TikTok: Should Journalists Hop on the Craze?

How three broadcast journalists are experimenting with the wildly popular but quirky platform

Good journalists are always out there looking for new trends and ideas, but Owen Conflenti didn’t have to look further than his own dinner table. Conflenti’s then-10-year-old daughter was uploading videos of her art, edited to sound effects, to a platform that now has more than a billion users — and it was not YouTube. It was TikTok.

Conflenti, a morning anchor at Graham Media Group’s Houston station KPRC, had never heard of the app, a platform for short videos of lip-syncing, dance trends, parodies and much more. That is no surprise: TikTok, which originated in China, is dominated by tweens and teens from all over the world. But when Conflenti checked it out in November 2018, he was hooked.

“I probably did my first video almost immediately,” Conflenti said. During a commercial break, he spontaneously asked his co-anchor at the time, Rachel McNeill, to participate in an approximate 10-second lip-sync to Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” — and it’s now up to 85,000 views.

“I’ve posted dozens of videos across [other] platforms and I’ve never had [this] kind of engagement. So that’s what struck me immediately,” Conflenti said.

TikTok is a goofy, mostly feel-good DIY entertainment app that’s anything but newsy. But Conflenti says he’s not worried about it hurting his credibility.

“I’m lucky…because I’ve done the exact same morning show for 15 years, so people expect a little bit of goofiness from the morning guy,” Conflenti said. “So when I’m on the air, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done on TikTok…I’m allowed to go be myself on these other platforms, obviously within reason.”

Conflenti’s first TikTok video “was kind of a fluke,” he said. Engagement flattened out with his next few efforts, and he used that time to learn more about the platform and its editing capabilities.

And it paid off.

Now the majority of his videos have had tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of views, several reaching in the millions — and Conflenti now has over 900,000 followers. That’s nearly three times the following of The Washington Post’s TikTok.

“I go through [the app] and I figure out, okay, is this a trend that I can do? Maybe I can do something fun with a TV screen or a microphone or camera or studio, or if it is a dance or a dance move, [that’s] not too tough,” Conflenti said.

Conflenti is one of only a small number of broadcast journalists experimenting with TikTok. Natasha Williams, a digital content producer from Scripps-owned KIVI in Boise, Idaho, is in charge of running the 6 On Your Side page on the app. She differs from Conflenti in multiple ways. This is not her personal page. She, like The Washington Post, runs it for the newsroom. Her news director gave her the green light after reading our first report on TikTok last year. And the page Williams has created serves as a pipeline for direct dialogue with the younger generation.

“Something we’ve been doing that’s really unique that we don’t really do on our other platforms is we ask them what they want to see: ‘What do you care about? What are you guys talking about?’ And so they’ll tell us in the comments,” Williams said. “The younger generation wants news. They just want news they care about and they want news on a platform that they’re accessing.”

And they want to see news stories about themselves. When the 6 On Your Side news segments have to do with new student programs, student activities or student advocacy, views go into the tens of thousands. A behind-the-scenes video of a student talking about a program called Sources of Strength, which helps “end the stigma” of mental illness, got over 60,000 views.

“I think that there’s kind of stereotype among the younger generation that what they want [is] those silly dances,” Williams said. “It’s not that I don’t post behind-the-scenes [videos], it’s not that I don’t post silly things, it’s just that I focus more on news content.”

The station’s TikTok page now has 22,000 followers. And some of the videos are clipped straight from broadcast after they air: a story of a volleyball player with a prosthetic leg got more than 15,000 views.

Another reporter finding success on the app is multimedia journalist Connor Matteson of Gray’s KOTA and KEVN in Rapid City, South Dakota. He was inspired to join by watching Conflenti and now has over 12,000 followers.

Matteson’s first foray, a 14-second video he uploaded last fall, blew up in a day and now has over 450,000 views. “We were doing this dance move called ‘The Woah” with my coworkers, and everyone on the app loved it,” Matteson said. The choreography wasn’t exactly complicated: a quick cross of the arms, and that was it. One co-worker didn’t even have to stand up.

Matteson says the app is great for extending the newsroom’s brand. ‘“Everyone loves behind-the-scenes views of what it’s like to be in the newsroom,’” Matteson said. “I thought that was a really cool thing, because it makes you more personable to the people who are viewing.”

Matteson says TikTok is also good for finding stories.

“Over the summer there was a specific booth at this LGBTQ parade that we had no idea about. And I saw it on TikTok, and we had one of the other reporters go out and do a story on it.”

Owen: @Conflenti, Natasha: @6OnYourSide, Conner: @Mattesontv

These three journalists have found success on TikTok through silly stunts, intergenerational dialogue, and peeks behind the scenes, but it’s obviously too soon to predict whether the app will become an influential platform for newsrooms like Facebook or Twitter.

One major pitfall for news people: copyright issues. TikTok has a music library thanks to licensing deals with certain artists and companies. However, those contracts can expire or fall through, and many songs were never in the collection. Just like on YouTube, songs that violate copyright law can be taken down.

One of Conflenti’s videos — his take on a classic Queen song — is now silent. “[TikTok] is constantly battling copyrights with record companies. They don’t have the rights to [the Queen song] anymore,” Conflenti said. “If you went and clicked it now, it won’t make a sound. And it’ll say: ‘Sound removed in your country.’”

But despite TikTok’s quirks, all three journalists find experimenting with the app to be worth the effort.

Williams: “[TikTok] is very powerful right now, and I don’t think that people in our industry should discount it, because it’s where everyone is, it’s what’s ‘in’ right now.”

Matteson: “This new younger generation, they’re not watching the news. So we have to find new ways to get them to [watch]…and I think TikTok is a really great way to show them ‘Hey, look at the behind-the-scenes of the newsroom; look what happens right before we go live, look how much fun this is.’”

Conflenti: “I think it might be connecting me with future viewers that don’t even know they’re going to watch news yet.” His advice to anyone reading this? “Just do it.”

Do you know an anchor, reporter or meteorologist who is creatively using TikTok? If so, email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu and we’ll check out the story.

Our students at Cronkite Sports just created their own TikTok account and have started experimenting:

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