How do you hook Gen Z on local news? One newsroom is using TikTok to test ideas

“If something doesn’t work, it’s fine. Life’s all about trying new things.”

The timeline: 30 days. The mantra: “TikTok, we don’t stop.”

Last month, Cronkite News challenged itself to produce 30 TikToks in as many days — an effort to get the newsroom experimenting with the short-form mobile video platform that’s gained more than a billion users since its worldwide launch in 2017, but has yet to catch on widely with local TV stations.

The idea came from Katelyn Keenehan, a senior here at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and a reporter with Cronkite News, the student-run news division of Arizona PBS. Last summer, she created a personal TikTok account and started recording videos delivering the headlines of the day — all under the 60-second time limit. She says they caught on with a surprisingly large audience, especially given that the platform is best known for viral dance trends and fun visual effects.

“Within like two months, it had 45,000 followers,” says Keenehan of her account. “It was one of those things where I really realized: Okay, there is a really big audience on this app for news. It’s just not the same audience that we’re seeing for broadcast.”

Half of TikTok’s users fall between the ages of 10 and 29. So Keenehan pitched the Cronkite News experiment as a kind of low-pressure laboratory for testing out different ways to connect with that coveted demographic: “How do we make things appealing for Gen Z? How do you grab their attention within the first second or two? How do we keep people interested in news even though they might not watch a 30-minute broadcast? TikTok really became that outlet for us to be able to explore.”

Katelyn Keenehan and Isaac Easley

By the end of the month-long challenge, the newsroom had trounced its initial goal and produced 65 TikToks. In all, about 50 different people contributed to the videos — from anchors and reporters to producers and the audio team. Some were assigned to the project daily, but many helped out for a day here or there — or whenever an idea struck them.

“It’s really been fun to see the creativity,” says Isaac Easley, a Cronkite News instructor in video journalism and innovation. “At first, we started out just doing headlines — having the students do little recaps of their stories, take a 1:30 package and break it down to 30-45 seconds, things like that. But then they really opened it up.”

To experiment with the platform, Cronkite News created 65 TikToks in 30 days. Most videos took no more than a half hour to produce. (Courtesy of Cronkite News)

Bloopers, explainers, camera tutorials — Cronkite News played with them all. Easley says most videos only took about a half hour to produce, whether reporters were shooting TikTok-original footage on their phones or repurposing material from their broadcast work. “It’s only like a 30-second video. So if something doesn’t work, it’s fine,” he says. “Life’s all about trying new things, and TikTok is really an open forum where we can find new ways to get the attention of that younger generation.”

The staff also issued teleprompter-reading challenges to its viewers, shared behind-the-scenes looks at life in the newsroom, and put journalistic spins on a number of light-hearted TikTok trends. One of the latter videos even went viral, earning more than 10,000 views for its student-news-anchor version of a Real Housewives of New Jersey audio sample that became a trending sensation.

@cronkitenewsWe’re trying to get rid of them. ? #fyp #foryou #studentjournalist #AirPodsJUMP @jamielanderss♬ original sound – Amir Yass

Watch one of Cronkite News’ most successful TikToks. The video, by reporter Jamie Landers, riffs on an audio sample that went viral in March.

While the newsroom account saw its “likes”’ grow by more than 1,000, it hasn’t replicated Keenehan’s individual success — at least not yet. Most videos average about 250 views, but Easley says it’s a solid starting point that has offered valuable lessons about the platform:

Don’t waste a second. At first, Cronkite News used traditional graphics and music to open each TikTok version of one of its new stories. But Easley says they’ve had better engagement since scrapping the standard lead-in: “Cutting the intro and just getting into the story, I feel like we’re getting a few more views. With the younger generation, we just have to get them immediately.”

Capitalize on trends. Beyond sharing reporting, senior producer Amna Subhan recommends getting into the spirit of the platform and finding ways to link local news with viral trends. She points to one of her favorite videos, by reporter Gabrielle Zabat, which used a TikTok rhyming challenge to deliver headlines. “She put the trends together, but she was also relating back relevant news about Arizona,” says Subhan. “I was, like, ‘This is brilliant.’”

@cronkitenewsYou heard right, we’re Cronkite News. ? For all these stories and more check the link in our bio. #fyp #foryou #arizona #news #AerieREAL♬ morgen meditation – guidet meditation – Lisbett Wedendahl / LIFT YOUR MIND

Watch one of Cronkite News’ trend-centric TikToks. The video, by reporter Gabrielle Zabat, combines a viral challenge with local news.

Step lively — but watch your step. “The trends change so fast,” says Keenehan. “Something will be trending one day, and then three days later, it’s no longer existent on the app. So you have to be very on top of those things.” Still, it’s critical to avoid trends that may be inappropriate for a news outlet. “They’re constantly telling me what slang and certain acronyms are,” says Christina Leonard, Cronkite News’ executive editor, of her students and teenage children. “I’m like, ‘What? I didn’t know that word that I use all the time, the meaning is now something very different.’ So that’s important for other newsrooms — that they’ve got people who are culturally connected and understand the audience, so they can help watch out for those landmines.”

Keep the content diverse — and keep it flowing. “We wanted different types of races and cultures, men and women, people with different roles — whether that be a producer, somebody who works in the studio, a digital reporter,” says Easley. While showcasing a variety of voices, he also suggests keeping a steady stream of material in the TikTok pipeline: “I can’t tell you there’s a formula for the perfect thing. [But] to get the views, it seems like consistency is the key word — just consistently having some type of content.”

Amna Subhan and Christina Leonard

During the fast-paced experiment, Cronkite News posted at least once a day — often twice a day — and found that frequency worked well. While Keenehan isn’t sure if the outlet will maintain that exact schedule now that the 30-day challenge is over — just given the rest of the workload on broadcast, digital, and social — she says she definitely expects TikTok to stick around, both for her newsroom and the wider industry.

Reporter Katelyn Keenehan uploads a TikTok video covering efforts to vaccinate grocery store employees against COVID-19. (Courtesy of Cronkite News)

“We’re in this age where citizen journalism is on the rise, and there are pros and cons to that. But more and more people on TikTok are trying to inform other people of stuff that’s going on,” she says. “So I think it is really important — now more than ever — that journalists do have a voice on these platforms.”

“When we look at the future of the news industry, will we still have a nightly newscast? Will we still offer long, in-depth digital stories? Absolutely,” says Leonard. “But these younger generations — they like fast, entertaining, flashy bits of information, and I think it’s our job to help the industry try to figure out how to do that.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cronkite News is experimenting with TikTok as part of Table Stakes, an initiative that supports innovation in local TV news with funding from the Knight Foundation. Our work at the News Lab is funded through the same grant.

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