Get Some Background Covered First

First off, some context: by the end of 2022, the Reuters Institute of Journalism found that about half of the world's top news publishers were posting on TikTok. That's a lot of reputable sources vying for attention on a platform known for 15-second dance routines and questionable "challenges."

But here's the kicker: out of the 6,568 videos served up to the researchers' bot army (more on that later), only SIX fit their definition of "news." Six. Let that sink in for a minute.

The Method Behind the Madness: How the Study Worked

You might be thinking, "How did they even measure this?" That's a great question. Since TikTok is notoriously stingy with its data (seriously, trying to get API access is like pulling teeth), the researchers had to get creative.

They started by scraping recommended accounts from four major U.S. news outlets: The Washington Post, NBC News, NPR, and PBS News. They built a list of related news accounts from there, including publishers, journalists, and aggregators.

Then, they unleashed 60 bots (yes, actual bots) with varying levels of "news interest" to scroll through the app and decide whether to watch or skip videos based on how closely the transcripts matched that day's New York Times headlines. 

The Unsurprising Truth: Mainstream News Is Getting Left in the Dust

The study's findings aren't exactly shocking for anyone who's been paying attention to the shifting media landscape. The decision to start with four big, traditional news accounts was an interesting choice, considering we know that users are way more likely to follow individual creators than mainstream media brands.

As the Reuters Institute has repeatedly found, audiences on ALL platforms (not just TikTok) prefer consuming content from personalities over faceless news accounts. Twitter was the last holdout, but even that's gone by the wayside post-Musk.

So, it's no wonder that mainstream news media isn't getting much love from the TikTok algorithm. They weren't even starting with the most popular news creators to begin with!

The New Media Landscape: Creators > Legacy Brands

V Spehar, the mastermind behind @Underthedesknews, hit the nail on the head when reacting to the study: "Trad media is trying to use the same metrics of success they've always used. And new media doesn't play in that world, especially on TikTok where peer learning and niche content, as well as news communicator personalities, matter more."

In other words, TikTok users don't want stale, corporate news—they want authentic, relatable creators who feel like friends spilling the tea. Even if those creators often just repackage stories from legacy media, their delivery and personality are what keep people coming back for more.

The Struggle Is Real: Journalists vs. The Algorithm 

Part of the problem is that many journalists are resistant to creating content on TikTok for various reasons. Some don't feel confident on camera, others lack video training, and some still think TikTok is just for Gen Z (spoiler alert: it's not).

This has led to a weird split on the app, where you have either traditional news accounts or completely unaffiliated creators – with minimal overlap. There are a few exceptions, like CNN's Max Foster and Sophia Smith Galer (the author of this Mashable piece), who straddle both worlds. 

Embracing a Wider Definition of "News"

Before you start mourning the death of journalism, let's take a step back. 

If you define news strictly as "hard news" from traditional sources, TikTok might look like a barren wasteland. However, younger audiences have a much broader understanding of what counts as newsworthy.

It's more useful to think of TikTok as a space for information rather than just news in the traditional sense. Creators from all walks of life are making videos about current events, trends, and issues that matter to their communities. Just because it doesn't fit the narrow definition of "news," it doesn't mean it's not valuable or informative.

The Proof Is in the Numbers: TikTok as a Legit News Source

Despite the study's gloomy outlook, there's plenty of evidence that people are using TikTok to stay informed. Google's own research found that nearly 40% of young people turn to TikTok or Instagram for local recommendations rather than Google Maps or Search. Mind blown.

UK-based Ofcom's 2023 report on news consumption showed that one in ten adults use TikTok to keep up with the news—more than BBC Radio 1 and Channel 5 combined. Globally, TikTok reaches 20% of 18-24-year-olds specifically for news.

So, while the algorithm might not be pushing traditional news sources, people still find and engage with informative content on the app. It just looks a little different than the evening news broadcast.

The Bottom Line: Adapt or Die

In the age of algorithmic media, the type of content amplified on platforms like TikTok will be make-or-break for news providers. Gone are the days when people automatically searched for and followed legacy media accounts out of habit.

Now, the content comes to us, curated by an algorithm that feeds off our interests and engagement. If news media doesn't want to make content that can compete with expert creators, their videos simply won't show up in people's feeds.

As Spehar puts it, "I think it's a struggle to make room for both. The dynamic and well-trained research and journalism of traditional media folks AND the dynamic and well-curated presentation of stories by TikTok personalities. We need both."

So, to all the journalists and news organizations out there: it's time to adapt or get left behind. Embrace the power of personality, lean into the trends and formats that resonate with TikTok users, and don't be afraid to show a little humanity behind the headlines.

The future of news on TikTok might look different than what we're used to, but that doesn't mean it's any less valuable or important. It's up to us to meet audiences where they are and give them the information they need – one 15-second video at a time.

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