The news needs of the next generation are strikingly different to what went before, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022.

“These social natives, who have come into adulthood in the last five or ten years, are much less likely to visit a traditional news website or to pay for online news – and they are often wary of giving up their data. Deeply networked, they are increasingly accessing news in video or audio on networks like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, or Spotify,“ said Zaffarano.

Source: Digital News Report 2022

So what does this mean for your social media strategy? Should you favour TikTok above other social media platforms? Are there good examples to guide your approach? Do you need to hire someone very young to execute? We asked social and digital media specialist Francesco Zaffarano, now editor in chief of Will Media (see his bio below), for guidance on how newsrooms should be approaching TikTok.

Francesco Zaffarano

WAN-IFRA: Which newsrooms are, in your view, faring best on TikTok?

Francesco Zaffarano: I love the work that Guardian Australia is doing on TikTok. I think they have found the right balance between sharing their journalism and being true to themselves. But they are also entertaining, which you need to include in your strategy on TikTok. Two things, in particular, I like about Guardian Australia: they strike the right tone of voice. They have been brave enough to keep short the number of journalists who appear in their videos, which is an excellent way to strengthen brand awareness and their relationship with the audience.

Another account I enjoy is Openly, a vertical account about LGBTQ+ rights, culture, and news. They have an exciting way of mixing lifestyle content with information and some old-school reporting while playing with the native language and tools of the platform, like memes and trends.

We should look at many accounts to understand an excellent TikTok strategy. In 2019 I started a public database of journalism-related TikTok accounts. I have learned so much by looking at news outlets from all over the world. I recommend looking at the largest number of accounts – not just journalism accounts – to get inspiration and find your voice on the platform.

Source: Digital News Report 2022

What advice can you give newsrooms to increase relevance and traction with young audiences who are avoiding news?

Well, I think representation plays a huge part in this process – if you do not have young journalists on your team, you will miss out on what young audiences want, need, and expect from you. But the young members of the team might not be the right people to work on your TikTok strategy. I don’t think it’s just a matter of how old you are. You need to find people curious about how people behave on the platforms. You need people who live on the platform and understand how it works. I think anyone can do this – it is not mandatory to be under 25. You need to be curious and open-minded, which should be an essential requirement for any journalist, regardless of age. So, my advice is to find someone willing to spend time studying the platform, analysing its trends, and converting them into creative ideas to bring your journalism where people are. I think this is relevant advice right now for TikTok, but this is something we should always keep in mind whenever we approach a new platform. It is not about TikTok but about understanding the people we want to serve as journalists.

If they don’t have the resources to be on all social platforms, is TikTok the best bet for the future?

TikTok is a growing platform gaining users within a demographic that will be more and more relevant for news consumption in the following years. But I am not sure we will all be on TikTok in five or ten years. Just a few years ago, it was all about Facebook, do you remember? But things move fast in social media, and I don’t think there is a silver bullet platform to bet on. Before joining a new platform, I would suggest always questioning why we want to be there. If it’s just hype, that’s no good strategy for audience development. At the same time, though, we cannot just do work as usual and expect people to look for our journalism if we do not make an effort to reach them where they are spending a gigantic share of their time.

What advice do you suggest for those who are trying to grow TikTok? Is it a one-person team?

What worked for the publications I brought on TikTok so far is the same approach I would apply to all social platforms: know your audience, understand the platform and experiment. Journalists should never shy away from experimentation in terms of formats, tone of voice, tools, etc. And this does not mean you should jump on the first viral trend because you risk playing the funny uncle role. Instead, try and think of trends and memes as a genre you can bend to convey a message rather than passively replicate them to get engagement.

As for how many people to dedicate to TikTok: many organisations are betting on one person to be their voice on the platform. That makes sense to me because it helps you find the right tone of voice. But there’s more. On TikTok, you can have people follow you without clicking the follow button. Since the algorithm of the For You feed is very efficient, you could be exposed to content from a specific account without actively following it. For this reason, having the same person presenting all your stories can help the audience build a habit. It’s a way to be more recognizable.

Should that one person be a Journalist first or TikToker, adapting the existing content or creating their own output?

I am not too attached to these labels – I think you need someone with editorial sensitivity and an understanding of the platform. As I mentioned before, you need to find someone who lives on the platform and who is not worried about experimenting with doing journalism in an unconventional way, for example, by playing with new languages and tools. That person can either repurpose content, create it from scratch, or team up with someone else in your editorial team who has specific expertise to research a story together. We have been doing this so far at Will Media, and it’s working very well for us.

At Will Media, a community-first startup focused on the big stories and trends of our rapidly-changing world, we started by repurposing Instagram content into TikTok videos. We used all that content to gather data about topics and formats that performed best on TikTok. With a more profound knowledge of our audience on TikTok, we eventually started to get more traction by mixing repurposed content with original content for TikTok only.

If repurposing content can be a good strategy to kick off your account, you should not limit yourself to transforming your content into TikTok videos. We must also dedicate time and effort to understand what drives conversations on the platform and produce content that fits into those conversations if we want to be relevant to the TikTok audience. Usually, at this point, someone asks me: “What if the audience wants just stupid videos.” As I wrote a few years ago on Nieman Lab, we should do our best to approach people on platforms without prejudices. Of course, social media are full of funny videos, but that does not mean people don’t recognize valuable content when they see it.

BIO: Francesco Zaffarano is editor-in-chief at Will Media, a community-first startup focused on telling the big stories and trends of a rapidly-changing world. Previously, he worked as senior social media editor at The Telegraph, Instagram producer at The Economist, engagement editor at GEDI Visual Lab, and social media editor at La Stampa. He was one of the organisers of the London chapter of Hacks/Hackers, an international community of journalists and technologists focused on discussing and rethinking the future of news. Since 2018, he is one of the contributors to Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism.

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