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Credit: Photo by Amanda Vick on Unsplash

TikTok is all the rage amongst young internet users. With more than 1 billion monthly active users on the platform, it is no wonder why many news organisations and journalists have flocked to the platform.

However, it has long evolved beyond dance videos. Journalists have found ways to use the platform to bring news and value to their audience.

At a Women in Journalism event yesterday (5 May 2022), a panel of well-versed TikTokers shared tips on how to embrace the platform.

VICE World News senior reporter Sophia Smith Galer is one of the best-known journalists on the platform, with close to 400k followers and 11.4m views. Explainers and educational videos are her bag.

Monika Plaha is a senior reporter and presenter for BBC Look North, and a journalist for BBC Panorama. She has built her 80k following in large thanks to behind-the-scenes footage while working at the BBC.

Sophy Silver works for TikTok in communications but also has her own account.

Here is a round-up of their best pieces of advice.

Decide on your axis

Many journalists start by asking the natural question: what should I post? Sophy Silver says the most successful content creators have considered what makes them stand out and interesting.

Think of your life on one axis of a graph, and your interests on another axis. Where do the two intersect? What could you produce that leverages all of your life experience, hobbies and personality?

Stop being aimless

Monika Plaha started using the platform as many do to share dance videos but didn't find much success. That was until she took the plunge and began posting behind-the-scenes videos at her place of work.

That sense of curiosity lead to a big interest in her content. Her big piece of advice is to reply to people who get in touch with their questions and make addressing their queries part of your stockpile of ideas.

Sophia Smith Galer adds that a lot of content creators generally find success because they do an unusual job or have a quirky hobby. Journalists are fascinating, and if you can avoid the mistake of copying what everyone is doing, you stand a good chance of finding a niche.

"Point out why [your story is] interesting and why it is important, which is often about the visual grammar of video. That principle is not TikTok specific, it’s what I had to deliver anytime I used to make social videos for Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You start with the hook and lead people into the story."

Perfect timing

TikTok videos come in four timed lengths: 15 seconds, one minute, three minutes and 10 minutes. Focus on the former two, as the shorter formats tend to do the best.

Smith Galer says that no explainer video should exceed the one minute mark. Behind-the-scenes videos have a sweet spot of around 30 seconds, but that means packing a lot into a short space of time.

Those first 15 seconds are critical to the success of the video, adds Silver. Something like a "did you know" hook can be a great way to capture immediate interest in your topic.

Interested in kickstarting your own TikTok journalism career? Book a place on our Newsrewired+ TikTok training course with Kassy Cho.

Feeding the algorithms

Like most platforms, feeding the beast is essential for sustained growth of your channel. One video a week is not going to cut it.

Silver adds that you must commit to the platform to reap the rewards. On the flipside, inspiration is guaranteed if you engage with the types of topics and themes you want to stay on top of. Do not just be a lurker, make sure you are filling your "discover" section by feeding the algorithm

"The more ad hoc you are, the more amateur you will be," says Silver. "You have to get under the skin of the community and the platform. Get to know the algorithm, so you can find accounts you like and plan an onboarding strategy."

Crank up your view time

Both Plaha and Smith Galer admit to being avid TikTokers and spend ages scrolling. This is how Plaha has found stories for Panorama, because the platform is full of creators wanting to share their stories and happy to contribute to others' work.

Hashtags and comment sections can also be a treasure trove of sources, but you still need to do the due diligence of verifying their claims.

Watch and engage with content until you see something you can adapt to your style, adds Smith Galer. That can take hours and hours of viewing time.

"There's no point doing a trend that's two months old, you only get a sense of that when you watch it all the time. You cannot search TikTok like you can search other apps, there’s not a big search tool interface," she says.

Keep everything to one account

This is not Facebook. These TikTok users do not see a point in having a personal and private account, in fact, the whole selling point of TikTok is that it is an intimate insight into daily lives. Throw in a cooking recipe every once in a while.

The whole point here is to build rapport and trust with your audience, which in turn allows them to discuss and contribute to your stories, making for a "pleasant feedback loop".

Getting technical

Onto the technical side of things: good equipment will set you apart.

Smith Galer says to invest in multi-purpose tools like ring lights, which double up as a useful gadget for events and conference talks, as well as fixing the lighting for your TikTok videos. Tripods will come in handy for a still shot, but a stack of books is a good workaround.

Good audio is a must. Make sure you are using headphones to capture audio, you do not want background audio getting in the way. This is also important for voiceover videos, which are a faster and quicker way to put out content. It is also less of a hassle to edit if you fluff up your lines and need to re-record.

If you are trained in video editing, both journalists recommend editing all of your content in an external app, like CapCut or InShot, rather than the native editing tools. That includes overlays and transitions.

Copyright concerns

Part of the whole sell of TikTok is for other users to be able to download your content, and then "duet" it, as a side-by-side reaction to the original version: for example, teleprompter challenges.

The downside of this is that often this can lead to trolling, or people uploading your content to other platforms, namely Instagram Reels, either before you have had a chance to, and regardless of whether you wanted to.

This goes against "internet ettiquette", says Smith Galer, and you can challenge it through the platforms. If it's someone someone you idolise, then, of course, that can be a happy accident.

Stick to the guidelines

In a week where The Guardian has posted new social media guidelines, with warnings over political impartiality and friction between colleagues, it goes to show that what you post on social can land you in hot water.

Smith Galer built her "TikTok fame" whilst working at the BBC, where she faced stiff rules on filming inside the building and reposting her own journalism. She admits that what you post can lead to fears or actual reputational damage for the organisation you work for, so it is best to be cautious and follow employers' guidelines.

Your employers may also be resistant to journalists spending lots of time on TikTok and not consider it a profitable endeavour. TikTok does have a creator fund where journalists can start to earn money but one way around that is to use your following to promote other side hustles and projects.

Interested in kickstarting your own TikTok journalism career? Book a place on our Newsrewired+ TikTok training course with Kassy Cho, freelance journalist and former audience development editor at QuickTake by Bloomberg and BuzzFeed News.

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