Conference PaperPDF Available

"Jump in and be Part of the Fun". How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok

Authors:
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
1
“Jump in and be Part of the Fun”.
How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok.
Daniel Klug
Carnegie Mellon University
dklug@cs.cmu.edu
http://daniel.klug.am
Paper presented at Midwest Popular Culture Association/Midwest American Culture Association Annual
Conference (MPCA/ACA), Minneapolis (virtual), Oct. 14, 2020.
Social media platforms generally experience increased significance as news aggregators and
providers (Hermida, 2016) mainly because younger audiences are turning to non-linear online services as
information resources. According to Pew Research, 68 percent of Americans occasionally get their news
through social media platforms, most frequently from Facebook (43%) and Gen Z users mostly consume
Instagram and Snapchat as social media news resources (Matsa & Shearer, 2018). A 2020 Pew Research
study reveals a quarter of U.S. adults get their news from YouTube where news organizations and
independent channels are equally present and popular (Stocking et al., 2020).
In the context of decreasing advertising revenue and declining circulation (Pew Research Center,
2019), print newspapers are moving to social media platforms to appeal to digital native audiences and to
adapt new financing models (Reuters Institute, 2020). While many print and of course digital news
providers are maintaining various social media presences, ‘social media news’ usually means aggregated
news feed content (Bode, 2016) rather than frequenting single news provider accounts (Hermida et al.,
2012). In addition, online news content is increasingly shifting from text-based information to visual and
audiovisual content. Therefore, news providers are adapting new visual strategies in editing and
presenting news content (Welbers & Opgenhaffen, 2019) while also trying to create new and trending PR
and branding models (Vázquez-Herrero, Direito-Rebollal & López-García, 2019). In the U.S., the New
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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York Times, The Washington Post, and perhaps USA Today are the only national print newspapers with a
significant weekly online reach (Reuters Institute, 2020).
In this context, this paper analyzes the presence of news providers on TikTok, currently the most
popular and fastest growing social media platform (Kennedy, 2020). It takes a first look on how
especially print legacy newspapers present video content on their TikTok accounts and how they adapt to
the aesthetic and communicative standards and features of short-form video as a recently trending social
media artifact. TikTok is designed as a video entertainment platform where users can create and share
short music-based videos (Klug, 2020; Lu, Lu & Liu, 2020; Zhou, 2019) using app features like filters,
caption, or hashtags (Anderson, 2020; Bresnick, 2019) to reference viral phenomena in the context of
digital youth culture and everyday offline lifeworlds (Medina Serrano, Papakyriakopoulos & Hegelich,
2020).
For this study, we found a total of 89 U.S. news provider accounts on TikTok, 46 legacy
newspaper accounts, meaning newspapers that originate in print, and 31 digital native news outlet
accounts, meaning news providers that originate and circulate only online as websites and/or apps (Wu,
2016). The analysis shows that of the 46 legacy newspaper accounts all but three have either no videos
(25) or less than 50 videos (18) (Fig. 1) and only six accounts have more than 500 followers (Fig. 2). The
inactive accounts are largely regional legacy newspapers who may have secured their TikTok handle but
never started using it for unknown reasons. Only a few regional newspapers maintained a trendy TikTok
account for some time, for example, The Dallas Morning News (@dallasmorningnews), but quickly died
out. Currently, the Florida Times-Union (@jaxdotcom) is the only active regional newspaper account
producing trendy TikTok content on a weekly basis, yet they only have about 300 followers. Of the Top
Ten most circulated print newspapers, only USA Today (@usatoday), The Washington Post
(@washingtonpost), and the New York Post (@nypost) maintain popular, active, and highly followed
TikTok accounts.
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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Fig. 1: Number of videos per news provider accounts on TikTok
Fig. 2: Number of followers per news provider accounts on TikTok
The New York Times which is the most frequented print newspaper online has no noteworthy TikTok
presence. The Los Angeles Times (@latimes) account, for example, was only active for three days in
January 2020, eventually to test TikTok but was quickly abandoned.
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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Fig. 3: Number of videos and followers for the accounts of the Top Ten U.S. print newspapers
In contrast, the 31 digital native news outlets are much more popular and frequented. Four accounts each
have more than 1000 videos, 8 accounts have more than one million followers. The main reason is that
digital native news outlets are largely specialized on soft news areas, such as sports (for example
Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport)), lifestyle (for example Bustle (@bustle)), or gaming (for example
IGN (@ign)). Therefore, they almost exclusively post branded content. As part of digital native news
outlets, current affairs news providers are hardly represented. We found only six TikTok accounts that are
actually reporting on current affairs or politics. And only Now This (@nowthis), who are known for
exclusively operating on social media, and its spin-out Now This Politics (@nowthispolitics), have lots of
content and many followers (Fig. 4).
Other news-related providers are rather hybrid, most prominently BuzzFeed (@buzzfeed), who
are a mixture of entertainment, soft news, and current affairs. Their subsidiary BuzzFeed News
(@buzzfeednews) is not really active or frequented on TikTok. There is also Vice News (@vice) who are
known for documentaries and “under-reported” stories. But their TikTok account is actually mostly
videos in which they recap funny or weird stories in the style of commenting on them.
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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Fig. 4: Number of videos and followers for digital native news outlet accounts that focus on politics and current affairs
To give a first conclusion: TikTok is a new, trendy, and fast growing social media platform that
allows to reach young people and to create monetary revenue. Yet, in the light of increasing news access
via social media, legacy and current affairs news providers are not yet present on TikTok. More research
needs to be done into TikTok strategies of news providers as part of their social media strategies. But for
now, the focus is on the three most active and followed TikTok accounts of legacy newspapers, namely
USA Today, The Washington Post, and New York Post. In the following, this paper will exemplify their
main types of video content and presentation styles.
We analyzed the last 15 TikTok videos of each account, and found that USA Today and The
Washington Post mostly post original content in the style of performative videos. That means, new video
content intentionally created for TikTok use that mostly shows a person talking, acting, or reacting. And
in both cases, the person is the social media editor of the newspaper (Fig. 5). An example from USA
Today shows music-based video creation and lip syncing as a characteristic performance element for
TikTok videos (Fig. 5). In contrast, the New York Post, largely posted pre-existing content in the style of
illustrative videos, that is, content that was not created for TikTok in the form of slideshows to music or
sound to inform about a current event. In this example, the video is about the New York Mets and the
Miami Marlins showing support to protest social injustice (Fig. 5).
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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We can identify performative and illustrative as main presentation styles for the most followed
legacy newspaper accounts. The two very active and popular legacy newspaper accounts are adapting a
presentation style that is characteristic for TikTok as a short-form video medium over the conveying and
communicating of news-related information. TikTok allows up to 60 seconds long videos, which is
suitable for a short news segment. But we found only very few videos of the three accounts were
narrative, in the sense that they presented a coherent visual storyline, using pre-existing video material
and voice-over spoken information on a current affair subject.
Fig. 5: Screenshots of TikTok videos by The Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Post
Based on such forms of addressing viewers and illustrating subjects in the context of TikTok and
social media, significant differences can be identified in the relation between presentation style and news
content. New York Post videos covered a large variety of soft news subjects like sports, entertainment, or
fashion, and rarely serious or timely political subjects. They used additional text elements to explain the
illustrative video content and added hashtags in reference to the addressed subject or person in the video.
The Washington Post videos were largely created in a characteristic TikTok style of viral short-form
videos and rarely related to any news. Most videos covered viral subjects or trends and were somehow
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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making self-referential puns on the culture of short-form videos or used this style to comment on current
affairs in a jokey way (example). Text elements were largely used to create memes in context with the
video content and trending sounds on TikTok (example). USA Today videos predominantly focused on
health and the pandemic, the upcoming election, or current U.S. politics. Text elements were often added
as closed captioning to underline and to highlight the spoken message (example). These videos were all
created in the style of a direct address, meaning the person is either speaking directly into the camera to
address the viewer or is performing lip syncing to connect the message of the video to a sound or audio
file (example). Hashtags mostly referenced the news content of a video. Some videos used trendy TikTok
filters or styles to combine viral presentation with current affair news content (example). So we see
legacy news providers adapting to the style of short-form video and also making use of already known
elements, such as a form of direct address to communicate news information.
We might assume that digital native news outlets use more viral or short-form video elements.
But the example of Now This demonstrates that digital news providers who tend to be more social media
savvy are in fact producing serious informative content on TikTok (example). And the same is actually
true for some news broadcasters, such as NBC News (example). They actually used TikTok to post short
news segments based on pre-existing news material, but the example of NBC News as well shows how
established news broadcasters try to appeal to social media native audiences by reporting on sensational
or bizarre side issues, such as city council hearing on a boneless wings petition (example).
This first analysis shows that established national newspapers can utilize TikTok to expand their
brand. But it is yet to be determined if this also results in monetary revenue and audience growth and
therefore will become a variant of short news reporting or digital journalism. At the same time, TikTok is
primarily a platform for viral content and short-term entertainment and not a forum for serious or
weightier subjects. And short-form videos limit the ability to present news and information in larger
contexts beyond a headline or teaser. So one strategy can be to simply “jump in and be part of the fun” -
a 2019 quote by Dave Jorgensen, the “Washington Post TikTok guy” (Beaujon, 2019). And it can also be
a strategy for journalists to maintain personal TikTok accounts (example, example) as another outlet to
Klug, D. (2020): How U.S. News Providers Use and Adapt to TikTok
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reach audiences (Gulyas, 2017) especially when they work for large news agencies such as CNN, BBC,
New York Times, or CBS that are currently not present on TikTok.
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... The posts in the CBS TikTok account were far from the language of broadcast news and close to print. The posts in the NBC account are written in the style of broadcast journalism: they are conversational, and they use short simple sentences (Hall, 1971;Montgomery, 2007). However, both accounts use past tenses in about 15% of their posts. ...
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