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One Grandpa’s Early Thoughts on Tik Tok and News
It's time for news execs to take it more seriously.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Almost 11 years ago, running the business affairs of a news organization, I decided I needed to join Twitter, mostly (at first) to better understand its implications for the news business and our work. Last week, even though I’m only consulting and teaching these days, I reached the same conclusion about Tik Tok.
One quarter of all the people in the country got there ahead of me, and I clearly shouldn’t make—and am not making—any claim to expertise here, but I do want to talk about why I think more serious thinking about Tik Tok should be moving up the agenda of news leaders and managers.
More than three decades ago, in the relatively early days of my career, I sat through a meeting at the Wall Street Journal (where I was then an in-house lawyer, but was eventually assistant publisher) and heard people fret about how younger people weren’t reading the paper. As we left the meeting, an older senior executive took me aside and said, more or less, “I know you’re new here. I’ve been in meetings like this for decades. People start to read the Journal as their careers mature. Unless that stops happening, we’ll be fine, and this isn’t really a big issue for us.”
Is this time different?
Through at least the next two decades, he turned out to be right. Virtually everyone who read the Journal then is no longer in the workforce, and the Journal is doing fine. But as the digital revolution continues, I believe we need to worry about whether being so sanguine about future readers continues to make sense.
And that’s part of what brings me to Tik Tok. As I said, about one out of four Americans is a user. But fully 93% of those folks are under 50, according to Comscore. That 93% of users compares to more than a third of the total population being over 50. I’m 65 and a grandfather (although my family isn’t squarely in Tik Tok’s bullseye: my grandchildren are too young to have phones and my children are Millennials rather than Gen Z.)
The particular issue that crystalized the importance of thinking about Tik Tok for me was a Board discussion at a news organization about the growing use of Tik Tok as a search tool by young people. That was the subject of big stories in the Journal in August and the New York Times in September. But the catch is this: right now, neither the Times nor the Journal is on Tik Tok.
Here's an interesting chart comparing YouTube and Tik Tok followers (in millions) of our four major national newspapers, with Twitter and Facebook added for reference:
Do the business sides of the Post and USAToday know something about Tik Tok that the Times and Journal don’t? Are the Journal and Times execs reading their own papers closely enough? (I know that none of these organizations is video-centric—that’s why I included YouTube as well as Tik Tok.)
To be sure, the articles on search didn’t focus on Tik Tok users searching for news, but why wouldn’t users do so, eventually if not already? Pew reports that one third of users are already looking for news on Tik Tok, up from 20% in 2020. General news isn’t one of the interest categories about which Tik Tok queries new users. Pets and dance are, but so are technology and business. How long will be it be before general news gets added?
Here are some other early thoughts on Tik Tok and news:
Not all trends are worth following. (Remember the “pivot to video”?) And some tech innovations have big impact on the news business—Google search, Facebook, Twitter—while others do not—Snapchat and Clubhouse, to name just a couple that were once all the rage. But the fast penetration of Tik Tok among not only teenagers but also those in their twenties and thirties—almost one in three and one in six respectively after just six years—suggests that it could be transformative.
Tik Tok is not the only player encroaching on Google’s search dominance. Amazon continues to make strides in search for consumer goods of almost all kinds, while Instagram is also increasingly being used in similar ways. Google, with a multi-billion monopoly to protect, is starting to respond.
All platforms are problematic. They tend toward monopoly (see, for instance, Trump’s Truth Social’s failure to put a dent in Twitter), and while their ethos varies, none has consistently put the public interest ahead of their own. Beyond this, none has shown genuine solicitude for the news business, or for what they have helped do to its economics. Nearly all of the platforms’ efforts to aid news have been driven by short-term PR concerns, especially and most cynically at Facebook, but not only there. Don’t expect Tik Tok to be an exception.
Short form has its limits, as does video. As someone who spent many years working mostly on longform investigative journalism, I am very much aware that short form content has its limits, especially in conveying complex or nuanced subjects. And this is especially true for video, which, since the dawn of television, has had enormous power to make people laugh or cry, but then, frequently, to just change the channel. Tik Tok won’t change this phenomenon, and may accentuate it.
Yes, I do know that Tik Tok is controlled by China. And I am not, I think, naïve about the Chinese regime or what lies ahead in our relationship with it. So in a world where all social media is awash in misinformation, the potential for intentional disinformation on Tik Tok is heightened, and worth bearing very much in mind.
None of this is the last word on Tik Tok. But I hope it offers some places to start—if you haven’t gotten there ahead of me.
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