By Lwazi Maseko: Young people are finding new ways of consuming and sharing news, and news outlets, including journalists, need to adjust accordingly. This was the overarching consensus between participants in Jamlab Africa’s webinar titled Introduction of TikTok in newsrooms, in collaboration with DW Akademie.

“According to the 2023 Digital News Report conducted by the Reuters Institute, video-based content distributed through TikTok and YouTube is becoming popular for news, particularly in the Global South,” said Lindokuhle Nzuza, Jamlab project coordinator. “In South Africa, 22% of TikTok users use the platform to consume news, with some media outlets joining the platform to tell engaging stories. However, there is a need to train journalists on algorithm engagement and how to make a story stand out.”

DW Akademie has been training small newsrooms across Africa on how to use TikTok to tell stories. Stefanie Duckstein, DW Akademie project manager for Southern Africa, explained how TikTok journalism works and the different journalistic formats that work well on the platform.

“TikTok’s audience is Generation Z, who are politically active and want to know how news affects their lives. Explainer formats are suitable for them,” said Duckstein. Explainer videos are short, often animated videos that are used to concisely describe and demonstrate a product or service. Another format which resonates is audience engagement, whereby a journalist responds to the audience’s questions. The objective of this format is to make the news relatable to a Gen-Z audience by turning it into a personal conversation, at eye-level with their audience, speaking to them and not at them, Duckstein said.

TikTok has a relatively young audience who prefer short, punchy reports in 40 seconds, and Flourish Chukwurah, DW bureau chief for Lagos and West Africa, said the 40-second time frame means that “you are cutting away all the fluff and getting straight to the point, which is exactly what TikTok audiences want.”

Chukwurah said their newsrooms break down stories by asking an important question, “What is the news in 10 words?” Most events can be compressed and said in one sentence. She said it is important for journalists to be concise and regularly engage with the audience through the comments section.

“We started using TikTok during Covid to share information. We had a comedian create a skit and post it. Sometimes the audience would engage with the video and other times we would not receive engagement. We needed to understand how we could write news for video-based platforms that effectively engaged with audiences,” said Zenzele Ndebele, founder and director of CITE, a digital media house based in Zimbabwe.

Ndebele said that before the programme, CITE would publish the same video across all their different platforms. However, they learned that videos needed to be produced for a specific platform, with TikTok content needing to be short, include all relevant information, and include a catchy caption. During the production of their videos, they thought about co-creation and storytelling techniques and what story they wanted to tell. Ndebele said since the programme was launched, the engagement has been “different”.

TikTok is predominately used in urban areas, so how can journalists in rural areas use the platform to engage with audiences?

“It starts with training journalists and understanding which formats work for your content. Journalists should start with simple community-based stories. TikTok is enjoyable in local languages and settings, and it allows audiences to relate to these stories. TikTok is hyperlocal and the algorithms give you the content you want, and once you strike the chord and get the topics that are relevant, it is easier,” said Ndebele.

DW Akademie Lagos has been on TikTok since 2021 and has learned valuable lessons. Chukwurah advised that journalists should stick to reporting on the news, and should avoid using dancing videos or comedy skits. They can use trendy sounds rather, because using skits is counterproductive as the audience and algorithm become confused. For example, they are a news platform but would post comedy skits, and TikTok didn’t know who to push their content to.

“Our audience, who we had built trust with from the beginning and who knew that we are a reliable news platform, were disappointed in our content because this was not why they followed us,” she said.

Chukwurah said news publications should stick to their brand but also be flexible in how they package their content, and include people in the storytelling process. DW Lagos published a story about a man that was beaten after he was accused of attacking the Nigerian government, president and his wife. In the video, the man explained what had happened and the marks that he had received. Chukwurah said that is one of their highest-performing videos with over a million views.

“Being creative in the way the story is packaged does not always need to include a talking head. It’s also important to include the person who has been impacted or [who] the story is centred on,” she said. Chukwurah warned journalists not to exploit trending TikTok topics, sounds and videos, and encouraged them to be more relaxed in terms of their presentation – they don’t need to wear suits and ties.

Lastly, Chukwurah encouraged investing in good editing. In terms of TikTok formats, she said that journalists and news publications should use the different formats where they are needed, and to achieve a certain goal. “It is an exciting time for journalists on TikTok. As the platform focuses heavily on skits and dance challenges, and lacks information-based channels, it offers an opportunity for us to establish ourselves as voices that can be trusted,” said Chukwurah.

Duckstein encouraged journalists to have fun on the platform in creating content, trying new tools and finding what best resonates with their community.

“Don’t forget the basic journalistic standards we have to abide by. Do thorough research and be transparent about sources, and provide evidence,” she said.

Watch the full webinar here.