The Washington Post, A 143-Year-Old Newspaper, Just Hit 1M TikTok Followers

Thanks in large part to the apparently boundless creativity of video producer, editor and writer Dave Jorgenson — or, “Washington Post TikTok Guy,” as he calls himself on Twitter — the bastion of American journalism that published the Pentagon Papers and brought down the Nixon administration has spent the last two years acquiring one of the most coveted prizes in journalism: A much younger and more digitally savvy audience. Specifically, it’s a demographic that’s more comfortable spending time within the hot social media app dominated by Gen Z celebrities like Addison Rae and the D’Amelio sisters, and less so with something as old-school as a newspaper.

Improbably, at least from the vantage point of an outsider, The Post is enjoying considerable success on TikTok at the moment. The paper’s TikTok channel just hit 1 million followers, and the leadership is pleased enough with the results so far that it’s pouring even more resources into the effort. Among the plans are a few new hires for the TikTok team, including an associate producer as well as a community editor. Partly to give the Washington Post TikTok Guy himself a bit of creative breathing room, and to take advantage of the fresh perspective and storytelling energy that new hires will bring.

Jorgenson shared a bit more about the game plan here in a phone conversation with me earlier in the week, as he was in the midst of — what else? — preparing to post a new TikTok. Which he did as soon as he hung up the phone.

This particular TikTok was about Delta Air Lines’s announcement that employees are now required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing as well as a $200 monthly health insurance surcharge. Jorgenson used one of his frequent editing tricks, making himself appear in the TikTok more than once, so that he can appear to be talking to himself. In this one, he pretends to be a Delta PR executive dictating the memo that went out about the vaccine requirement. A memo, by the way, which talked about the Delta variant while assiduously avoiding any use of that word, for obvious reasons. The TikTok ends with Jorgensen, now identifying himself as the Delta variant itself, reading the Delta Air Lines PR statement.

Noticing the part about the B.1.617.2 variant, he exclaims: “Say my name, cowards.”

“The first TikTok that we did — I would actually say the first probably at least 20, 30 if not 100 TikToks, were more like, hey we’re on the app. We’re your goofy uncle trying to be self-aware and we’re cool and all these things,” Jorgenson told me. “And that worked then. Now, we still have that younger audience, but we also have millennials in their 20s. Even Gen X and boomers. My mom’s on TikTok all the time. That helps, so we can kind of age up some of the content and be much more news-oriented.

“So, kind of what works now from what I can tell — especially the last, I would say, really all through 2021 — is the news content that’s more sketch-based, where it’s kind of a skit. That seems to do better, on average. Those 30-second sketches, where I’m basically talking to myself and edit it to make it seem otherwise.”

There’s one particular question about all this that Jorgenson has been asked now too many times to count. The interesting thing about it, though, is that it’s a line of inquiry — why is the newspaper bothering with TikTok at all? — that actually reveals more about the person asking it. What it really implies is that if the paper doesn’t somehow convert this TikTok audience into, say, either paying for a subscription to the website or the paper itself, then isn’t this all a waste of time?

Micah Gelman, the Post’s director of editorial video, took a stab at addressing this in a statement about the TikTok growth.

“When we launched our TikTok channel two years ago, we saw an opportunity to deliver the news in a unique way and reach new audiences,” Gelman said. “Since then, TikTok has proven to be one of our fastest-growing platforms.

“These new positions will augment the success we’ve seen, helping us further grow, innovate and continue connecting with more people who may not regularly consume traditional news.”

Right now, Jorgenson’s normal cadence is to produce ten TikToks each week for the Post’s channel. They cover everything from serious topics like climate change to the Delta TikTok mentioned above, where he sees an opportunity for a sketch-based moment or interaction.

Jorgenson says the intention is to be able to bump up the TikTok production a little more with the new hires, so that the paper can go from two a day to perhaps as many as three or four, if not more than that. “And they can be focused on different things, too. This associate producer can have their own style, that will be complementary to mine.”

The growth of the Post’s audience on TikTok, we should note, also tracks the explosive growth of the app itself. With TikTok now consistently topping the monthly charts for which apps are downloaded the most, even besting stalwarts like Facebook. According to recent data from the app analytics platform Sensor Tower, TikTok was again the most downloaded app in July.

Which is to say, the Post seems to be ramping up here at the perfect time. More important, though, is that this effort from the paper manages to feel less like the typical MO you see in journalism and more along the lines of the inventive operational style of the newspaper’s owner, Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos. It’s a philosophy that calls for investing in and trying lots of different things, even things that feel strange and don’t necessarily seem adjacent to the core mission. No one knows what the future holds, least of all journalists in this Incredible Shrinking Profession, so why not? Experiment. Fail. And experiment some more.

“Whenever (the question of return on investment) sort of comes up around me, it’s just, like, hey — you keep focusing on making good content,” Jorgenson told me. “It’s clear what you’re doing is working, and so that’s what I’m told. That’s basically where it’s at. 

“I will say, though, if you go to the comments section — like, anecdotally, you will see that people are really loving The Washington Post’s TikTok, and they’ll say things every so often like, this is where I get my news. And I try to comment like, well, make sure to go to our website, too! But, I mean, you can see where it’s working.”

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