Should journalism schools teach TikTok even if newsrooms are on the fence?

Gavin Allen
Jul 30, 2019 · 9 min read
Are you studying the rise of TikTok? Lil Nas X did — and it paid off big time

If your first answer to this question is ‘What is TikTok?’ — don’t worry, there’s an explainer later.

That three-word question gets to the heart of this piece.

How many of us are true early adopters, either in newsroom or at journalism schools?

We should all be EAs, right? It’s just that the same old one-two punch of time and money stops us from being as up-to-date as we’d like to be.

When I spoke to a number of social media editors at major UK news outlets for this article I received broadly the same response: “We’re on the fence.”

The advent of social media has changed ‘traditional’ news delivery platforms beyond recognition, in conjunction with the internet itself and the search engine gateways.

Twenty or even 10 years ago, who would have thought that Facebook would be delivering a third of your ‘sales’ — or traffic? Or that Google would be such a determining feature of your advertising revenue?

Hands up how many people think that TikTok can be a prime news delivery platform of tomorrow?

What is TikTok?

It’s an app. Put it on your phone or tablet.

Users create looping videos of around 15–20 seconds in length (think of it as Vine’s big brother) and mostly set them to a library of music clips. The look-and-feel is that of slick young creators producing edited video content with a banging soundtrack.

It is most widely used for lip-synching and viral dance challenges.

The platform’s biggest success story to date is taking the Lil Nas X song Old Town Road from an unknown country trap tune to a №1 smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Check out the great video piece from the New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli below for more on how that happened.

Behind the scenes, TikTok is owned by Chinese giant ByteDance, which was founded by its CEO Zhang Yiming. Aged 35, he is 70th on Forbes’ 2019 billionaires list with a net worth of $16.2bn.

It is the English language spin-off of the Chinese app Douyin. TikTok has been around since September 2017 but in August 2018 ByteDance merged it with video sharing app Musical.ly and that’s when TikTok as we know it took off.

The ascent has been heady.

In less than two years TikTok has been downloaded more than 950 million times, according to Fortune. During the first quarter of 2019 it was the third most downloaded app worldwide, ahead of Facebook and Instagram. Only WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger were above it.

It the UK it is hovering between №6 and №2 in the most downloaded social media apps charts, according to mobile intelligence company Sensor Tower, which also says TikTok has 33m downloads worldwide in June 2019 alone.

Importantly, it hits the youth demographic media companies are hunting.

Influencer marketing agency Mediakix says 66% of worldwide users are under the age of 30, while in the U.S., 60% of the app’s monthly active users are 16 to 24 year-olds.

Even more interestingly though, ByteDance also owns China’s enormous news aggregator Toutiao.

If TikTok’s parent company is into news delivery then you can bet your bottom Yuan they will be trying to cross-promote their own interests on the platform. That may mean TikTok is pre-primed to push towards news output at some future point.

ByteDance is also now planning to manufacture its own phones. Could this open up another Upday-style opportunity with Toutiao as a pre-install app on every handset?

How is it being used for new so far?

It pretty much isn’t.

However, there are some US newsrooms and journalists on the platform.

The most high-profile and oft-cited of these is The Washington Post. They use it to make funny videos as a branding exercise or guerrilla marketing campaign to reach that much-sought after younger demographic.

The problem is that doesn’t equate to slinging news content.

On a local level, Dallas Morning News had a nice idea to introduce their staff to their readers with a cheesy TV credit sequence style piece.

On an individual level, KPRC 2 Houston’s Owen Conflenti is also a user.

All of the above are behind-the-scenes fun — the kind of stuff you do while bored at work, rather than the work itself.

But if a news niche for TikTok emerges, these accounts are well placed to capitalise. Keep an eye on them.

What are UK newsrooms saying about TikTok?

“TikTok makes me feel ancient. I can’t really see how we could use it?” The Guardian’s media editor, Jim Waterson, says via email.

“Dance battles aren’t great for the Guardian.”

While the platform’s popularity is not in doubt, publishers burned by the pivot to piviots are understandably reticent.

Editors want to identify a useable business strategy or monetisable return before committing.

One national publisher told me: “We do have a Tik Tok account but it’s not active right now.

“We are looking into it because I do think it can be used for news publishers to grow an engaged audience but we are being tentative as we currently don’t have extra resource to invest in creating content for it.

“The growth of Tik Tok has been impressive, but we’d also need to know more about monetisation opportunities for the platform before diving in and this still isn’t clear for publishers.”

The Metro’s social media editor Jay Jaffa says the outlet is trying to establish if TikTok is a viable platform for the brand.

“The journalism industry in the UK is almost 99% on the fence,” he says.

“For me TikTok would work best at news broadcasters as a look-behind-the-curtain format.

“Another way I see working would be turning a fun story of the day into a quick TikTok video. Have someone present it, run some video, conclude, done.”

At the Sun, which currently has no TikTok account, social media editor Martha Mills fears the Vine factor.

“My personal opinion is that brands would not be received well by the current audience who use it in a similar way to Vine, which also failed to gain traction as a mainstream content delivery site,” she said.

“It’s still very much seen as a ‘fun’ platform and I see it more as a source for viral content and creating ‘influencers’.”

The Daily Mirror has just taken the plunge and opened an account, testing the water with two posts backing up their campaign to truth-test Boris Johnson.

So who might it work for?

Most immediately, I see it being a desirable new audience source for sports broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky Sports.

TikTok signaled its intent when it signed a deal with Wimbledon this summer.

But on a more day-to-day level, Liverpool and Manchester City are among the football clubs which already have TikTok accounts.

It’s a great way to serve up goals for a mobile audience, for example. It’s also perfect for those humanising behind-the-scenes clips sports stars love to post.

No, Paul Pogba doesn’t have an account yet. But he will. And soon, I’m betting.

That means football journalists should already be adding TikTok to their workflows. It also means football journalists are likely among the people reading the long-tail SEO pieces you’re producing.

TikTok could have similar monetization pathways as Twitter for broadcasters.

There will undoubtedly be attempts to use pre-roll at some point — there is already advertising and sponsorship — and that will widen its appeal to any media companies with bespoke video content to offer.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the fact that The United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) used the platform to launch a campaign earlier this year. It’s essentially a piece of marketing that used the tried and tested viral dance craze route to raise awareness, but it puts a serious issue onto a platform currently seen as a home for viral distraction.

Just as TikTok has suddenly exploded as a music promotion site, it feels like there could be several pivots ahead — particularly when Vine 2.0 arrives to provide a short-form video rival and TikTok seeks to distinguish itself.

The indicators of diversification are there.

What are the problems with it?

TikTok will suit particular brands rather than ‘news’ overall.

For news outlets it likely means choosing the right platform for your content, not choosing a platform and then trying to create content around it. Unless you have budget to waste. And therein lies the main problem.

TikTok is labour intensive.

Dave Jorgenson, a Washington Post video producer, has said he spends around an hour and a half each morning creating and editing the TikTok for that day.

That’s likely too much speculative effort for your average red-top or regional to add to their ‘to do’ pile.

Other than that, there are also the associated growing pains of a social media platform that is blowing up faster than it can regulate.

TikTok has already been fined a record $5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission for unlawfully collecting data on under-13s in a bitter child privacy battle.

There are also significant concerns over child safeguarding issues, which is documented in this Buzzfeed investigation. You’ll see press releases piling up on the platform’s media section trying to counter that perception.

So why should journalism schools consider teaching it now?

If there is one thing students hear a lot of then it’s: “You must do this.”

That’s inevitable. We are passing on our experience of the skills they need to enter a real job. The cat cannot eat your homework in industry.

But in telling them the way things are, we risk killing the idea of the way things could be.

If we genuinely want students to have a questioning mind then we need to allow them space to experiment not just with narrative but also with platform and concept.

I want students to understand how things are, then ask: “But why can’t I do this?”

So, that’s where I am on this. It’s experiment time. But it’s experimentation for a reason.

If TikTok continues to rise at its current pace it will be a significant force come the next academic year, which begins in September 2020.

That means our graduating MA students need to know about it this year to be ‘future-proofed’ for the newsrooms they hit (hopefully!) in 2020.

In keeping with the spirit of the latest NCTJ Programme of Study for Digital Journalism, which I helped to launch at Facebook’s London in June, we need to arm ourselves with a ‘future proofing’ approach.

Perhaps TikTok will fizzle and collapse like Vine before it. In which case you might argue we wasted students’ time.

But in that event TikTok will have been a fascinating study in the lightning rise and fall of a new platform. Students are digital natives born into a world where Facebook, Twitter and Insta already exist. They weren’t privvy to the rise of social, unlike us old folks educating them.

I’m not saying we should give hour-long formal lectures on the rise of TikTok but it has certainly set a dancing cat among the usual group of social media pigeons.

Succeed or fail, TikTok is worth studying.

It would be remiss of us to not see how our students interact with it and how we might leverage that for news. Let them play. Experiment. Adapt. They can perhaps help shape or even create TikTok’s news application.

Consider how Insta diversified thinking on format. Is Insta delivering you traffic or just brand awareness? Right now, TikTok could be performing the exact same function. Are you hoping Insta grows into a more direct traffic referrer? Ditto TikTok. You see where I’m going with this.

If you’re on the Insta bandwagon, why aren’t you here too?

Consider how WhatsApp broadcast lists opened a new distribution channel — the FT is among those using it in the UK.

Each social media platform has a tendency to surface a new niche. The way we newsify these things ends up in two-word shortcuts combining the platform and its most useful UX.

Facebook / posts.

YouTube / video

Twitter / lists

Insta / stories.

Pinterest /boards.

TikTok /…

TikTok is obviously just an example here. You could replace it with any new format, platform or idea. It’s the approach that matters.

At Cardiff University School of Journalism we’ll start experimenting with TikTok from September. Perhaps this time next year we’ll have a news-friendly UX for it.

Until then, happy dancing.

**UPDATED: The Daily Mirror opened its account the day after this article was originally published

The Scrum

Emerging journalism: Now, next and the future

Gavin Allen

Written by

Digital Journalism lecturer at Cardiff University. Ex-Associate Editor of Mirror.co.uk and formerly of MailOnline, MSN UK and Wales Online.

The Scrum

The Scrum

Emerging journalism: Now, next and the future

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