News Impact: TikTok trends and new formats for journalism

What TikTok can — and can’t — do for your publication, and a pathway to new forms of journalism storytelling.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

This morning was the first session of the latest News Impact Summit, one of my favourite series of journalism events. Over the last couple of years, I've happily travelled to Paris, Cardiff and Birmingham to attend these. Today, though, I travelled no further my living room, as the event has been pandemically pushed online and my wife has possession of the study…

And, given the topic of this week's sessions is audience engagement, how could I ignore it? Due to school runs and the like, I missed the first couple of sessions with my City co-tutor Condé Nast's Sarah Marshall and The Economist’s Kevin Young. The sessions will be available on YouTube later, so I’ll have to catch up with them then.

Handily, Kevin has provided his own summary of his session:

And Laura spotted this useful insight:

A great panel on the new social media hotness:

  • Elise Johnson, head of social media at The Telegraph (and a former student of mine)
  • Julie Lelièvre, head of audience and editorial development at Le Monde
  • Patrick Weinhold, head of social media at Tagesschau.
  • Moderator: Francesco Zaffarano, editor in chief at WILL (another former student — Sarah and I are clearly doing something right…)

There was a good amount of granular information in these talks. One message that came through fairly clearly (possibly because I was listening for it) was that TikTok is not going to be sending you direct traffic back to your website. If your monetisation model depends on people hitting the site, TikTok is not going to help you out.

So, why are people there?

Well, broadcasters with a public service remit like Tagesschau or the BBC need to be there, if they're to fulfil that remit. TikTok is where you will find young people, and if you want to get some news to them, head on over and start the Bytedance.

For everyone else, particularly those with a more commercial imperative, it comes down to how important  a mix of brand recognition and audience to you. Many people have used these sorts of platforms to play the long game, hoping that readers engaged here will eventually become subscribers. One of Young's former colleagues at The Economist made this point about Snapchat years ago.

Secrets of TikTok success

For all of the panelists success was neither about repurposing existing material, nor about following "best practice" by copying other TikTok stars. It was about iterative experimentation:

  • Experiment
  • Measure
  • Learn
  • Refine
  • Repeat

Yes, you can learn from what others are doing, and you'd be foolish not to pay attention, but on young platforms, new formats and approaches develop all the time — and there's no reason why your team can't lead the way on that.

That said, there's one big challenge to TikTok that we're not used to thinking about on the internet: reach is highly regional, as a discussion on Twitter pointed up:

And that's without addressing the black box that is the TikTok algorithm, and the fact that a minor tweak to that can destroy your reach instantly. Elise made the point more than once that TikTok was part of their engagement strategy, but far from the heart of it.

The TikTok Trust Temptation

Indeed, there was a consistent message that you might not get traffic, and you might not get a community, but it's worth experimenting there for the potential relationship you can start developing with a younger audience, if you can justify the expenditure of time.

(It's worth noting that all the panelists were from big organisations with substantial teams. That time cost/benefit ratio will play out different for smaller organisations and teams)

One point that I think is critical, and which I was surprised not to see more directly addressed, was the humanising of the team. Elise, for example, made the point that The Telegraph's TikToks are largely produced by the in-house social media team. That means that those folks are becoming the face of The Telegraph for a new generation. If you squint and look at this from a slight angle, they're becoming micro-influencers — and what they're selling is not skincare products, but trust in news journalism. When you have a relationship with a person through these social platforms, you have trust.

And trust is one of our biggest problems right now, as the next speaker made clear.

We desperately need new ways of telling stories

Shirish Kulkarni's session was billed as a workshop, a description that was almost entirely inaccurate. It was somewhere between a polemic and a provocation, and all the better for it.

He introduced a fascinating new story format, which he explains better than I can, so I'll link or embed the session video as soon as it's available. But his core underlying ideas are worth exploring:

1. We're caught in a trap

News innovation is struggling because we've lost sight of the purpose of journalism. It's about informing people, allowing them to live better lives and make better decisions. It is not about serving some abstract platonic news ideal. I've often articulated this as the "tyranny of print" — the brutal demands of the print deadline or broadcast slot necessitating standard formats that allow timely production. Digital explodes those constraints, and yet we still stay wedded to those formats.

2. New formats need new people

The lack of diversity of most newsrooms is still shocking. Plenty of lip-service is paid to it, but change is painfully slow. A diversity of view points allows us to both come up with new ideas, but also to connect better with our audiences. We have some serious trust problems, and we aren't going to deal with them by having the same old bunch of middle-aged white guys cosying up to the same bunch of predictable politicians.

Indeed, the Reuters Institute Digital News Report made it plain that most people see politicians as a major source of untrustworthy information — so why do we make them central to so much of our reporting?

3. Context matters

Yes, one of my favourite issues. We focus too much on a narrow slice of time: the present, the now. Journalism at its best connects the past, present and future in ways that are meaningful to our audience. The classic inverted pyramid story is perfect for encapsulating the now — but we need other formats to tell truly meaningful, contextualised stories.

4. Platforms are not innovation

Just shovelling your content onto new platforms is not innovation. Finding new ways of telling stories and connecting with audiences on new platforms is.

Fascinating and thought-provoking stuff. You can find more about his work here:

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news impact summitaudience engagementTikTokstorytellingnew formats

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.